It can feel like the human race is literally racing: first place is the most fit, the most productive, the most together, and the most informed. Sometimes, you may want to put on your horse’s blinders and just keep moving forward undeterred.
Once you’ve donned those blinders to stay focused on how productive you can be on your own path, the next step is to embody the horse itself. These majestic creatures are fast, strong, hard-working, and resilient; hence the term “fit as a horse.”
And how about that sweet stable scent? The animal’s distinct aroma actually inspired the name for an herb that may be able to assist you with obtaining the mental and physical fitness of your noble steed. Saddle up, folks; today, we’re talking about Ashwagandha.
Native to South Asia and North Africa, Ashwagandha (ash-wuh-GONE-duh) is a flowering shrub in the solanaceae (or nightshade) family that has been used as a healing herb in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
To encapsulate these benefits, Ayurveda considers Ashwagandha to be a Rasayana. Rasayana refers to a class of herbal or metallic preparations that may promote a more youthful mental and physical state. Generally, these remedies are taken by the middle-aged and elderly communities to increase longevity and foster happiness.
But the root isn’t just for older people because Ashwagandha isn’t just a Rasayana; it’s a Medhya Rasayana. Medhya refers to the mind. Ashwagandha has been used to help children with memory deficits or those with compromised memories after a brain injury. More broadly, children have enjoyed a tonic made from the herb to curb emaciation and fever.
Ashwagandha’s lovely Latin name, Withania somnifera, joins other cheery terms for the plant, such as winter cherry and Indian ginseng. But the Sanskrit name Ashwagandha is favored for its less-than favorable meaning: “smell of the horse.” The delicate yellow flowers and green leaves of this herb are notable for their pungent horse-like musk when disturbed.
Let’s Get Mental
Divisive scent aside, Ashwagandha is agreeable for its promising mental and physical benefits. First we’ll explore the brain’s side of things, where Ashwagandha can help alleviate stress, improve memory and cognitive function.
Bucking Stress and Anxiety
There’s another name for Ashwagandha we haven’t mentioned yet.
If Ashwagandha could enter a horse race, it’d be classified as an adaptogen. An adaptogen is an herb that can improve your ability to adapt to stress by normalizing the body’s physiological responses.
A targeted approach is Ashwagandha’s preferred method. The target? The biochemical marker for stress, cortisol. When you’re stressed, you trigger the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands, followed by an increase in heart rate for the classic fight-or-flight response. Cortisol can be a lifesaving hormone in dangerous situations. But it can be debilitating when stress is constant. Elevated stress levels can contribute not only to that signature irritability and fatigue, but also to negative impacts on the body’s major systems.
Here’s a stress-reducer: Ashwagandha root extract can potentially block the brain’s stress processing pathway by increasing inhibitory signaling, which may be involved in its anxiety-reducing effects concomitantly with decreased cortisol levels.
In 2000, a double blind, placebo-controlled study observed the efficacy of Ashwagandha extract on generalized anxiety disorder. The researchers noted a significant improvement in anxiety symptoms as well as depressive tendencies. The study encouraged deeper exploration of Ashwagandha for its therapeutic uses in people with anxiety disorders.
A 2009 study responded to the call by assessing the safety of naturopathic care for anxiety symptoms following subjects with moderate to severe anxiety for six weeks of Ashwagandha root supplementation. In addition to the Ashwagandha plant, subjects received other natural anxiety assistants, such as deep breathing relaxation techniques and your standard multi-vitamin. Another group received traditional psychotherapy, deep breathing relaxation techniques, and the placebo supplement. The Ashwagandha recipients experienced a 56.5% reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to the placebo recipients’ 30.5% reduction.
Even if you don't have a nervous system, you have a central nervous system, and it may benefit from the effects of Ashwagandha.
Betting on Improved Memory and Cognitive Function
Place your bets on which herb has also traditionally been used to boost memory.
The root extract may also protect and restore spatial memory by counteracting the effects of oxidative stress, which impair essential neuronal function and signaling proteins in the neuronal membranes.
Oxidative stress is one of the major culprits in brain aging because of free radical-induced damage. Free radicals are unstable because they have a single unpaired electron that’s always on the hunt for freebie electrons. Your cells are practically giving them away. But when cells forfeit an electron, they weaken and become more susceptible to disease and death.
Let’s Get Physical
The term “fit as a horse” isn’t talking about mental toughness. Lucky for you, Ashwagandha has a lot to offer on the physical side of things as well, and may help increase performance by reducing stress.
Increase Your Horsepower
Maybe you’re more interested in what Ashwagandha can do to the outside of your body rather than inside of it. How does better body composition and physical performance sound?
In a study of healthy volunteers, participants enjoyed a significant increase in strength of muscle activity after supplementing with Ashwagandha for thirty days.
Similarly, a human study of Ashwagandha’s combination with resistance training yielded substantial increases in muscle mass and functional strength.
If you’re a bigger fan of endurance training, supplementing with Ashwagandha root extract for eight weeks was shown to increase velocity, power, and VO2 max in healthy young adults.
No More Sugar Cubes: Reducing Blood Glucose Levels
Maybe you’re training for a big race. Or maybe you’ve got a big presentation to prepare for. That diligence should be rewarded, but having your head down isn’t always the best thing. Lift your horse blinders for a moment to look back on a topic we already covered: Ashwagandha’s effects on cortisol levels. We’re thinking that race or presentation may lead to stress, which might explain why your shoulders have been hiked to your ears all week.
Cortisol is the nefarious hormone causing you stress, but remember that chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body’s systems because it engages the fight-or-flight mechanism. Your body isn’t set up to engage this response over a long period of time, which means your body’s systems change how they operate. Your cardiovascular health may suffer from higher blood pressure, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and heart disease.
When stress-inducing cortisol levels remain elevated, it can also lead to high blood sugar levels. Ashwagandha can address this rise by reducing cortisol levels.
As if one mechanism wasn’t enough, Ashwagandha has a second line of defense against high blood glucose. This potent plant has been shown to increase insulin secretion and insulin sensitivity in muscle cells.
Heart Health: Food for Thought
Ashwagandha also has two mechanisms for improving the health of the heart pumping all that blood around. Let’s return to the other type of stress Ashwagandha assists with: oxidative stress.
Recall that oxidative stress relates to an excess of free radicals that can cause inflammation and cell damage. Ashwagandha has demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties by increasing the activity of infection-fighting cells in the immune system.
Ashwagandha can also decrease inflammation markers, such as C-reactive protein, which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
But heart disease is multifaceted. Luckily, Ashwagandha is, too. Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce heart-heavy cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Namely, Ashwagandha targets the reduction of low-density lipoproteins (or LDLs), which are traditionally referred to as the “bad” cholesterol contributors to cardiovascular disease.
An almost identical percentage, 17.3%, marked a beneficial increase: the production of high-density lipoproteins (or HDLs).
Ayurveda has used Ashwagandha to combat male fertility issues such as impotence and poor sperm motility. Modern clinical trials and human studies are taking note, testing its effects on subjects with fertility issues. The results are promising.
A 2009 study administering daily withania somnifera root powder to infertile men observed its impacts on sperm profiles. Sperm count, motility, concentration, and overall volume all increased.
A double blind 2013 study echoed these fertility findings with a focus on how the root powder impacts serum biochemistry in infertile men. The results suggest that withania somnifera therapy can recover the quality of semen in infertile men by rebooting the enzymatic activity of metabolic pathways and invigorating the balance of reproductive hormones and seminal plasma metabolites.
Hold your horses—that’s not all. Ashwagandha’s stress-shattering properties may have implications for sperm well-being, too. In a 2009 study on stress-related male infertility, withania somnifera resulted in a significant decrease in stress as well as a significant increase in the levels of antioxidants and overall semen quality.
Supplementing with Ashwagandha
Throughout this article, you may have noticed references to multiple supplementation forms of Ashwagandha, and they’re not all created equal.
Ashwagandha powders and extract of Ashwagandha are sourced from either the leaves or the roots of the plant and contain different levels of the structures that are responsible for mental and physical effects.
Namely, you’ll come across concentrations of the following: Withanolide A and Withaferin A. Withanolide A is more concentrated in the roots, while Withaferin A lurks in the leaves. Withanolide A is the potent structure in Ashwagandha that you will want to consider when shopping for a supplement
Look for supplements with a branded form of Ashwagandha. Branded forms mean more research has gone into the product’s safety and effectiveness, contributing to a higher quality extract. They also often denote a higher concentration of Withanolide A up to 10% as compared to the 0% - 3% range of non-branded extracts.
Ashwagandha is generally tolerated well in small to medium doses, with no major adverse events observed in animal studies or human studies. The side effects of large doses are mild gastrointestinal issues and vomiting.
While the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have a recommended daily intake set for Ashwagandha, research studies show a daily dose ranging between 125mg - 1,250mg. Because the effects of Ashwagandha include changes in blood pressure and blood glucose levels, consult your healthcare provider if you’re on medications for these conditions and would like to add Ashwagandha to your supplementing routine. Even if you’re not taking these medications, we recommend talking to your doctor prior to supplementing with anything new.
Off to the Races
Ashwagandha is no one-trick pony. This potent herb may be able to take your physical and mental fitness to equestrian levels by reducing your stress, boosting your memory, and assisting with your strength and endurance training. Compared to the strength of its benefits, Ashwagandha’s namesake stallion scent is nothing.
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