Ashwagandha - An Overview
Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is an adaptogenic herb that has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for:
- Sexual health and libido
- Physical performance
It has recently come into popularity as a nootropic supplement for the same reasons, and extensive research has confirmed its effectiveness.
It is prized as a master rejuvenator that confers several mental and physical benefits on its user.
Roughly translating to “smell of horse” in Sanskrit due to its strong odor, Ashwagandha is also known as “Indian ginseng”, “winter cherry”, and “poison gooseberry.”
Ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family and grows wild in India, China, and Nepal.
The earliest known uses of Ashwagandha go back at least 3,000 years and it is revered one of the most powerful herbs in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
It’s considered an “adaptogen,” which is a type of herb that helps the body adapt to stressors and stabilize your body’s physiological and psychological processes under difficult circumstances.
Ashwagandha is also famous for its aphrodisiac properties for men.
It has been linked to increased testosterone levels, which has a positive effect on libido, sexual desire, and fertility.
Higher testosterone also means increased muscle growth and quicker recovery after exercise.
While these aren’t strictly nootropic effects per se, you may find them interesting side-effects for other aspects of your life.
In our opinion, any remedy that has been used by an indigenous culture for millennia is probably pretty effective at what it does.
After all, people from back then didn’t have a lot of time to mess around with medicine that didn’t work.
That said, there is ALSO a pretty substantial volume of scientific studies that indicate Ashwagandha works as a nootropic enhancer, as well as an overall health supplement.
What Does Ashwagandha Do?
Ashwagandha has been linked to numerous nootropic and health benefits. Here’s a rundown of what we currently know from clinical studies.
Ashwagandha for Anxiety
Ashwagandha can decrease anxiety in adults, especially those suffering from anxiety disorders.
Numerous double-blind studies have concluded with similar results: supplementing ashwagandha can decrease anxiety in subjects at a significantly greater rate than control groups.
Some evidence suggests that this herbal nootropic may even work as well or better than traditional pharmaceuticals in treating these disorders.
Most of the subjects being treated with ashwagandha in these studies started to experience these positive effects after about two weeks, with the full benefits occurring after about two months of daily dosing.
Researchers believe that Ashwagandha’s anxiolytic effects derive from its adaptogenic qualities. It keeps hormonal fluctuations in check and prevents overstimulation, which helps decrease anxiety.1Cooley K, et al. Naturopathic care for anxiety: a randomized controlled trial ISRCTN78958974, PLoS One. 2009 2Andrade C, et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the anxiolytic efficacy ff an ethanolic extract of withania somnifera, Indian J Psychiatry. 2000
Ashwagandha for Stress
This nootropic may also be useful for stress-resistance. Ashwagandha can lower cortisol, which is the major hormone involved in our fight-or-flight response.
Under difficult and stressful conditions, cortisol levels tend to rise, which can be helpful for focus and motivation.
However, if they get too high, it can have negative effects, causing anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure.
In fact, chronic stress actually rewires the brain, causing structural changes in your neural pathways.
These changes are actually very counter-productive, and your brain was not designed to operate that way.
Unfortunately, many people in our modern world are bombarded with stressful stimuli daily, which can result in uncomfortably high cortisol levels and negatively restructuring their neural pathways.
A study of chronically stressed adults found that those who supplemented with Ashwagandha over a two month period showed significantly lower cortisol levels in their blood than the placebo group.
This is encouraging evidence of this herb’s nootropic benefits. When your body responds to stress more resiliently, you will be more focused and less susceptible to “frayed nerves.”3Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults, Indian J Psychol Med. 2012
Ashwagandha also has potent mood-lifting properties, which may help fight clinical depression.
In some animal studies, Ashwagandha performed as well as benzodiazepine as an anti-depressant.4Morgan A. Pratte, et al. An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), J Altern Complement Med. 2014
There is also evidence that Ashwagandha can help with disorders related to social isolation/agoraphobia.
This herb’s anti-depressant properties are still a new avenue of research, and more studies need to be done to draw any concrete conclusions.
Still, the early evidence is promising.
If you find anecdotal evidence compelling, there are many reports of Ashwagandha successfully treating depression and lifting mood.
Some claim that it has even helped with treatment-resistant depression where other medications have failed.
In addition to helping with mood and anxiety disorders, ashwagandha has been shown to increase cognitive ability even in healthy patients who are not suffering from any acute mental illness.
In a recent Indian study, the healthy young males who supplemented with ashwagandha for two weeks performed noticeably better on cognitive and physical reaction tests than the control group.
This nootropic effect on cognition is probably related to ashwagandha’s anti-anxiety and mood-lifting qualities mentioned above.
Most likely, this adaptogenic nootropic allows you to better slip into a state of relaxed focus, unhindered by overstimulation and negative emotions.
Ashwagandha is also associated with increased plasticity in the hippocampal region, which could aid in creating and storing information in the brain.5Usharani Pingali, et al. Effect of standardized aqueous extract of Withania somnifera on tests of cognitive and psychomotor performance in healthy human participants, Pharmacognosy Res. 2014
Does Ashwagandha Increase Testosterone?
It’s important to note that ashwagandha is not only a potent mental rejuvenator but has numerous physical benefits as well.
Ashwagandha’s most famous attribute is probably it’s effect on testosterone in men.
One study saw an increase of 14%-22% in serum testosterone levels after 90 days of taking ashwagandha for the men who participated, far more than the control group.
The researchers also noted higher sperm counts in the treated men.
However, men aren’t the only ones having fun with ashwagandha; women who take it report higher levels of arousal compared to the baseline, enjoying sex more than the control group.6Ambiye, V. R., Langade, D., Dongre, S., Aptikar, P., Kulkarni, M., & Dongre, A.. Clinical Evaluation of the Spermatogenic Activity of the Root Extract of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Oligospermic Males: A Pilot Study, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013 7Dongre, S., Langade, D., & Bhattacharyya, S. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Improving Sexual Function in Women: A Pilot Study, BioMed research international, 2015
Testosterone is a crucial hormone that regulates many important functions outside of sexuality.
Higher levels of testosterone can increase muscle mass, burn fat, and speed recovery time for people engaged in resistance training or cardio.
Keeping testosterone levels up is also important for motivation and mood, especially in men.
Ashwagandha has significant anti-oxidant properties as well, clearing out the harmful byproducts oxidative stress.
Ashwagandha can even lower blood pressure slightly, although that may not be a benefit depending on your situation.8Kuboyama T, Tohda C, Komatsu K. Neuritic regeneration and synaptic reconstruction induced by withanolide A, Br J Pharmacol. 2005 9Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults, Indian J Psychol Med. 2012
How Ashwagandha Works In The Brain
Ashwagandha confers its nootropic benefits through a few different mechanisms in the brain, primarily by enhancing GABA receptor activation and increasing the levels of the anti-oxidant glycowithanolides.
Ashwagandha on the GABA System
Like many other calming/sedating supplements, ashwagandha works on the gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) pathway.
This system is responsible for regulating excitatory response in the brain, reducing neuronal activity in the nervous system.
When your brain gets overstimulated, GABA receptors kick in, balancing out the action.
If your GABA response is out of wack, you may experience higher levels of anxiety and stress, and it may disrupt your sleep.
Ashwagandha is suspected to help this issue by strengthening the connection between GABA receptors so that they can react to stimulus effectively.
That means when there is too much activity in the brain, it can counterbalance it effectively.10Candelario M, et al. Direct evidence for GABAergic activity of Withania somnifera on mammalian ionotropic GABAA and GABAρ receptors, J Ethnopharmacol. 2015
Does Ashwagandha Effect Serotonin?
It appears that ashwagandha may work on the serotonin system. However, there is no firm evidence on how much it may modulate this neurotransmitter.
There is evidence that it may improve the sensitivity of 5-HT2 receptors, which are responsible for serotonin transmission. This could partially explain ashwagandha’s effect on mood and depression.11A K Tripathi, et al. Alterations in the sensitivity of 5(th) receptor subtypes following chronic asvagandha treatment in rats, Anc Sci Life. 1998
At this point, it is unknown if this adaptogen can actually raise serotonin levels directly.
The other main way that ashwagandha affects the brain is through the antioxitant glycowithanolide.
Antioxidants are powerful protectors of the brain that scavenge dead cells that have been damaged by oxidation.
It’s critical to remove these “free radicals” before they destroy other cells in their vicinity and triggering a chain reaction that can seriously affect brain function.
Ashwagandha has also been shown to reduce stress-induced gastric ulcers.
Ashwagandha Protects Neurons
One interesting nootropic effect of long term ashwagandha supplementation is that it regrow myelin in neurons.
Myelin is an important substance that sheathes the axon on a nerve cell, allowing it to send signals quickly and efficiently.
It’s an important part of a healthy nervous system, responsible for much of the “white matter” in the brain.
However, chronic stress can cause the brain to lose myelin, causing an overall decrease in brain function.
The withanoside compounds in ashwagandha have been linked to restoring myelin levels in rats after a period of supplementation.
Researchers suspect the same effects could be true for humans as well.12Tohda C. Overcoming several neurodegenerative diseases by traditional medicines: the development of therapeutic medicines and unraveling pathophysiological mechanisms, Yakugaku Zasshi. 2008
Ashwagandha Potential Side Effects
The main side-effect of ashwagandha is drowsiness in some users. This may or may not be a negative quality for you.
Some people even prefer to take it before bed so that it can act as a sleep aid.
Anecdotally, some users complain that this nootropic’s anxiolytic properties actually steer them into apathy and lack of motivation.
This may be the result of lowering cortisol too much. As always, it’s important to pay attention to your body’s feedback.
We strive to bring you the most up to date, research-based information about Ashwagandha and other nootropics.
Something we missed? Do you use Ashwagandha? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
About the author:
Erik Levi is a co-founder of HolisticNootropics.com and a certified holistic nutritional therapy practitioner.
As an NTP Erik takes a nutrition first approach to health. He has worked with many different people to help them use nutrition to optimize their quality of life.
Erik believes that mental health is a physiological process and cognitive enhancement is not something that can be achieved by just taking some pills with good Amazon reviews.
Instead, true cognitive enhancement comes with the right balance of nutrients, movement, and gratitude. Erik continues to stay up to date with the most current nootropic and holistic health research and promises to deliver the best solutions possible.
You can check out his personal health blog/podcast/YouTube Channel all under the name Holistic A-Hole.