Ashwagandha is an herb with great significance in Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine. It was used, amongst many purposes, to strengthen the immune system after illness and relieve anxiety. Its value lies in its ability to give energy and create calmness at the same time. Some small scientific studies support the health benefits of ashwagandha, suggesting that it has anti-oxidizing, anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, and sleep-inducing properties. It may also act as a tonic to improve overall health and energy. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen; it balances and stabilizes various physiological processes, including reducing sensitivity to stress.
Ashwagandha may soothe anxiety and promote relaxation and a sense of calmness. This effect comes from its phytochemicals, withanolides. They act as precursors to the hormones that regulate the stress response in the body. This benefit is helpful for anxiety disorders, which are often associated with high stress levels. Ashwagandha has the potential to treat agoraphobia and stress-related infertility in men. Studies show that it could be as effective as pharmacological drugs, without the harmful side effects; drowsiness, loss of sexual desire, increased appetite, and insomnia are often experienced by people on antianxiety drugs.
Chronic stress is ever-present in modern society and increases the risk of illness. Ashwagandha's ability to act as a mood stabilizer and improve resistance to stress has been the focus of research. Most studies show significantly better results in subjects given ashwagandha compared to those given a placebo. One study showed that using ashwagandha improved the cell health of chronically-stressed rats. In a large human trial, treatment with ashwagandha significantly reduced cortisol levels in 64 patients over 60 days. Cortisol, the stress hormone, has a variety of undesirable effects on the human body when produced in excessive amounts. High levels of cortisol negatively impact immune function and blood sugar control and contribute to muscle and bone loss.
Diabetes affects about nine percent of people in the United States, and pre-diabetes afflicts even more. Ashwagandha contains phenolic compounds, including flavonoids, that help stabilize blood sugar levels. Studies show that the herb can help regulate the production of insulin. In fructose-fed rats, the extract inhibited an increase in glucose, inflammation, and insulin resistance. Another trial showed ashwagandha could raise levels of glucose-6-phosphatase, a liver enzyme that plays a crucial role in controlling blood sugar levels. In one study, The herb was also as useful as a standard hypoglycemic drug, reducing blood glucose levels by 12%.
The immune system protects us against disease by distinguishing between pathogens and healthy cells. Pathogen-fighting agents produced in bone marrow travel to lymph nodes all over the body and act against these foreign bodies. One of ashwagandha's possible benefits is its ability to modulate and stimulate the immune system. According to some studies, ashwagandha increases the activity of natural killer cells, those that fight viruses. It is possible, therefore, that ashwagandha may help the immune system fight off infection and prevent overreactions by reigning in inflammation. Studies show ashwagandha reduces CRP (C-reactive protein), a marker of inflammation.
Growing evidence shows that infection-causing bacteria in humans are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Bacterial infections, especially drug-resistant strains, can be particularly dangerous to people with compromised immune systems. Ashwagandha's effects on immune function could help the body resist infection. However, there is no strong evidence in humans that ashwagandha has anti-bacterial or anti-fungal properties that make it an effective substitute for antibiotics.
Analgesics offer temporary relief from the pain caused by arthritis, but they can also cause severe side effects such as allergic reactions, stomach pain, high blood pressure, and heartburn. Animal studies suggest ashwagandha could be better at reducing inflammation than hydrocortisone. Human patients with rheumatoid arthritis have found its use can reduce pain and swelling. The herb's anti-inflammatory properties come from the saponins, alkaloids, and steroidal lactones it contains. These compounds may reduce the severity of pain and improve stiffness and overall function of joints and muscles. However, people with autoimmune conditions, including arthritis, should not take ashwagandha unless under the care of a physician. More research is needed in this area as most of the studies are small in size and short in duration.
Animal studies show promising results in the use of ashwagandha for treating cancer, though there are no human studies yet. Some research shows ashwagandha prevents new blood vessels that support the growth of cancer cells from forming. One study saw a decrease in the weight of tumors in animals with lymphatic cancer. The herb also seems to prevent bone marrow suppression associated with anti-cancer drugs. The studies show that ashwagandha kills some cancer cells and enhances some immune cells. It may damage the ability of the cancer cells to generate the energy needed to reproduce. It also reduces the level of essential antioxidants in the tumor cells. This could enhance the effectiveness of radiation therapy. However, ashwagandha is not considered a treatment for cancer at this point and will require further research, including human studies, to confirm any potential benefits.
Seizures are a result of a sudden disturbance in electrical activity in the brain. Ashwagandha has been widely used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat convulsions and seizures. Studies show that the plant may have anti-convulsive properties. In one animal study, a high dose of ashwagandha reduced convulsions. A lower dosage combined with an anti-seizure drug had the same effect. The herb seems to regulate the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain. It changes the receptors so that the GABA molecules can bind more tightly. At this point, the results are preliminary and have not been replicated in humans.
Thyroxine is a hormone secreted by the thyroid gland. It is converted to T3 or tri-iodothyronine, its active form. T3 affects almost every physiological process, including heart rate and body temperature. Ashwagandha increases the production of thyroid hormones. In a study on adult mice, the herb increased blood levels of thyroxine and T3. Thyroxine levels also increased over eight weeks of treatment of bipolar patients. Ashwagandha may help with underactive thyroid conditions such as Hashimoto's disease. However, there is not enough evidence yet to show that ashwagandha is safe and effective for people with thyroid disorders. If you think you have an overactive thyroid, talk to a physician about your treatment options.
Ashwagandha may enhance libido in men and help with erectile dysfunction. Low production of sperm is a common cause of male infertility, and some studies show the root extract improves sperm count and increases sperm motility. Behavioral studies in mice show an increase in testosterone with the administration of an ashwagandha extract. This treatment should be discussed with a medical practitioner before use. Despite its many potential benefits, some people should not use ashwagandha. Pregnant women should avoid the herb. It can also interact with medications for diabetes, hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. Consumption in large amounts can cause nausea, an upset stomach, and diarrhea.
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