If you’re into health and wellness trends, you’ve probably heard of ashwagandha by now. Ashwagandha (or Withania somnifera) has become increasingly popular due to it’s potential health benefits. With an increased body of research and our personal experience using this herb, we thought it would be useful to review the science and how it can support women’s health.
So let’s look at the research and see what the hype is all about…
What is Ashwagandha?
First, a little background: Ashwagandha, also known as Withania somnifera, is a revered herb in Ayurvedic medicine. It's commonly referred to as "Indian Ginseng" for its revitalizing properties.
The name "Ashwagandha" itself, derived from Sanskrit, means "the smell of a horse," which refers to its unique aroma and the traditional belief that it imparts the vigor and strength of a stallion. Additionally, it is known as "Winter Cherry" due to its small, red berry-like fruits. With over 3,000 years of history, ashwagandha is celebrated for its ability to alleviate stress, boost energy levels, and sharpen concentration.
But what makes this plant so multifunctional?
Well, there have been identified around 50 substances including alkaloids, flavonoids, steroidal lactones, N-containing compounds, steroids, and salts which explains its diverse therapeutic properties. These compounds work together to exert pharmacological effects such as adaptogenic, anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, and antioxidant activities.
Understanding Ashwagandha: Phytochemistry and Active Compounds
Ashwagandha is rich in a variety of bioactive compounds, which contribute to its therapeutic properties. The primary class of these compounds is withanolides, known for their anti-inflammatory, antitumor, and immunomodulatory properties. The withanolides, particularly withaferin A and withanolide D, have been the focus of numerous studies. They are believed to exert anti-inflammatory effects by inhibiting the NF-κB pathway, a key regulator of the inflammatory response. Additionally, the plant contains a range of alkaloids (like somniferine and withanine), saponins, and flavonoids. These compounds collectively contribute to the adaptogenic, neuroprotective, and hormonal balancing effects of Ashwagandha.
Mechanisms of Action of Ashwagandha
- Adaptogenic Effects: Ashwagandha's adaptogenic properties are key to understanding its impact on health. Adaptogens are substances that help the body adapt to stress. Ashwagandha does this by modulating the levels and activity of stress hormones, primarily cortisol, consequently helping stabilize the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, thereby promoting hormonal balance.
- Neuroprotective Effects: Ashwagandha is also known for its neuroprotective properties. It supports brain health by combating the effects of stress, anxiety, and cognitive decline. This is partially achieved through its antioxidant action, which helps neutralize free radicals and reducing oxidative stress, a factor that can negatively impact brain health and hormonal balance.
- Immunomodulatory Effects: With its immunomodulatory properties, Ashwagandha can enhance or suppress the immune system as needed, helping the body maintain immune homeostasis. This is particularly relevant because immune dysregulation can impact hormonal health.
What are the Health Benefits of Ashwagandha for Women?
Can Ashwagandha help reduce stress?
Chronic stress is a sadly a common issue, particularly impacting women's health. It disrupts the normal function of the HPA axis (producing high levels of cortisol), leading to a range of hormonal imbalances.
By normalizing cortisol levels and other stress mediators, Ashwagandha can alleviate the negative effects of stress on the body. Prolonged stress can disrupt menstrual cycles, fertility, and lead to conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and thyroid disorders.
In women, the stress-hormone interplay is also linked to symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause. By balancing the HPA axis, Ashwagandha can potentially mitigate these symptoms, improving quality of life.
Can Ashwagandha Regulate The Menstrual Cycle?
Well, ashwagandha alone won’t regulate your menstrual cycle but it looks like it might help with it! The estrogenic activity of Ashwagandha, primarily attributed to its content of isoflavones and flavonoids, can significantly impact the menstrual cycle through its interaction with estrogen receptors in the body. These compounds may function as phytoestrogens, which are plant-derived compounds that can mimic the activity of estrogen, the primary female sex hormone.
This could be particularly beneficial in cases where estrogen levels are imbalanced, as seen in conditions like estrogen dominance or deficiency. Estrogen dominance can lead to symptoms like heavy bleeding, severe PMS, and irregular cycles, while estrogen deficiency can result in amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) or oligomenorrhea (infrequent menstruation).
However, it's important to emphasize that the exact effects of Ashwagandha's estrogenic activity on the menstrual cycle can vary depending on individual hormonal profiles and underlying health conditions. While it holds potential in supporting menstrual health, it should be used with caution and under medical supervision, especially for individuals with hormonal sensitivities or those undergoing hormone therapy.
Can Ashwagandha Reduce PMS?
PMS is something you might be familiar with - it’s characterized by a range of symptoms, including mood swings, irritability, bloating, and breast tenderness, which typically arise due to hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. Ashwagandha's role in balancing estrogen, as discussed earlier, can help in alleviating these symptoms. By potentially modulating estrogen levels, Ashwagandha may help in stabilizing the hormonal fluctuations that contribute to the severity of PMS symptoms.
Moreover, its adaptogenic qualities play a significant role in stress reduction. Elevated stress levels can exacerbate PMS symptoms, making them more challenging to manage. By reducing stress and anxiety, Ashwagandha can help in alleviating emotional and psychological symptoms associated with PMS, such as mood swings, irritability, and anxiety.
Additionally, Ashwagandha has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, which can be beneficial in addressing physical symptoms of PMS like cramps, muscle pain, and headaches. Its natural anti-inflammatory effects can help reduce bloating and discomfort, offering a holistic approach to managing PMS.
Again, it's important to note that while Ashwagandha offers promising benefits, its effects can vary from person to person. Women considering Ashwagandha for PMS management should consult with a healthcare provider to ensure it's appropriate for their individual health needs and to understand the optimal dosage and potential interactions with other medications or health conditions.
Can Ashwagandha help with Menopause Management?
Menopause marks the end of a woman's reproductive years, accompanied by a decline in estrogen and progesterone levels. This hormonal shift can cause a range of symptoms like hot flashes, mood swings, and sleep disturbances.
Ashwagandha's adaptogenic and anxiolytic properties make it a potential natural remedy for managing menopausal symptoms. By promoting hormonal balance and reducing stress, it may alleviate menopausal discomforts.
Moreover, its ability to improve sleep quality can be particularly beneficial for menopausal women who often struggle with sleep disturbances.
Can Ashwagandha Support Thyroid Function?
Ashwagandha has shown potential in treating thyroid gland dysfunctions, particularly subclinical hypothyroidism (SCH), where thyroid function is slightly impaired. In a study by Ashok Kumar Sharma et al., patients with SCH taking Ashwagandha experienced a decrease in TSH and an increase in T3 and T4 levels over eight weeks, suggesting an improvement in thyroid function. Similarly, research by Khaled G. Abdel-Wahhab et al. on a rat model with induced hypothyroidism revealed that Ashwagandha extract could match the effectiveness of levothyroxine, a standard hypothyroidism treatment, in normalizing thyroid hormone levels. It's important to note that although these studies show interesting results, more high quality studies done on humans are needed.
Can Ashwagandha Increase Libido in Women?
Ashwagandha's potential benefits extend to enhancing libido in women. Clinical trials have suggested improvements in sexual function with Ashwagandha supplementation, indicating its role in boosting sexual health.
For instance, a clinical study comparing the efficacy and safety of Ashwagandha root extract to a placebo in enhancing female sexual function, 80 women were administered KSM-66® Ashwagandha capsules (300 mg) twice daily for eight weeks. Previous studies, including a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, have reported improvements in women's sexual function using an aqueous extract of Ashwagandha root. The results indicated improvements in female sexual function with both placebo and Ashwagandha, with significantly greater improvements observed in the Ashwagandha group.
These findings suggest that Ashwagandha may play a beneficial role in enhancing sexual health in healthy women but again, more high quality studies are needed to comprehend this.
Can Ashwagandha Improve Muscle Strength and Recovery?
Ashwagandha is also thought to enhance physical performance and reduce muscle fatigue, although the exact molecular mechanisms in humans are not yet fully understood.
Its positive effects on muscle strength, cardiorespiratory fitness, and recovery might be attributed to its antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are crucial for managing reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels, which increase during intensive exercise and can negatively affect muscle adaptation and recovery. Studies suggest that Ashwagandha, through compounds like withaferin A, may regulate oxidative stress at the cellular level, potentially aiding muscle formation and energy metabolism.
Furthermore, Ashwagandha supplementation has been linked to improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness markers, such as hemoglobin levels and VO2max, possibly due to its effects on hematological markers and oxidative stress.
Interestingly, there's evidence that Ashwagandha may have different effects on physical performance between men and women, potentially influenced by its impact on the endocrine system.
While these findings are promising, more standardized research is needed to fully understand Ashwagandha's effects on physical performance and its underlying mechanisms.
Can Ashwagandha Support Cognitive Function?
Enhancing cognitive function, including focus and memory, is another potential benefit of Ashwagandha. It promotes antioxidant activity within the brain, which may benefit cognitive function.
In a randomized placebo-controlled clinical study, the effects of a sustained-release (SR) Ashwagandha capsule (300 mg) on cognitive functions, stress levels, sleep quality, and overall well-being were evaluated in subjects experiencing stress. The study found that Ashwagandha SR significantly improved cognitive abilities in areas such as visual memory, new learning, and attention, outperforming the placebo group.
While the study provides robust evidence for the efficacy of Ashwagandha SR, especially in a large sample size, further research is needed to substantiate these findings across different populations and over longer durations.
Can Ashwagandha Improve Sleep?
The herb is also known for its sleep-inducing properties. It contains an active component, triethylene glycol, which facilitates the onset of sleep. Improved sleep quality is essential for overall health and well-being.
A meta-analysis of five trials showed that Ashwagandha extract had a clinically significant effect on improving sleep compared to placebo. A notable improvement in sleep quality, sleep onset latency, total sleep time, wakefulness after sleep onset, and sleep efficiency was observed, particularly in adults with insomnia, with doses ≥600 mg/day, and treatment durations ≥8 weeks. Ashwagandha also improved mental alertness and reduced anxiety but had no significant effect on quality of life (QoL). The side effects reported were minor, indicating its relative safety.
Despite its promising results, more research is needed, particularly to assess long-term safety and efficacy and to standardize treatment preparations and dosages.
Safety Considerations When Taking Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is generally considered safe for most adults. However, it's contraindicated in pregnant and breastfeeding women due to a lack of sufficient safety data. People with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or Hashimoto's thyroiditis should also use it cautiously and consult with their healthcare providers.
What is the Recommended Ashwagandha Dose?
The appropriate dosage of Ashwagandha can vary based on the form (root powder, extract, capsule) and individual factors. Standard dosages in studies often range from 300-500 mg of the extract per day. It's recommended to start with a lower dose and gradually increase, monitoring for any adverse reactions.
While Ashwagandha can be beneficial, it's best used as part of a holistic approach to health. This includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management practices.
For those considering long-term use of Ashwagandha, it's crucial to understand the importance of sustainability. Regular check-ins with a healthcare provider are advisable to monitor its effects and make any necessary adjustments.
Ashwagandha's role in female hormonal health shows many potential benefits in different areas.
However, while the current research is promising, more extensive and focused studies are needed to fully understand and substantiate its benefits and mechanisms of action in female hormonal health. As with any supplement, Ashwagandha should be used with caution and as part of a comprehensive approach to health and wellness.
Some of us, here at the Elara Care team, are giving Ashwagandha a shot and we'll be sure to report back with our own personal experiences!
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