For better or worse, stress is a part of life. In certain instances (attempting a 1-RM on squats, cramming for finals, or being chased by a predator), stress is an excellent thing -- it heightens alertness, reaction time, and motivation. However, chronic stress is a whole other issue, and more often than not, we live in a state of chronic stress. We work longer hours, we sleep less, and we have more demands placed on our time and effort, meaning we have less time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the wonder that is our life. This chronic state of stress can lead to several unwanted side effects, including impaired sleep, poor mood, irritability, and weight gain! Fortunately, there are several natural, non-addictive, and safe options available for improving our response to the ever-increasing amount of stressors we have to face each day. They’re called adaptogens, and today we're going to look at one of the most popular adaptogens of all time in Ashwagandha.
What is Ashwagandha?Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a small, woody shrub that has been a staple of Ayurveda (Traditional Indian Medicine) for centuries -- some accounts indicate it has been used as far back as 6000 BC! <1> It grows to about two feet in height and can be found growing across India as well as in various parts of Africa and the Mediterranean. The name “Ashwagandha” means “smell of horse” and refers to the distinct smell of the herb as well as the belief that using the herb would give men the strength and virility of a horse. Ashwagandha is known by several other names including "Indian Winter Cherry" and "Indian Ginseng," among others.
What Does Ashwagandha Do?Traditionally, Ashwagandha was used to restore the vigor and vitality of men, due to its combined pro-masculine and anti-stress effects. It was also commonly used to enhance the function of the brain, nervous system, and reproductive system as well as bolster memory. The age-old tonic has even been used to improve immune function due to its antioxidant and immunomodulatory actions. <1> And, since in Latin, Withania somnifera means "sleep-inducing," Ashwagandha is also quite frequently used to reduce anxiety, foster a sense of calmness, and promote better sleep. So, how does Ashwagandha exert these effects? Well, Ashwagandha is an adaptogen. Adaptogens are non-toxic plants that "enhance the state of non-specific resistance." <2> Adaptogens improve the body's ability to encounter, respond, and recover from stress, both physical and psychological. Due to this heightened stress response and recovery, adaptogens offer several beneficial effects, including <2>:
- CNS Stimulating
What Are the Research-Backed Benefits of Ashwagandha?Ashwagandha is commonly referred to as the "Prince of Herbs" in Ayurveda because it has an extensive range of therapeutic effects. <1,4,5,6> It is also one of the most intensively researched compounds on the market as well. Here, we present the top 5 research-backed benefits of Ashwagandha:
Reduced CortisolCortisol is the body's primary stress hormone, released from our adrenal glands, whenever we encounter or perceive a threat. Mostly, you can think of cortisol as our body's built-in "alarm system." When cortisol is released, it kicks in the “fight or flight” response and motivates us to take action or get the heck out of Dodge. In short spurts, a release of cortisol can be beneficial for enhancing increasing alertness, fat burning, and reducing inflammation. However, cortisol becomes troublesome when it remains elevated for too long. For starters, chronically elevated cortisol levels can decrease testosterone, impair sleep, promote weight gain (especially around the midsection). <7,8,9> Supplementation with Ashwagandha has been noted to decrease cortisol between 14.5-27.9% when given to stressed individuals. <10,11> Studies in animals found that a reduction in cortisol was associated with better immunity because chronically elevated cortisol suppresses immune function. <12>
Decreased Stress & AnxietyAs we noted above, whenever we perceive a threat or encounter a stressful situation, cortisol levels rise. Therefore, since Ashwagandha helps reduce cortisol levels, it makes perfect sense that it would help reduce stress as well as the anxiety that often accompanies the stressful situation. <14,15,16> When Ashwagandha was given to chronically stressed humans, studies note it significantly reduces anxiety. <10> Additional research noted that Ashwagandha supplementation might help obese individuals lose weight by limiting their overeating, which was brought on by stress.reducing stress-induced overeating. <13> Lastly, supplementation with Ashwagandha has been found to enhance sociability in both humans and animals, even when individuals aren't stressed. <10,17,18>
Increased TestosteroneAshwagandha has long been used to enhance male virility, vigor, and libido. As such, it's a common ingredient in many natural testosterone boosters. And, there is some evidence denoting that Ashwagandha indeed does help boost testosterone levels. <11,19,21> These effects seem to be more pronounced in men who have fertility issues (poor semen quality) usually stemming from chronically elevated stress and cortisol levels. Additionally, Ashwagandha has also been noted to improve sexual functioning without impacting testosterone. <22>
Improved CognitionAs you’ve experienced for yourself, when you’re stressed all the time, it’s hard to find the motivation to work. Or if somehow you can muster up the energy to get moving, putting things together cohesively and in a manner that makes sense isn’t all that easy to do. Well, the good news is that Ashwagandha may be able to help that too. Research shows that it can help stabilize mood <26>, improve reaction time, and enhance both verbal and visual memory. A study in young, healthy boys noted that supplementing with 250mg Ashwagandha twice per day for 14 days improve choice discrimination, digit vigilance, and reaction time -- traits that help athletes make correct decisions repeatedly as well as quicker. <29>
Enhanced Power Output & Athletic PerformanceAs if there weren't enough reasons to praise Ashwagandha already, it's even been shown to improve athletic performance. Studies have shown that supplementation with Ashwagandha (500-600mg daily) improves performance in cardiorespiratory endurance, resistance training, sprinting, and tests of grip strength in healthy individuals relative to placebo. <23,24,25,28> Sprinting power improved up to 10% in those supplementing with Ashwagandha vs. those receiving a placebo. Bench press and leg extension strength also were twice as high as the placebo group too. Now, it should be mentioned that these gains in strength and performance were in novice (little to no experience) lifters, meaning the gains might not be as great in those with considerably more experience. Still, the fact that these individuals made better gains that the newbies who received placebo suggest that even season gym rats will garner some benefit from supplementing with Ashwagandha.
Anti-AgingWho wouldn’t like to turn back the clock and add a few years to their life? If we're honest, we all would. Well, Ashwagandha has been shown to promote anti-aging effects by increasing telomerase activity. <30> Telomeres are the protein “endcaps” of our chromosomes. Every time a cell replicates, these telomeres get shorter. When these become too short, the cell becomes senescent (the inability to continue cell replication) and dies. Telomere shortening has been closely linked to biological aging as well as cellular dysfunction. This “shortening” happens primarily for two reasons:
- Oxidative stress, and
- End replication problem (the inability of DNA to read and copy the ends of linear chromosomes)
What Is The Best Form of Ashwagandha?Given the enormous popularity of Ashwagandha and the fact that it's used in such a broad spectrum of products, it comes as no surprise that there is a multitude of different quality Ashwagandha extracts on the market. Some are good; some are not so good. The most significant difference between these Ashwagandha extracts essentially boils down to their quality and withanolide content. Generic Ashwagandha extracts (which are usually listed on supplement labels only as "Ashwagandha") are typically standardized to 2.5% withanolides. These extracts also tend to be made from the roots and leaves of the Ashwagandha plant. While these are "decent," you generally have to use a lot more of them to get the effects described above. Our preferred form of Ashwagandha is Ixoreal's KSM-66® Ashwagandha. It is the form of Ashwagandha that been studied in both chronically stressed people and athletic ones. KSM-66® Ashwagandha extract is standardized to 5% withanolides. It retains the ratios of all the bioactive plant compounds as they are naturally in the root. The reason for this is that getting the most from Ashwagandha isn't just about taking a high dose of withanolides. It’s about getting the right dose of withanolides in the proper ratio to the other bioactive goodies residing within the plant’s roots. Furthermore, most of the published clinical trials on Ashwagandha use extract from the root and not the leaf. KSM-66® is made using only the root. For these reasons, we’ve included KSM-66® in both Steel Pump® and our nighttime sleep and recovery agent Steel Dreams™.
TakeawayAshwagandha is an adaptogen that has been used for centuries to enhance virility, strength, and energy. It improves the body’s ability to handle all manner of stressors, and as a result, supplementing with it has been shown to help reduce cortisol, stress, and anxiety while boosting athletic performance and cognitive function. If you're someone who lives a high-stress life and looking for something to take the edge off yet not sedating you, then KSM-66® may be just the thing to try!
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