Ashwagandha is a broadly useful herb that may help control stress during exercise by relaxing muscles, reducing pain, and maintaining energy reserves, without the peaks and valleys of stimulant herbs like ephedra.
Other names for Ashwagandha
Ayurvedic ginseng, Withania somnifera, red ginseng
Where to find Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha preparations are made from the roots and leaves of Withania somnifera, which is a small shrub in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. The seeds and shoots have all been used as well. It grows prolifically in the arid highlands of Himalayan India as well as in parts of northern Africa and the Middle East.
Why athletes use Ashwagandha
Any athlete looking for that edge would do well to consider ashwagandha. Backed by Western science and a long history of real-life use in India, this herb shows great potential for athletes and anyone who wants to maintain health. Ashwagandha may help reduce stress hormones produced during exercise, improve oxygen consumption, improve fatty acid use, reduce blood sugar depletion, and control build-up of lactic acid.
- Relax muscles without causing sluggishness
- Increase endurance via stress- and fatigue-reducing chemicals called "withanines"
- Provide brain neurotransmitters like choline to help enhance memory and focus
Signs of Ashwagandha deficiency
No deficiency conditions are known to exist.
Potential uses for Ashwagandha
Research indicates that Ashwagandha may be useful in the treatment of:
More about Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is mistakenly called Ayurvedic ginseng because it has many of the same uses as ginseng in China. What's interesting is that ashwagandha is still being used today in the same way for the same reasons it's been used for centuries. Below are some examples:
- In the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine, ashwagandha is used to boost energy and vitality and is called a "vitalizer."
- Because of its potential to improve learning and memory, it's used widely by seniors.
- Ashwagandha is also used to fight infectious diseases, fevers, and even tumors.
- It is used to relieve pain and inflammation (including arthritis).
- And finally, the young plant shoots and seeds are used as food and to thicken milk.
More recently, athletes have discovered ashwagandha and have begun to supplement with it to increase endurance, reduce stress, and control pain, all of which are important for optimal exercise performance. While obviously more research is needed, some data suggests ashwagandha may, in fact, have powerful performance potential: research has shown that animals given ashwagandha swim longer than those deprived of it; they also gain more muscle mass than animals given ginseng. What's more, ashwagandha is believed to help prevent age-related health concerns such as reduced sexual performance due to its aphrodisiac effects.
How it works
The chief way ashwagandha works for athletes is as an adaptogen. Simply put, an adaptogen is a type of herb that normalizes body functions. For athletes, this means it may help reduce stress hormones produced during exercise, improve oxygen consumption, improve fatty acid use, reduce blood sugar depletion, and control the build-up of lactic acid.
Laboratory studies support the herb's traditional use. The roots contain choline and beta-sitosterol (an estrogen-like chemical) that improve cognitive function and lower fat and cholesterol; somniferine, which relaxes muscles; and scopoletin, which controls spasms. The leaves contain compounds such as withaferin A, which helps relieve the pain of arthritis and kills harmful organisms and cancer cells. The steroidal alkaloid (bitter nitrogen-based chemicals with potent effects) withanine causes relaxation by increasing uptake of GABA, an amino acid and neurotransmitter. It is a lot like ginsenosides, chemicals found in Asian ginseng.
Ashwagandha has great potential for athletes and other active people, as well as for anyone interested in improving health. Its long history of use in India suggests it contains many active compounds that may promote optimal performance. Best of all, compared to other adaptogens like ginseng, it's widely available and relatively inexpensive. Have no doubt we'll be hearing more about this herb!
Often sold in capsules, ashwagandha is taken at a dosage of one to two grams of whole herb standardized for two to seven milligrams of "withanolides." It can also be taken as a tea by boiling the roots for 15 minutes and taking 3 cups (750 ml) daily. Tincture or fluid extracts of two to four milliliters three times per day can also be used.
Ashwagandha should be taken with meals for optimal absorption.
Synergists of Ashwagandha
No synergists have been noted.
Safety of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha has a long history of use in India and is safe to take at normal doses on a daily basis for extended periods of time. No significant side effects have been reported with ashwagandha. However, the presence of nightshade-family alkaloids suggests that large doses should be avoided.
Some researchers claim that large amounts can cause abortion, and the herb should be avoided during pregnancy.
Toxicity of Ashwagandha
No known toxicity.
Bans and restrictions
- Anabalgan, K., et al., "Antiinflammatory Activity of Withania somnifera," Indian J Exp Biol 19 (1981) : 245-9.
- Bone, K., Clinical Applications of Ayurvedic and Chinese Herbs (Phytotherapy Press, Queensland, Australia, 1996) 137-41.
- Bhattacharya, S.K., et al., "Antioxidant Activity of Glycowithanolides from Withania somnifera," Indian J Exp Biol 35.3 (1997) : 236-9.
- Devi, P.U., "Withania somnifera Dunal (Ashwagandha): Potential Plant Source of a Promising Drug for Cancer Chemotherapy and Radiosensitization," Indian J Exp Biol 34.10 (1996) : 927-32.
- Duke, J.A. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 1985) 514-5.
- Grandhi, A., et al., "A Comparative Pharmacological Investigation of Ashwagandha and Ginseng," J Ethnopharmacol 44.3 (1994) : 131-5.
- Wagner, H., et al., "Plant Adaptogens," Phytomed 1 (1994) : 63-76.
- Xiaoguang, C., et al., "Cancer Chemopreventive and Therapeutic Activities of Red Ginseng," J Ethnopharmacol 60.1 (1998) : 71-8.