What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha root is an Indian Ayurvedic medicinal herb of the class adaptogen, which means that it helps support healthy hormone balance and reaction to stress. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation, act as a neuroprotective agent and analgesic, and may help prohibit the spread of cancer and the transitioning of a benign cancer tumor into a malignant one (angiogenisis).
Many people use ashwagandha to help cope with stress, increase muscle gains from exercise, or fight fatigue without introducing anxiety. Is this use substantiated by the evidence? Moreover, some report anhedonia, or the blunting of emotion, and a tolerance developing quickly; benefits emerging quickly but only providing temporary relief, ultimately resulting in disappointment.
These are the questions we are out to answer with this article. Are the benefits substantiated, and what are they? Are there important risks with continued supplementation of this nootropic, or alternatively risks of using it one time? Everyone is different, so how does one properly evaluate the risks and benefits of Ashwagandha use?
It was only after I got my diet under control and started exercising that I could feel the benefits of any nootropic or supplement. The other thing that is important when supplementing is the purity of the supplement. That’s why it’s important to trust the source, and test independently if possible.
That’s why, if possible, it’s best to see a naturopathic doctor. A naturopathic doctor IS NOT someone who hasn’t been to medical school and pushes shady supplements to make a few extra bucks on the side. Naturopathic doctors have BEEN TO MEDICAL SCHOOL! They take an interest in ancient medicines like ashwagandha, in addition to conventional ones.
With that being said, in this article we will first talk about the research on aswhagandha’s effect on inflammation. We’ll talk about what inflammation is, and what ashagandha does for it. Then we’ll talk about the research on the neuroprotective and nootropic effects by ashwagandha. In each case, a study will be cited and then an analysis will be provided of the methodology of the study. There will also be a small amount of speculation on the method of action.
Unfortunately, many articles gloss over the methodology of the study, and this is a shame because, as statisticians say, “If tortured long enough, the data will confess”.
Research About Benefits of Ashwagandha
There is quite a bit of research supporting the benefits of ashwagandha, but like most research in the supplement area it is poorly designed and plagued with methodological biases. I want to start this section with a disclaimer that most research of supplements does not validate the benefit of the supplement. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that most of this research could not be replicated. That being said, let’s talk about the research that does exist.
The research on ashwagandha is divided into studying a few uses for the nootropic. Researchers study the anti-inflammatory effects, the ability of ashwagandha to turn a malignant cancer into a benign one, the ability for ashwagandha to abate the negative effects of stress and other anxiolytic effects, and the ability for ashwagandha to increase muscle gains, bro.
Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Ashwagandha
Let’s start with a little debriefing on what inflammation is, because it’s one of those buzz-words that gets thrown around a lot, so sometimes the meaning can get warped. Inflammation is the bodies immune response, and it is important to fight infection.
Unfortunately, when the immune response stays active for too long, things can get bad, and some people think that it can even result in diabetes. I find it useful to think of it in terms of a war. If a war goes on for too long, the constant carnage piles up and causes major damage. There is no time to clean up the dead bodies or reconstruct the buildings that are being blown up. Therefore, prolonged low-grade inflammation might cause cellular malfunction, resulting in heart problems and more.
Recent research into the link between periodontal disease and diabetes has codified this relationship between inflammation and diabetes. It is thought that the chronic inflammation from periodontal disease causes a cellular dysfunction. Essentially, the buildup from the war going on between the bacteria in the mouth that spills into the blood stream results in the cells losing the ability to effectively transport the sugar in the blood into the cell. Then, the story goes, the body builds a tolerance to the body’s reaction to sugar, insulin.
You can see that if ashwagandha helps negate problematic inflammation, then it may be a good thing. The immune system can wreak havoc if it is overactive, as evident from the negative impact of the “cytokine storm” in COVID-19. How does it do this, though? Is the research into this subject to be trusted? These are the first questions that Nootropic Fun set to answer in researching aswhagandha.
Effect of Ashwagandha on the Inflamed Skin of Mice
The answer to this question lies in studies that show that it modulates cytokine expression when applied to wounds of the skin in mice. Cytokines are the immune systems front-line soldiers. There are different types, but the idea is that cytokines are sent by the immune system to fight the battle.
Ashwagandha has showed to modulate the inflammatory effects of cytokines through changing the transcription process on the skin of mice1 . It has also been shown to reduce the chemical that grows tumors in rats. You can decide for yourself whether or not that this research suggests that it might do the same for the stomach or other parts of the body if ingested. There are many cases where research into mice does not transfer to the same effect in humans, so obviously there needs to be more research into this.
Ashwagandhas Documented Effectiveness in Treating Arthritis
Some types of arthritis are classified as autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. In these cases, crudely put, the body attacks it’s joints and this causes pain and swelling. One of the most widely accepted and studied uses of aswhagandha is as an anti-arthritic. A study in 20152 reported that treatment with ashwagandha and Sidh Makardhwaj decreased RA factor, and that patients who participated in the study noted less tender and swollen joints.
The problem with this study is that there was no control group, however. Moreover, the mechanism of two compounds was studied, rather than just ashwagandha. Could it have been some other third variable that caused less RA factor in the population studied? Or is there some synergy between both compounds, and therefore ashwagandha alone would not produce the benefits observed? In any case, if you struggle with RA or some other autoimmune induced form of arthritis, ashwagandha might be something you’ve heard of. The study didn’t find much risk, however increased mercury was found in the pee of the people who they studied.
Of course, these results come with caution, and there will continue to be caution in tales related to ashwagandha, because there is not enough monetary incentive for it to be studied in a large randomized control trial, as would be necessary to produce conclusive results. The risks are probably low enough for you to consider asking your doctor if you are in pain from Rheumatoid Arthritis, though.
Concluding Thoughts on Aswagandha & Inflammation
Inflammation has been a buzzword lately, and it kind of makes sense. In today’s world, there just isn’t the same amount of bacteria that there used to be, so the story goes that our immune system is bored and starts fighting itself. Or our diets, rich in processed foods and sugars, cultivate bad bacteria that the body fights endlessly, causing diabetes, stroke, cancer — causes DISEASE.
Maybe ashwagandha helps with this, maybe it doesn’t. There is some evidence that ashwagandha modulates the immune system, but there isn’t enough monetary incentive to perform the studies needed to substantiate the claims.
Neuroprotective Effects of Ashwagandha
The neuroprotective or nootropic effects theorized from ashwagandha are said to come from the active ingredients. The first of these is called withaferin A. Another is called Withanoside IV. These compounds are called withanolides, which are referred to as steroids, and lots of complicated chemistry. We aren’t concerned with the chemistry, except in how it can be offered as an explanation to the healing properties of ashwagandha and it’s constituents. Ashwagandha contains much more than only these two compounds, but they are the ones that we will focus on in this article.
Aswhagandha has been shown to decrease the effects of stress empirically in humans in some studies, but these studies are usually not well designed. In one well-designed study, however, there was a notable result. In overweight men there was no difference on energy levels between the ashwagandha and the placebo, but there was a statistically significant increase in testosterone. This is a bit of a striking result (3).
In another study in mice there was an effect on neurotransmitter levels in the brain, causing a cascade that ultimately seemed to reduce stress levels and the negative effect of the stress. Moreover, in a study that measured the effect of ashwagandha’s active ingredient on brain cells infected with Alzheimer’s or HIV, the ashwagandha “neutralized these toxic effects” (4).
In fact, there have been many studies that have shown that withania somnifera is helpful in fighting the buildup of neurodegenerative diseases in the brain. It seems to do this, in rats, by modulating the acetylcholine system. Acetylcholine is the “memory” chemical in the brain. The active ingredient in ashwagandha seems to have some effect in modulating this system, which is in some way connected to neurodegenerative diseases. In fact, it seems that hormone health is in some way related to this system