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What Ashwagandha Does To Your Body Graphic © healthpowerboost.com.
Background photo: Pixabay (PD)
For centuries, cultures around the world have turned to plants to meet their healthcare needs. And although herbal medicines tend to take a backseat in modern medicine, many pharmaceutical medications are actually based on naturally-occurring compounds found in plants.
A good example is the bark of the willow tree. The medicinal use of willow bark dates back thousands of years when ancient civilizations relied on it for pain relief and other health needs.  Salicylic acid, the active agent within willow bark, would later form the basis of the ‘wonder drug’ Aspirin.
Like the willow bark, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), commonly known as Indian Ginseng or Indian Winter cherry is an ancient herbal medicine garnering attention among scientists and the public. The powerful herb is a key part of Ayurvedic medicine, one of India’s oldest systems of medicine.
In an informative YouTube video, Dorian Wilson takes a scientific approach looking at the substances within the ashwagandha root and the research-backed benefits of consuming the herb.
How Does Ashwagandha Work?
In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is considered ‘Rasayana’, which is a class of rejuvenating herbs thought to enhance youthful vigor and improve the quality / quantity of life. But what is the science behind this millennia-old herbal medicine?
Medicinal plants like ashwagandha have an array of special compounds known as phytochemicals. These are bioactive chemicals that plants produce to help resist infections and deter pests, among other uses.
Every so often, phytochemicals can overlap with the molecules that activate pathways in our bodies. In this way, they can have a meaningful effect on our bodies when consumed.
“What makes ashwagandha special is that it contains an unusually high number of phytochemicals which positively influence systems in our own bodies,” Dorian explains. Some of these phytochemicals include steroidal lactones (withanolides, withaferins), alkaloids, and saponins. 
Several studies suggest that ashwagandha exerts its positive health effects through a number of avenues. This includes modulation of the hormones Cortisol & DHEA, targeting inflammatory pathways, and reducing elevated inflammatory markers such as C-Reactive protein levels. 
In his analysis, Dorian highlights research findings that ashwagandha disrupts the nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) pathway. When activated, the Nf-kB pathway leads to both inflammation and the release of stress hormones through activation of the (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) HPA axis. 
It is also speculated that ashwagandha’s ability to scavenge harmful free radicals may account for a broad range of its health benefits. 
As Dorian illustrates in his video, free radicals are basically unstable atoms produced during normal metabolism in the body, or from exposure to external toxins such as cigarette smoke and environmental pollutants.
When the levels of free radicals are too high, they can cause serious harm to the body—potentially leading to cell death and DNA damage.  Antioxidants step in to keep free radicals in check.
The body produces its own antioxidants. But because free radicals tend to outnumber these natural-occurring antioxidants, a continual supply from external sources is necessary to maintain a healthy balance. And this is where ashwagandha comes in as a source of potent antioxidants.
Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha has a long list of research-backed health benefits that are believed to stem from the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immunomodulatory activities it exerts. Dorian says, “Just because it [ashwagandha] doesn’t come in that orange bottle doesn’t mean that the chemical compounds within it are any less effective.”
Some health benefits researchers have discovered for the ancient medicinal herb include:
• Ashwagandha for Stress and Anxiety
“One of the most common claims regarding ashwagandha is that it helps to reduce levels of the stress steroid hormone cortisol as well as the resultant feelings of anxiety and depression,” Dorian says, drawing on research findings. 
Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen. This means it helps the body adapt to stress and promotes homeostasis. Studies show that components in ashwagandha mimic GABA, a neurotransmitter known to calm nervous activity. 
• Ashwagandha for Enhanced Strength and Muscle Growth
The term ‘ashwagandha’ means “smell like a horse.” Ashwa is Sanskrit for ‘horse’ and gandha ‘smell’. This describes the herb’s distinct horse-like smell and the belief that it imparts the strength of a stallion.
According to emerging research, there might be some truth to this traditional belief. Studies link ashwagandha to a significant increase in strength, muscle mass, physical performance, and maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max). 
• Ashwagandha for Improved Brain Function
The antioxidant effects of ashwagandha in the brain have been shown to significantly improve cognitive functions—including information-processing speed, attention, and memory. 
• Ashwagandha for Improved Sexual Health
Ayurvedic medicine has traditionally prescribed ashwagandha to improve libido, sexual performance, and fertility. Modern research proves this, with studies showing that the herb helps boost testosterone in men and improve sperm health. 
• Ashwagandha for Improved Immunity and Lower Inflammation
As mentioned earlier, compounds in ashwagandha help decrease inflammation by targeting inflammatory pathways and reducing the levels of inflammatory markers such as IL-6, CRP, and TNF-α.  Studies also show consuming the herb increases immune cell activation to boost your body’s infection-fighting ability. 
Ashwagandha Safety Notes And Contraindications
Ashwagandha is an essential herb in Ayurvedic medicine. It has been in use since ancient times. Modern science has found significant support for what ancient cultures have known for millennia. 
But while it is safe, a few factors must be considered before consuming the herb or its extracts. For example, ashwagandha treatment is not recommended for pregnant women, people with hormone-sensitive prostate cancer, or those taking certain medications (e.g., anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates).  People with thyroid issues are also advised to consult their doctor before taking ashwagandha. 
Topic: Ashwagandha Benefits – What Ashwagandha Is and How It Works
Who? Dorian Wilson
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