- Ashwagandha is a herb from Traditional Indian Medicine touted for its many roles in promoting and preserving masculinity, strength, vitality, and virility.
- Studies show that ashwagandha can increase strength, libido, and cognition and can reduce anxiety and stress.
- Ashwagandha has some issues, particularly since it’s an adaptogen your mileage may vary and it could be great or mediocre, but overall is a great option for men of all ages.
What a great opener.
A large chunk of supplements, most of the herbs, come from traditional medicine. Thousands of years of trial and error have led to only the best of the best herbs being put before us so we can scientifically analyze them.
. . . or so I’d like to believe, but it turns out that anything can be grandfathered into the halls of traditional medicine if it gives your grandpa a boner. The side-effect of human evolution being patriarchal I guess.
However, even if we do get failures from time to time we also get some gems. For every weirdo snorting lines of powdered tiger testicles we also get an ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha has a history that makes it sound like it was going to be in the former category—some guy sniffed the plant, it smelled like a horse, “hurr durr this will make me strong like horse.”
And yeah, it might. Improved strength and virility while getting rid of anxiety roadblocks that get in your way? If only it improved your cognition as well, which it might.
Honestly in retrospect it shocked me how many pieces fell into place here. Most people try and get multiple supplements for their goals, but this root? It seems quite all-in-one with all the right pieces—everything a man wants in one package.
So thank you, random crazy ancient Indian person, for eating the smelly horse root. You have given us a most wonderful supplement.
- What Is Ashwagandha?
- What Does Ashwagandha Do?
- The Top 5 Ashwagandha Benefits
- Ashwagandha and Anxiety
- Ashwagandha and Cortisol
- Ashwagandha and Power Output
- Ashwagandha and Testosterone
- Ashwagandha and Cognition
- Bonus: Ashwagandha and Hair Loss
- What Does Ashwagandha Not Do?
- Ashwagandha and Fat Loss
- Ashwagandha and Immunity
- What Is the Clinically Effective Ashwagandha Dosage?
- What Are the Most Common Ashwagandha Side Effects?
- Should You Take Ashwagandha Supplements?
- The Bottom Line on Ashwagandha
Table of Contents
Ashwagandha is a root that comes from Ayurveda, or Indian Traditional medicine, and is one of the many herbs that are associated with masculinity.
Ashwagandha is said to restore the vigor and vitality of men, both in part due to anti-stress effects and pro-masculine ones like traditional claims that it could increase sexual well-being and strength.
My favorite part of ashwagandha, however, is calling it the horse herb.
“Ashwagandha” literally means smell of horse, since it smells of horse, and was then claimed to give you the strength of a horse—false marketing claims date back to B.C years.
The most practical part of ashwagandha, however, is that it’s an adaptogen.
Adaptogen is an unofficial term that refers to any supplement or drug that can help you “adapt” to a stressor if taken before experiencing the stress.
While this is quite vague it usually refers to things that cause a small, unperceivable, stress in the human body that causes the body to overreact in an attempt to reduce or prevent future stresses from occurring—a hormetic response in a way.
Hormesis is another relevant topic and, in brief, it refers to things that cause 1 abstract unit of bad things but then encourage the body to counterattack with more than 1 abstract unit of good things—the end result is a net positive, born from an initial negative one.
Both of these terms seem rather vague but ashwagandha being a hormetic adaptogen is what gives it a lot of its popularity, and pair that with the masculinity claims and it’s become one of the most popular adaptogens for men.
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The benefits of ashwagandha are mostly due to the withanolide group of molecules.
The botanical name for ashwagandha is Withania somnifera, and as such the unique molecular class found in this plant was named after the plant. However, they have been found in some other plants of the same family to lesser degrees since first discovered.
While there are more than a dozen various withanolides, all of which have a structure similar to steroid hormones, the two most relevant ones (due to potency and the amount that are in the plant) are withanolide A and withaferin A.
Normally at this point I’d discuss molecular targets, what these two girls actually interact with in the body (like how ephedrine works via β2-adrenergic receptors) but there are two problems:
- We still don’t know exactly how adaptogens work in the brain. Lots of theories, none conclusive, and there may be many different answers.
- Withaferin A must have had a poor upbringing because this molecule is very promiscuous.
Promiscuity isn’t just a term used to refer to people who have trouble keeping a stable relationship, but also to molecules that seem to interact with way too many molecular targets. withaferin A is one of them, and it makes research a tad difficult.
Refer to the “Molecular Targets” section of Examine, section 2, for a incomplete list of her past molecular boyfriends. This means that either withaferin A meets the criteria of a dirty drug or it’s unique structure could make it hard to research.
By “hard to research” I refer to more practical issues. When testing molecules in a lab they can’t be seen with the naked eye. We use various tools, a combination of machinery and chemicals, to deduce whether or not an interaction has occurred.
A good example is Fluor-de-Lys, an assay kit that becomes fluorescent when it gets a positive hit. I bring this particular one up because it’s the one that made many of us falsely believe resveratrol directly activated SIRT1 (which underlies most of the anti-aging claims associated with wine.)
This type of error is called an artefact, and ashwagandha has already once been found to interfere with an assay used in drug testing—although other tests can be used instead. Given how promiscuous molecules may simply be ones that interfere with a lot of tests it may be best, since we aren’t analytical chemists, to ignore the molecular components for now.
That’s fine, however, as there’s quite a bit of human data on ashwagandha to sort good from bad.
The best uses for ashwagandha seem to line up with traditional claims on masculinity, but also can help with the whole social side of “asserting dominance” as well. Specifically, the main five benefits are . . .
- Reduced anxiety
- Reduced cortisol
- Increased power output
- Increase testosterone
- Improved cognition
Ashwagandha seems to be able to reduce anxiety associated with chronic stress.
This effect seems to be related more to the withanolides, rather than withaferin A, and at least in rats it seems to work via preventing a stress-induced reduction in serotonin and acetylcholine; neurotransmitters that, if reduced, can worsen anxieties.
When given to humans with chronic stress, ashwagandha very reliably reduced anxiety as assessed by self-report questionnaires and cortisol levels (an indicator of stress) in one study. Another study found that ashwagandha helped obese people lose weight by reducing stress-induced overeating.
It’s also effective in other forms of anxiety, as multiple studies have concluded, but the potency seems to be less when chronic stress isn’t the primary cause of said anxiety. While not all studies are of the best quality, reviews at least show consistency in these benefits.
Finally, and most interestingly, ashwagandha has been found to improve social functioning in rats while human studies find “improved sociability” (willingness and eagerness to participate in social activities) as a side-effect even when stress isn’t a factor.
Ashwagandha seems effective at reducing anxiety. While it may not be the best option overall for anxiety, it seems to have a niche for stress-induced anxiety and maybe even social anxiety.
Ashwagandha reduces cortisol levels in stressed people.
Cortisol is a hormone that typically rises in response to stress.
Reductions in cortisol ranging between 14.5 to 27.9% have been found with ashwagandha on three separate occasions when given to stressed subjects. In rats this reduction is linked to the beneficial immunity effects of ashwagandha, due to the withanolides, as cortisol can suppress immune responses.
The most notable thing here is the magnitude. Being inundated in marketing claims all the time we tend to forget that a 15% reduction in cortisol is actually really damn good. Ashwagandha seems to be a better option than many other supplements for cortisol reduction.
Ashwagandha can reduce cortisol when cortisol is increased due to stress, and it can do so in a relatively potent manner.
Claims that set ashwagandha apart from other adaptogens are the masculine and strength claims, and it seems they are not completely bogus either.
The degree of strength improvement is respectable, about 8 to 10% improved power on sprints (placebo did not improve) and about double the newbie gains on bench press and leg extension.
Unfortunately, we have no data on already trained or experienced athletes.
Ashwagandha appears to be able to increase strength gains from exercise in new lifters and relatively untrained individuals, but no data exists on well trained athletes.
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Ashwagandha also has evidence for increasing testosterone but, again, it seems conditional.
In men who have fertility issues, ashwagandha has been found to improve testosterone (normally suppressed in these men) when the infertility is associated with stress or if the men have poor semen quality—potentially helping through antioxidant effects.
The above isn’t really unique as many plants, like Longjack, have these properties and even basic antioxidants like CoQ10 or vitamin E have been linked to testosterone via antioxidant effects in infertile men.
The only study on ashwagandha and testosterone that’s not related to infertility is the aforementioned newbie gains study, where ashwagandha supplementation improved muscle mass and strength in new lifters.
Given how improving strength and muscle can, independently, increase testosterone in new lifters it’s possible the testosterone increase seen was just a side-effect of getting jacked rather than being the reason the subjects did get jacked.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of evidence to answer this particular question. We would need studies in trained athletes or even sedentary people looking at testosterone.
As a side note, the potential libido enhancement from ashwagandha may not be linked to testosterone. After all, ashwagandha supplementation in women has led to improved sexual functioning without affecting testosterone.
Ashwagandha technically increases testosterone but it may not be relevant to otherwise healthy and fertile men who are already active. It may simply be a testicular antioxidant.
Y’know, kinda getting a tad irritated right now. I normally take a prudent and “be reasonable, supplements aren’t panaceas” approach to things but ashwagandha is just hitting everything out of the park right now. Kinda pisses me off.
Oh look, it stabilizes mood as well—never knew a plant could rub salt in the wound. Granted I don’t have bipolar disorder, but ashwagandha has cognitive benefits that are fairly widespread.
Human studies on ashwagandha have found benefits to cognition in instances of cognitive dysfunction, bipolar disorder, and general cognitive impairment, that seem to have a preference for improving memory (visual and verbal) and reaction time.
There’s one study on healthy young subjects with no cognitive abnormalities found that 250 mg of ashwagandha twice a day improved reaction time, choice discrimination, and digit vigilance among other things—sort of the benefits an athlete wants, the ability to make the right decisions fast and repeatedly.
It isn’t certain how this is happening, as the promiscuity of the withanolides comes up here, but it’s been implicated in helping via NMDA receptors, GABA receptors, acetylcholine, and even antioxidation— if I had to guess, NMDA and choline seem most likely.
While a lot more evidence would be great, ashwagandha appears to have benefits to cognitive functioning. These benefits seem to be wide-spread but focus a lot around visual memory and reaction time.
When I write these articles, I try to keep an eye out for what people are interested in finding out about a supplement. In almost every single instance, people are concerned about hair loss.
Now, being in this predicament myself yet being blessed with a wonderful skull, I would suggest shaving it off and embracing the buddhist muscle monk with a beard look but to each their own.
Ashwagandha, similar to most supplements, isn’t proven to combat hair loss. However, it at least has one case study. Not much to go on, but a study from doctors at the New York Department of Internal Medicine found ashwagandha to be effective in fighting against congenital adrenal hyperplasia—a genetic disorder that results in hair loss.
Beyond that, we got nothing else.
Ashwagandha has been shown in a single case study to improve hair loss. Not really something that I can claim is “proven” but, if this disorder affects you, you might be happy to learn this.
Color me surprised, the claims on ashwagandha are actually fairly accurate. There aren’t many things people claim this plant does which it doesn’t.
While it would be inaccurate to say that ashwagandha never helps you lose weight, it doesn’t seem to do this by itself. Simply taking ashwagandha without exercise or stress leads to no reductions in weight and it doesn’t appear to influence fat oxidation during exercise.
Ultimately it’s not something I can call a fat burner or weight loss agent in earnest at this moment in time. We need to wait for more evidence on thyroid function (will be explained in the upcoming safety section.)
Fat loss may be a happy little side-effect of ashwagandha supplementation but it isn’t an inherent property of the supplement.
This one is more of a technicality than anything since, through the effects on stress, you could experience less stress-related sickness if ashwagandha helps your stress go away.
But directly? Ashwagandha doesn’t have much convincing evidence for me to call it an immune booster. There’s some nice in vitro evidence, where ashwagandha appears to augment production of immune cells and helps macrophages kill intruders better.
But right now we have no human evidence to suggest any practical benefits of this and, if I can speak from experience, most plants and mushrooms that have polysaccharides in them can do this—it’s an issue where overall potency, and human evidence, needs to shine.
While a potential immune boosting effect of ashwagandha cannot be ruled out, it’s most likely just people getting less stressed and reducing their cortisol.
Most studies use ashwagandha in the dosage range of 250 to 300 mg twice a day, and at times use 500 mg once a day—these dosages do not need to be taken with meals but are sometimes recommended anyways.
The only real issue is that sourcing of ashwagandha between studies varies, and as such the total dosage of withanolides, withaferin A, or other components can change from one study to the next even if the total ashwagandha dose is consistent.
This perhaps explains how the overall potency of ashwagandha differs from one study to the next, although the trend of adaptogens being unpredictable still persists.
Ashwagandha is seen as mostly safe, but at times there have been side-effects reported.
There hasn’t really been any rhyme or reason with these side-effects, as while some people happily report that ashwagandha improved their appetite or libido unexpectedly others experience some weird shenanigans like vertigo.
Personally speaking, while many people report ashwagandha to have sedative properties and it helps with their sleep when I take it it keeps me up at night—uncertain why, but others have reported similar effects.
Now, I do want to mention potential issues with the thyroid.
Ashwagandha seems to be able to increase thyroid hormones (T3 and T4) which, after increased thyroid function was noted as a side-effect in one study, was later tested and found to help improve thyroid hormone levels in people with subclinical hypothyroidism.
The reason I mention this in the safety section is because it seems somewhat unreliable in magnitude and there is, indeed, at least one case study of thyrotoxicosis associated with ashwagandha.
For people with overactive thyroids, or those who are taking thyroid medication, it would be best to steer clear of ashwagandha for the time being.
. . . huh, maybe that’s why it kept me up at night?
The type of person who should be most excited about the prospect of using ashwagandha would be men who want to not only feel more manly (whether it’s needed or not) but also get rid of that pesky stress and anxiety about getting out there and meeting people.
If you also happen to be an athlete, particularly a newbie athlete, who packs on the pounds a bit too easily then it makes it an even more enticing option.
Regardless, it‘s an adaptogen and the law of the land for these things is that “results may vary,” so feel free to add this to the repertoire of adaptogens. Ashwagandha might end up being your baby, or perhaps you’ll stick with rhodiola rosea or panax ginseng, whatever works for you.
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At the end of the day, ashwagandha has not become a really mainstream supplement because the evidence on it’s only recently been expanded and some is still of moderate quality.
We need some larger studies to be conducted but, if those studies come out just as positive as the current studies are looking, hot diggity is ashwagandha a good find.
An adaptogenic supplement that can reduce stress and anxiety for people who suffer from them, with a theoretical side-effect of improving social functioning—a one-two punch for social anxiety sufferers.
A performance enhancer for new lifters and recreational athletes that, if this trend continues and occurs in trained athletes, could mean a herbal supplement that legitimately increases power output and maybe even testosterone.
Improve memory and cognitive function because, hell, why not? That’s also a good thing so let’s just bundle that into this herb as well.
Minor antioxidant effects and cortisol reduction mean that it can be argued to be healthy as well, and if we can figure out the whole thyroid issue with future evidence then even the section I made on “doesn’t help with fat loss” could be reversed!
Definitely one of the best herbs to keep on the radar.