Ashwagandha, the real deal or passing fad?

In the universe of supplements there are products that despite initial excitement and popularity seem to run out of steam. This can be for a few reasons; perhaps the initial excitement about the science is overtaken with newer evidence showing that perhaps its not as effective as first thought. Maybe the manufacturers have simply paid a lot of money to influencers to get a buzz around a product for it to then lose that excitement because it isn’t showing benefits. Does the supplement work, but something else that does the same job cheaper or better come along.

There has certainly been a lot of hype around Ashwagandha, both in the initial science and from well credentialled influencers. It was only a few years ago that it burst onto the scene, and has gained more interest in research to investigate the claims made against it, but also to understand if it works, how it works and what else might it be useful for.

So, what is the current state of play?

Ashwagandha and Anxiety.

One of ashwagandha’s most well-researched effects is its ability to calm anxiety and reduce stress. Multiple studies have shown ashwagandha can lower cortisol levels and perceived stress scales in chronically stressed adults.

The body of research suggests that Ashwagandha can have variable effects on anxiety, likely linked to the severity and type of anxiety.

Overall, there is a general trend to it being useful for general daily worry/anxiety. However, the magnitude of its effect is moderate, so it isn’t going to solve this issue for everyone who has deep rooted anxiety that require therapy interventions.

Ashwagandha and Sleep.

Partly due to ashwagandhas calming/anti-anxiety effects it could help improve your sleep quality and increase your total sleep time. Clinical studies demonstrate ashwagandha has the capacity increases total sleep time and improve quality of sleep, in people with sleep issues.

Ashwagandha and Athletic Performance.

Although not primarily used by most people for this reason, there is some evidence that Ashwagandha can help with both strength and endurance training.  For endurance training the limited evidence seems to point to increases in oxygen uptake/delivery that are key limiting factors in performance in these types of sports.

Improvements in strength and muscle growth have also been demonstrated with Ashwagandha supplementation, however these effects have been mild and as present it is unclear as to the exact mechanisms that directly enhance strength and muscle growth.

Ashwagandha and Mental Performance.

Most of the wider benefits of Ashwagandha have been demonstrated through pathways in the brain, it is therefore unsurprising that it has been investigated for potential cognitive benefits.

In healthy people, ashwagandha benefits for cognitive performance seem to be more associated with maintaining attention/response time suggesting prevention of fatigue rather than improving performance as such.

In people with cognitive degeneration, impairment, or anxiety or depressive systems this is where ashwagandha tends to flex its cognitive muscle and help with improvement of symptoms and improve mental performance.

Ashwagandha and Reproductive Health.

One of the ‘classical’ uses of ashwagandha was for fertility in both males and females. Scientific investigation has focused on ashwagandhas effect on sex hormones, and sperm quality in males.

The scientific evidence in this regard is mixed, with some studies showing some mild benefits on testosterone levels and sperm quality. It appears that these benefits are associated with improvements in stress levels and the associated hormonal reductions.

Cortisol is a stress hormone, that shares a similar structural ‘backbone’ to testosterone and oestrogen. This means that when stress levels are high, as well as the central processes in the brain that govern sexual desire, there is a direct association that when cortisol is consistently high this ‘robs’ resources to create sex hormones, thus lowering levels in the body.

Ashwagandha Dosing. 

One of the challenges of understanding the research and the doses used is that ashwagandha is made up of different potential active components and studies use a variety of different forms of ashwagandha with different amounts of active components.

For example, withanolides are one of the major active components but the range of standardised extracts is anywhere between 1.5% to over 30%. However, many studies do not mention the exact amounts of potential active components.

A patented form of ashwagandha root extract, KSM-66, is used in many leading supplements as it provides a standardised form of the key active compounds.  

Doses ranging from 120-5000mg of a root extract, with the average being around 600mg split between morning and evening. For athletic performance higher doses of around 1000mg are recommended. High doses are considered general safe, but as with any supplement there are some potential side effects, mainly associated with stomach upset and possible drowsiness (although this might be useful in sleep situations).

There may be concerns if you are combining ashwagandha with other medications, pregnant or liver or kidney issues, so it is important to consult with a doctor before using ashwagandha or any of its extracts.