Ashwagandha. It sounds great, but what good is this much acclaimed Indian herb as a strength athlete?
1. Using an ashwagandha herbal extract can reduce stress, especially in suddenly changing circumstances.
2. The supplement is also used for various other purposes, but by no means all are convincingly scientifically based.
3. Ashwagandha may also have beneficial properties for strength athletes: the herb may increase testosterone levels and may promote strength performance and muscle recovery. To date, only one study has directly demonstrated these things. The results of a handful of other studies do give similar indications though.
4. For improving strength sports performance, 300 mg twice a day seems to be an effective dose.
5. Be sure to buy ashwagandha that is mostly made from the root, the part of the plant that contains the most effective compounds, for example KSM-66.
WHAT IS IT?
Ashwagandha (or Withania somnifera, also called Indian ginseng) is a shrub found throughout Africa, the Mediterranean and South Asia. It is also an important herb in Ayurveda, one of the oldest medicine in the world, originated 5000 years ago in India and still widely present worldwide.
The roots of the shrub contain various alkaloids. These are substances that occur mainly in the plant kingdom and which often have a strong physiological or pharmacological effect on the animal and human body. The latter mainly because they primarily act on the central nervous system.
Ashwagandha is a so-called adaptogen, a category of medicinal plants that supports the human adaptability to all kinds of changing circumstances, especially in stressful situations. Stress is an important disruptor of harmony in the body and thus of homeostasis, the physiological balance within an organism. In short, adaptogens promote homeostasis in the human body.
In Indian cuisine, the young leaves of ashwagandha are used in dishes. However, the roots of the plant are mainly used for medical purposes, which contain the largest amount of withanolides, the main active ingredient of ashwagandha.
The herb is also available in many places in our country, at both health food and sports stores, usually in the form of capsules or powder.
Ashwagandha is a shrub whose roots mainly contain substances to which medicinal effects are attributed. Because of those effects, ashwagandha herbal extracts have been used in Indian medicine for thousands of years. The good properties of the herb are also known in the western world. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen. Adaptogens help you cope better with stress and mental challenges.
OVERALL HEALTH BENEFITS
Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years and that says something about its medicinal properties. But contemporary science has also proven various possible health benefits of the substance [ i ] [ ii ] . However, the quality of the research is still limited or moderate in some indications.
As an adaptogen, ashwaganda is often successfully used for the following purposes, among others:
- reducing stress and anxiety;
- lowering cortisol levels in chronically stressed individuals;
- improving brain function (cognition and memory);
- improving sleep quality (research limited);
- improving erections, libido, fertility and sperm quality in men (research limited);
- relieving depression (research limited);
- reducing fatigue (after prolonged daily use; research limited);
- relieving menopausal symptoms (research limited);
- recovery after illness (research limited).
Ashwagandha also improves the quality of the immune system; it is an anti-inflammatory herb. As a result, it may also be effective for:
- reducing inflammation;
- it lowers blood sugar levels (although the size is quite small);
- the recovery of skin conditions.
Ashwagandha has also been used as an adjunct to cancer fighting such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy [ iii ] . According to some studies, ashwagandha can reduce stress, fatigue and pain associated with chemotherapy. The leaves that contain the active withanine are also said to have an anti-cancer effect and selectively destroy cancerous tumors. However, direct cancer control by ashwagandha has only been shown in animal studies and needs further research in humans. Ashwagandha is therefore not a cure for cancer.
Ashwagandha can be used for many indications. Some of the effects are fairly convincingly supported by science, most notably reducing anxiety and stress.
BENEFITS FOR THE STRENGTH ATHLETE
Ashwagandha has also been gaining popularity as a strength sports supplement in recent years. It is already standard in the supplement package of Greg Nuckols of Stronger by Science. And yes: although ashwagandha has not been researched nearly as extensively as a creatine monohydrate, the Indian herb also seems to contain a striking number of beneficial properties for iron eaters. Let’s check those out.
1. REDUCE STRESS
Stress is a gain killer. Psychological stress, that is. Research has shown that mental tension can greatly increase or even double the recovery time required from strength training [ iv ] .
It’s not that one tablespoon of ashwagandha makes all your worries go away, but as an adaptogen, ashwagandha seems to serve mental health in several ways [ v ] [ vi ] [ vii ] [ viii ] [ ix ] . And everyone can benefit from this, especially those who want to become bigger and stronger.
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha can increase mental and physical resilience during short periods of stress. It also reduces the production of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol. And less stress means better recovery from strength training.
2. INCREASE TESTOSTERONE
Four studies have been conducted to date on the effect of ashwagandha intake on testosterone. All four showed an increase in testosterone levels in men [ x ] , of which one study noted a 10-22% increase, compared to an 11–32% decrease in the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol [ xi ] . In the latter study, the 60 male participants were given 5 grams of ashwagandha from the root daily.
All of this sounds like music to the ears of the strength athlete. But some nuance is in order. Three of the four studies mentioned were in fact grafted on infertile men, who have lowered testosterone levels. So those studies basically say nothing about the effects on testosterone levels that fall within the normal range; they are especially interesting for men who are struggling with infertility. Taking ashwagandha may improve sperm quality and reduce infertility [ xviii ] .
For strength athletes, however, there are promising results from the fourth study, which was conducted on 57 healthy men aged 18 to 50. The subjects, who had little or no experience with strength training, were subjected to a small strength training program of two months [ xii ] . Before and after, among other things, testosterone levels, strength and body composition were measured. Afterwards, it turned out that the men who had taken 300 mg of ashwagandha twice a day had much higher testosterone levels than those in the placebo group. But not only that: the ashwagandha users had more muscle growth, more strength gain and a stronger decrease in fat percentage.
The effects on body composition are striking. Because although testosterone is inextricably linked to muscle growth and fat loss, an increase in testosterone level only has a significant influence on this if the level exceeds the natural ceiling, such as with the use of anabolic steroids. Because it concerns only one study in healthy strength athletes, we are careful to draw celebratory conclusions. Just like Stronger’s bodybuilder and coach Eric Trexler:
There’s minimal evidence to suggest that a little reduction in cortisol (…) is gonna have dramatic effects on body composition performance. (…) Besides, ashwagandha is not increasing testosterone enough to have those types of ergogenic effects. You need a big change in testosterone to have a significant ergogenic effect on that magnitude [ xviii ] .
Ashwagandha may increase testosterone levels in infertile men, according to some studies. According to one study, ashwagandha also increases testosterone levels in healthy men who do strength sports. However, the effect on the hormones testosterone and cortisol is too small to produce significant ergogenic effects.
3. STIMULATE STRENGTH AND MUSCLE GROWTH
A handful of studies suggest that ashwagandha supplementation has positive effects on physical performance. For strength athletes, this could mean more strength gain and (therefore) more muscle growth.
We already discussed the most pronounced research in this area in point 2 [ xii ] . After eight weeks, participants were measured how their strength had evolved on the 1RM (one-rep max) of the bench press and the leg extension. The subjects in the ashwagandha group improved their 1RM in the bench press by almost 20 kg more than those in the placebo group, and their 1RM in the leg extension by almost 5 kg. Also muscle size, muscle recovery and, as mentioned, testosterone levels, measured with plasma creatine kinase, showed significantly more improvement in the ashwagandha users than in the placebo users. The dose of ashwagandha used in the study was 300 mg twice daily.
Another study has shown that supplementation with the same dose of ashwagandha improves power and speed in sprints, as well as VO2max (maximum oxygen absorption capacity), without affecting blood pressure [ xiii ] .
Finally, another study found strength gains in the legs (quadriceps) and back muscles as a result of 30 days of ashwagandha supplementation – without doing any strength training [ xiv ] ! The participants’ cholesterol was also found to be lower.
It is as yet unclear which mechanisms lie behind the cautiously positive effects in strength and muscle growth. According to Eric Trexler, the available scientific evidence is too limited to call ashwagandha a true strength sports supplement.
There is some evidence that ashwagandha promotes strength performance and possibly muscle recovery. However, the available research is still too scant to speak of a real strength sports supplement.
How much ashwagandha you take depends on the purpose of the supplementation. For improving strength sports performance, 300 mg twice a day seems to be an effective dose.
A dose of up to 1250 mg per day was shown to be safe in a study of 18 subjects [ xvi ] .
Take 300 milligrams twice a day.
One jar of ashwagandha is not the same. For example, there are quite large price differences, which usually have to do with the composition of the supplement.
If you buy ashwagandha, make sure that the extract mainly contains the root of the plant. After all, it contains the largest amount of withanolides, the main active ingredient of ashwagandha. In addition, it must be a so-called broad-spectrum herbal extract, which also contains many other substances of the herb. This allows the main active ingredients to do their job better. However, the supplement should contain as little as possible withaferin A, a substance that reduces the effectiveness of ashwagandha and can increase the side effects. The root of the plant contains the smallest amount of withaferin A. Finally, as few external substances as possible should be added to the supplement.
An ashwagandha extract that meets the above criteria is KSM-66, developed by Ixoreal Biomed and offered to us by, among others, Body & Fit Shop. KSM-66 is 100% organic, reportedly has the highest percentage of withanolides of any product on the market, and contains only a negligible amount of Withaferin A.
Ashwagandha is usually offered as capsules or in powder form.
Make sure you buy ashwaganda which is mostly made from the root. A good form of ashwagandha is KSM-66.
SIDE EFFECTS AND SAFETY
Do not use ashwagandha in the following cases [ xvii ] :
- during pregnancy and lactation;
- in diabetes (due to possible interactions with the medication);
- in high or low blood pressure;
- in stomach ulcer.
For most people, ashwagandha, if dosed normally, is safe and without side effects.
CONCLUSION AND ADVICE
Ashwagandha has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes for thousands of years. As an adaptogen, the herb mainly helps to reduce stress in suddenly changing circumstances. There is also quite a bit of scientific basis for this. Many other benefits attributed to ashwagandha use are often under-researched. That doesn’t mean there aren’t those benefits.
The use of ashwagandha may also have beneficial effects for strength athletes: it may increase testosterone levels and may promote strength performance and muscle recovery. However, there is only one study to date that has convincingly demonstrated all these things. A handful of other studies give similar indications.
The fact that ashwagandha reduces stress can also be beneficial for strength athletes. (A lot of) stress disrupts the recovery of strength training and thus the building of muscle mass.
Ashwagandha is inexpensive and its use is safe under normal circumstances. Although it is not an obvious strength sports supplement, ashwagandha can also be worth a try for strength athletes.
For improving strength sports performance, 300 mg twice a day seems to be an effective dose.
- [ i ] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-proven-ashwagandha-benefits
- [ ii ] https://selfhacked.com/blog/59-proven-scientific-benefits-ashwagandha-references/
- [ iii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4899165/
- [ iv ] https://m.facebook.com/MennoHenselmans/photos/a.332702186787623/1784491504942010/
- [ v ] https://examine.com/rubric/effects/view/a42299063269c89b14ced47e812decef/042f3f19742d86e6bbfa31ee9af3bfa6/all/
- [ vi ] https://examine.com/rubric/effects/view/a42299063269c89b14ced47e812decef/23c3b21292254a253e66d4a8611c5c33/all/
- [ vii ] https://examine.com/rubric/effects/view/a42299063269c89b14ced47e812decef/779e0c4c8151cfb76124bebbd1479620/all/
- [ viii ] https://examine.com/rubric/effects/view/a42299063269c89b14ced47e812decef/821f28d3c7fa09e434c519e4de576207/all/
- [ ix ] https://examine.com/rubric/effects/view/a42299063269c89b14ced47e812decef/0d3a9cf9f9fc0d1184b7b398fe00f3a1/all/
- [ x ] https://examine.com/rubric/effects/view/a42299063269c89b14ced47e812decef/d7cb526b5896d0051a93a131651574ce/all/
- [ xi ] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19789214
- [ xii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26609282
- [ xiii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21170205
- [ xiv ] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23125505
- [ xv ] http://www.ijpba.info/ijpba/index.php/ijpba/article/view/339/233
- [ xvi ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3487234/
- [ xvii ] https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-953/ashwagandha
- [ xviii ] https://examine.com/rubric/effects/view/a42299063269c89b14ced47e812decef/a8b2b7545eed91e9d352305b523ac350/all/
- [ xix ] https://youtu.be/pOZk3EyY6fM?t=406/
- [ xx ] https://youtu.be/pOZk3EyY6fM?t=519