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.
Ashwagandha’s earliest known uses 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,” 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 positively affects 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 and an overall health supplement.
KSM-66 Vs Sensoril
It’s important to note that there are several different kinds of Ashwagandha on the market.
The 2 most well-studied forms being KSM-66 and Sensoril as many clinical studies done on Ashwagandha use one of these 2 forms.
They’re also the most popular forms of Ashwagandha for use as nootropics.
These extracts are super-potent versions of the traditional Withania Somnifera plant, but with different attributes and effects.
They both contain the highest number of withanolides which are chemical compounds known for their antioxidant and remedying properties and are only found in the Withania Somnifera plant.1Niha Dhar, et al. A Decade of Molecular Understanding of Withanolide Biosynthesis and In vitro Studies in Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal: Prospects and Perspectives for Pathway Engineering
, Front. Plant Sci., 27 November 2015
KSM-66 is very popular in the nootropic community because of its highly concentrated Ashwagandha delivery system.
It is a full-spectrum Ashwagandha extract patented by the nutraceutical company Ixoreal Biomed.
Ixoreal’s extraction process includes pre-treating the ashwagandha roots with milk as is done by traditional Ayurveda healers and texts which leads to retention of both hydrophilic components and lipophilic components of the raw root.
Pretreating the roots in this way reinforces the full-spectrum Ashwagandha benefits you get from KSM-66.
In clinical studies KSM-66 demonstrated the following benefits:
- Lowered Anxiety2K. Chandrasekhar, Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty. 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
- Higher Testosterone3Vijay R Ambiye, et al. Clinical Evaluation of the Spermatogenic Activity of the Root Extract of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Oligospermic Males: A Pilot Study
, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med
- Lower Stress4Dnyanraj Choudhary, et al. Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial
, J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med
- Better memory5Dnyanraj Choudhary, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal) Root Extract in Improving Memory and Cognitive Functions
, J Diet Suppl
- Better sexual function6Swati Dongre, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Improving Sexual Function in Women: A Pilot Study
, Biomed Res Int
- Anti-aging properties7Ranjeet Kumar, et al. Withania somnifera root extract extends lifespan of Caenorhabditis elegans
, Ann Neurosci. 2013
- Improved Sleep8Deepak Langade, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Insomnia and Anxiety: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Study
, Cureus. 2019
KSM-66 typically contains a 5% concentration of withanolides, while priding itself on excluding high levels of Withaferin A, which has been shown to be toxic in high doses.9Shruti B. Patel, et al. Safety assessment of Withania somnifera extract standardized for Withaferin A: Acute and sub-acute toxicity study
, J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2016
Sensoril is another patented form of Ashwagandha made up of both the roots and leaves from the Withania Somnifera plant.
It contains over 10% Withanolide glycosides, which is more than KSM-66 and may be due to the more comprehensive use of the plant.
That being said, Sensoril’s formulation brings out the more sedating, relaxing adaptogenic qualities of Ashwagandha, which can also translate to cognitive enhancement.
Clinical studies on Sensoril have shown the following benefits:
- Enhanced cognitive and psychomotor abilities10Usharani Pingali, Raveendranadh Pilli, and Nishat Fatima. Effect of standardized aqueous extract of Withania somnifera on tests of cognitive and psychomotor performance in healthy human participants
, Pharmacognosy Res. 2014
- Stress reduction11Biswajit Auddy, Jayaram Hazara, Achintya Mitra, Bruce Abedon, Shibnath Ghosal.. A standardized Withania somnifera extract reduces stress related parameters in chronically stressed humans – a double‐blind,randomized, placebo‐controlled study., JANA, Vol. II, No. I, 2008
- Improved Bipolar disorder symptoms12K N Roy Chengappa, Christopher R Bowie, Patricia J Schlicht, David Fleet, Jaspreet S Brar, Ripu Jindal. Randomized placebo-controlled adjunctive study of an extract of withania somnifera for cognitive dysfunction in bipolar disorder
, J Clin Psychiatry
- Inflammation13Pingali Usharani, et al. EVALUATION OF A HIGHLY STANDARDIZED WITHANIA SOMNIFERA EXTRACT ON ENDOTHELIAL DYSFUNCTION AND BIOMARKERS OF OXIDATIVE STRESS IN PATIENTS WITH TYPE 2 DIABETES MELLITUS: A RANDOMIZED, DOUBLE BLIND, PLACEBO CONTROLLED STUDY, International Journal of Ayurveda and Pharma Research. 2015
It’s important to remember that each form of Ashwagandha will effect everyone differently.
Experiment with both KSM-66 and Sensoril to see which one works best for you.
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 subjects’ anxiety at a significantly greater rate than control groups.
Some evidence suggests that this herbal nootropic may work as well or better than traditional pharmaceuticals in treating these disorders.
Most of the subjects 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.14Cooley K, et al. Naturopathic care for anxiety: a randomized controlled trial ISRCTN78958974, PLoS One. 2009 15Andrade 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 help 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, resulting 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.”16Chandrasekhar 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.17Morgan 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 do not have any acute mental illness.
In a recent Indian study, the healthy young males who supplemented 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 create and store information in the brain.18Usharani 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 a potent mental rejuvenator and has numerous physical benefits.
Ashwagandha’s most famous attribute is probably it’s the 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 arousal levels than the baseline, enjoying sex more than the control group.19Ambiye, 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 20Dongre, 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 testosterone levels 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.21Kuboyama T, Tohda C, Komatsu K. Neuritic regeneration and synaptic reconstruction induced by withanolide A, Br J Pharmacol. 2005 22Chandrasekhar 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 brain mechanisms, 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 anxiety and stress levels, and it may disrupt your sleep.
Ashwagandha is suspected of helping this issue by strengthening the connection between GABA receptors to react to stimuli effectively.
That means when there is too much activity in the brain, it can counterbalance it effectively.23Candelario 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 5-HT2 receptors’ sensitivity, which is responsible for serotonin transmission. This could partially explain ashwagandha’s effect on mood and depression.24A 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.
Ashwagandha’s Antioxidant Activity
The other main way that ashwagandha affects the brain is through the antioxidant 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 brain function to decrease.
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.25Tohda C. Overcoming several neurodegenerative diseases by traditional medicines: the development of therapeutic medicines and unraveling pathophysiological mechanisms, Yakugaku Zasshi. 2008
How Much Ashwagandha Should I Take?
Most clinical studies have focused on doses around the 300-600mg per day range. This is widely considered the most effective therapeutic range.
Some people supplement with as high as 1,000mg/day. As with any nootropic supplement, it’s always wise to start with a low dose and gradually work up as needed.
Generally, most people split the dose in half and take one in the morning and half the afternoon.
Some users notice some benefits on the first dose (although this could just be placebo effects). Generally, it takes about two weeks of daily supplementation for the major effects to start taking hold.
It usually takes about six weeks for ashwagandha to start working at 100% effectiveness in your body.
What is the Best Form Of Ashwagandha?
As this herb has become more popular, it is important to distinguish between the wide variety of brands on the market.
The two patented brands to look for are KSM-66 and Sensoril. These are both proprietary extracts with higher levels of ashwagandha’s active compounds, namely the withanolides.
They are a bit more expensive but generally believed to work better. Sensoril can be more sedating than KSM-66 for some people, so keep that in mind.
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.
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About the author:
Erik Levi, FNTP
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.