By Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, LDN
Ashwagandha, a traditional Ayurvedic herb that is used for conditions ranging from arthritis and anxiety to liver disease and sleep issues, is trending strongly in the natural products market. Known for its powers of helping the body adapt to stress in the environment, ashwagandha supports the immune system and may help reduce inflammation. Because of the ability to help the body achieve self-regulatory balance within various systems, this herb is often used to prevent the effects of aging and to treat systemic or hormonal conditions such as fibromyalgia or fertility disorders. With clinical trials as evidence for the efficacy of ashwagandha, this is certainly an herb to know more about in the future. But is it right for you?
Ashwagandha or Withania somnifera is considered an ‘adaptogen,’ which is a class of herbs and supplements that help the body adjust to environmental stressors. According to ashwagandha expert Kartikeya Baldwa, director of Ixoreal Biomed Inc., which supplies KSM-66 ashwagandha extract, explains, “All of the healthy adult population could benefit from ashwagandha. To understand why, it would help to first recognize that the high-level effect of ashwagandha is to create and maintain homeostasis in the human body.
“The term ‘homeostasis’ refers to the idea of balance in the body, where the various systems within body (in particular the endocrine system, the nervous system, the energy system and the immune system) all work well individually and in sync. In this sense, ashwagandha maintains balance in the body.”
Baldwa adds, “A central idea in Ayurveda is that disease, aging and stress cause the body to fall out of balance. And the reverse is also true, that if the body is out of balance it tends to be more susceptible to disease, aging and stress. Therefore by creating homeostasis when the body falls out of balance, and by maintaining homeostasis once the body is in balance, ashwagandha performs an important function in supporting good health. Specifically, ashwagandha maintains balance in the body’s neurological, immune, reproductive, endocrinal and energy production systems.”
The root and berries of this herb are used for their immune enhancing, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant functions. Ashwagandha causes smooth muscle relaxation, suppresses dopamine increases in the brain caused by stress, and reduces stress-induced release of corticosterone, a stress hormone. Ashwagandha has also been studied for athletic performance as an ergogenic aid for sports enhancement, to increase fertility, and for reducing anxiety through lowering cortisol levels. Studies show this herb works well as a performance enhancer because physical activity is a form of (healthy) stress on the body and because ashwagandha acts as a stress adaptor, it may help to enhance muscle strength and recovery from exercise.
Clinical trials and reviews of the scientific literature show that ashwagandha has been used safely, orally, and is generally well tolerated. A 2014 clinical study including 100 participants taking a concentrated form of ashwagandha, KSM-66®, proved beneficial for muscle strength, size and recovery. Results based on 300mg of this extract twice per day found the intervention group had a significant increase in testosterone and decrease in body fat when they underwent resistance training for eight weeks. Other studies have also shown ashwagandha root extract dosed at 500mg orally once per day for eight weeks to help increase maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max). A larger study found similar results with 600mg oral dosing for 12 weeks.
The FoodTrients team connected with Mr. Baldwa at the recent Natural Products Expo inLos Angelesthis spring. IXOREAL Biomed makes KSM-66® ashwagandha, the version that many of these studies are based on. I was lucky enough to be able to get a brief interview with Baldwa who explained, “Ashwagandha is already a part of mainstream medicine in some parts of the world. The historical focus of mainstream medicine in theU.S.perhaps has been on treating specific conditions in diseased populations.
“Ashwagandha has a preventative orientation and for the mostly healthy population. So there is a potential synergy here and I am optimistic that mainstream medicine will consider ashwagandha of value.”
Baldwa is excited about the clinical studies under way that examine the effects of this herb in promoting brain health and sports function. There is so much to learn about the potential for ashwagandha and it was really fun to meet with an expert on the subject who is so well versed on its benefits. He is part of a family business that has been running for 60 years that is investing in organic farms, green-chemistry-based extraction method, and production of producing the highest-concentration extract available in the current market while also underwriting seven completed clinical trials with KSM-66 ashwagandha with six more in progress.
There are a few conditions for which ashwagandha should not be used. Be aware that because of the potential hypotensive or blood pressure lowering effects of ashwagandha, combining this product with other medications, herbs or supplements that aim to cause similar effects can cause blood pressure to drop too low. Similarly, use caution when combining ashwagandha with medications or supplements that cause a sedative effect. Because it stimulates the immune system, those with autoimmune diseases should work with their provider to ensure the herb will not over stimulate and exacerbate these issues. This herb could interact with diabetic, blood pressure, thyroid or antidepressant medications. Before adding it to your regimen, please consult with a doctor and pharmacist to be sure there will not be any negative interactions.
Resources not embedded:
Mishra LC, Singh BB, Dagenais S. Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review. Altern Med Rev 2000;5:334-46.
Cooley K, Szczurko O, Perri D, et al. Naturopathic care for anxiety: a randomized controlled trial ISRC TN78958974. PLoS One 2009;4:e6628.
Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, LDN, is a Chicago-based nutrition writer and dietitian at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care specializing in integrative health and whole food-based nutrition. Ginger earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Washington and her Master of Science in Nutrition from naturopathic Bastyr University. She serves as President for the Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Ginger is a plant-based dietitian who has a passion for physical activity and cooking. She believes that an interest in unprocessed foods and natural health will help heal the chronic health problems our country has been facing. Follow Ginger on her blog: ChampagneNutrition (www.champagnenutrition.com), Twitter (@GingerHultinRD), Instagram (http://instagram.com/champagnenutrition), and Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/champagneRDN/).