The Ultimate Guide to Ashwagandha: Benefits, Dosage & Side Effects

This complete guide explores everything you need to know about ashwagandha. Learn how supplementing with this herb can help you reach your fitness goals.

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb from Ayurveda (an ancient branch of Indian herbal medicine) that is extremely effective at helping the body cope with anxiety and stress.

Traditionally, ashwagandha has been prescribed to help revitalize the immune system after illness. Today, it is used to treat a wide variety of conditions including arthritis, depression, insomnia, asthma, bronchitis, backache, and chronic liver disease.

In Sanskrit, ashwagandha loosely translates to “smell of horse,” referring to the traditional belief that ingestion of the herb imparts the strength and virility of a stallion. But traditional beliefs aside, there are over 300 published research papers on ashwagandha to date, and much of the evidence supports the fact that this herb is an all-round superfood.

The Anabolic Effects of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha and Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that your body releases in times of physical and/or emotional stress. Its function is to help mobilize the energy stores in muscle tissue. In other words, cortisol is a catabolic hormone.

The more cortisol you have running through your veins, the less your body is able to stay in the anabolic state required to build muscle. Ashwagandha’s most prominent impact is its ability to significantly lower cortisol levels.

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In one study, 64 subjects (41 men, 22 women) with a history of chronic stress were randomly assigned to receive a daily dose of either 600mg of ashwagandha root extract or placebo1. Blood samples were collected once before and once after the 60 days of experiment. On day 60, the subjects receiving ashwagandha had, on average, 20% lower cortisol levels compared to placebo.

Cortisol holds an inverse relationship with testosterone, i.e. higher cortisol equals lower testosterone and vice versa. So not only is ashwagandha anti-catabolic, but it doubles down on this effect by allowing an increased production of testosterone as well.

Ashwagandha roots

Ashwagandha and Testosterone

As you well know, testosterone is the primary hormonal driver of muscle growth. The more of it you have in your body, the better your muscles are able to recover, and the faster they grow as a result. In your pursuit of muscle and strength, testosterone is a necessary component.

A daily dose of 5g of ashwagandha root powder in infertile men was enough to increase testosterone levels by anywhere from 13-22% after just 3-months of use2. This finding was replicated in another study, in which infertile men given 3g of ashwagandha root extract (rather than root powder) for 3-months increased testosterone levels by 14-41%3.

But the really profound results come when ashwagandha supplementation is combined with resistance training.

Healthy male subjects (aged 18-50), with limited training experience, were randomly assigned to receive a daily dose of either 300mg of ashwagandha root extract or placebo for 8-weeks4. During those 8-weeks, subjects were also put on a 3-day/week resistance-training program. Total testosterone levels in the ashwagandha group increased, on average, by 15.25%.

In placebo, the increase was only 2.6%. But the really interesting results came in the form of strength gains. The ashwagandha group increased their bench press 1-RM by an astounding 138%. In placebo, the increase was 84%. Leg extension 1-RM for the ashwagandha group increased by 52%, compared to placebo whose increase was 38%.

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To top it off, the ashwagandha group also lost more than twice the amount of body fat compared to placebo (3.47% versus 1.52%).

All these findings are pretty incredible and provide credence to ashwagandha’s status as a powerful supplement that can significantly enhance natural testosterone production.

Ashwagandha and Muscle Growth

As mentioned in the study above4, the subjects supplementing with ashwagandha made significant increases in strength as measured by their 1-RM’s on bench press and leg extension. But what I didn’t mention is that they also experienced 38% greater increases in arm size and 57% greater increases in chest size (as measured in cm2), compared to placebo.

Furthermore, the ashwagandha group also had significantly reduced markers of exercise induced muscle damage.

In another study, 18 healthy volunteers were given increasing doses of ashwagandha over a 30-day period: 750mg/day for days 1-10, 1000mg/day for days 11-20, and 1250mg/day for days 21-305.

Researchers observed muscular strength by measuring grip strength, quadriceps force, and back extensor force before and after the 30 days of supplementation. The subjects increased, on average, grip strength by 8%, quadriceps force by 21.5%, and back extensor force by 15.4%.

These results are pretty incredible provided the fact that they occurred without the subjects being put on any sort of training regimen.

How Ashwagandha Benefits Overall Health

Ashwagandha and Heart Health

Supplementing with ashwagandha has been shown significantly reduce LDL cholesterol levels5. LDL cholesterol is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol since it contributes to the building up of fatty stores in the arteries. Ashwagandha has also been shown to lower triglycerides6 and improve blood pressure7.

All of these factors significantly improve heart health and decrease your chances of developing cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Ashwagandha and Brain Health

Any type of stress, whether it’s physical, emotional, or chemical, can seriously damage the brain. Research has shown that ashwagandha is more than just a stress reliever. It can protect the brain from degeneration8, Alzheimer’s9, and stave off anxiety10.

About 3.3 million people in the US alone are diagnosed with depression. Ashwagandha is able to relieve these symptoms10 and improve overall well being7 by reducing cortisol levels in the body.

Hemoglobin is a protein present in red blood cells that delivers oxygen throughout the body. Ashwagandha supplementation has been shown to increase hemoglobin levels7. This means a more efficient transport of oxygen, which in turn, means increased energy levels and improved overall well-being.

Ashwagandha Seeds

Ashwagandha and Blood Sugar

Having elevated blood sugar for extended periods of time can lead to some serious conditions ranging from heart disease and stroke, to kidney disease and nerve problems.

Ashwagandha has been shown to effective at lowering blood glucose11.

Ashwagandha and Infertility

Ashwagandha supplementation can be especially beneficial for men experiencing infertility.

Studies have shown supplementation to significantly improve seminal parameters12.

One study even found ashwagandha supplementation to increase fertility rate by 15%13.

Does Ashwagandha Have Any Side Effects?

As with any other supplement, it’s important that you consult with a certified medical practitioner before using ashwagandha. The long-term effects of supplementation are unknown, but some possible side effects include stomach issues like diarrhea and vomiting.

Also, ashwagandha lowers blood sugar levels. If you’re diabetic, this could interfere with your medication and cause you blood sugar to go too low. If you decide to experiment with ashwagandha anyway, ensure that you constantly monitor your blood sugar.

Recall that ashwagandha can also lower blood pressure. Proceed with caution if you suffer from blood pressure issues.

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Who Should Consider Supplementing with Ashwagandha?

Consider using ashwagandha if you are:

  • Suffering from tremendous amounts of stress.
  • Looking to naturally ramp up your natural testosterone production.
  • Experiencing decreased libido.
  • Trying to bust through a training plateau.

Avoid using ashwagandha if you are:

  • Pregnant.
  • Diabetic.
  • Taking blood pressure medication.
  • Suffering from a stomach ulcer.
  • Scheduled for surgery.

How to Take Ashwagandha

  • Lowest effective dose for acute usage: 300-500mg.
  • Optimal dose: 6,000mg/day split into 3 doses (2,000mg).
  • Should be taken with meals (if taken once per day, should be taken with breakfast).

Whether it’s in pill or powder form, the preferred form of ashwagandha is root extract.

The active ingredients in ashwagandha are flavonoids called withanolides. Any ashwagandha supplement worth your time should have at least 4% withanolides.

Ashwagandha FAQs

Q: How long does it take to see results from ashwagandha supplementation?

A: Supplement with ashwagandha for at least 4 weeks before expecting to see any of the listed benefits.

Q: Is ashwagandha safe for long-term use?

A: Yes, ashwagandha is entirely safe for both short and long-term use. But, as always, it is best to consult with a certified medical practitioner before use.

Q: Is ashwagandha able to be used with other supplements?

A: Absolutely. Ashwagandha is extremely safe to stack with other bodybuilding supplements like whey protein, creatine, multivitamin, etc.

References
  1. Chandrasekhar, K., et al. “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 Journal of Psychological Medicine, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2012.
  2. Mahdi, Abbas Ali, et al. “Withania somnifera Improves Semen Quality in Stress-Related Male Fertility.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM, Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2011.
  3. Ahmad, M K, et al. “Withania somnifera improves semen quality by regulating reproductive hormone levels and oxidative stress in seminal plasma of infertile males.” Fertility and sterility., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2010.
  4. Wankhede, Sachin, et al. “Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BioMed Central, 2015.
  5. Raut, A A, et al. “Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers.” Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine., U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2012.
  6. Agnihotri, Akshay P., et al. “Effects of Withania somnifera in patients of schizophrenia: A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled pilot trial study.” Indian Journal of Pharmacology, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2013.
  7. Auddy, B., et al. “A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study.” The Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association., November 2008.
  8. Bhattacharya, A, et al. “Anti-Oxidant effect of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides in chronic footshock stress-Induced perturbations of oxidative free radical scavenging enzymes and lipid peroxidation in rat frontal cortex and striatum.” Journal of ethnopharmacology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2001.
  9. Sehgal, N, et al. “Withania somnifera reverses Alzheimer's disease pathology by enhancing low-Density lipoprotein receptor-Related protein in liver.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 28 Feb. 2012.
  10. Andrade, C, et al. “A double-Blind, placebo-Controlled evaluation of the anxiolytic efficacy ff an ethanolic extract of withania somnifera.” Indian journal of psychiatry., U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2000.
  11. Andallu, B, and B Radhika. “Hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic effect of winter cherry (Withania somnifera, Dunal) root.” Indian journal of experimental biology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2000.
  12. Ahmad, M K, et al. “Withania somnifera improves semen quality by regulating reproductive hormone levels and oxidative stress in seminal plasma of infertile males.” Fertility and sterility., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2010.
  13. Mahdi, Abbas Ali, et al. “Withania somnifera Improves Semen Quality in Stress-Related Male Fertility.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM, Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2011.