Ashwagandha – Mystical Miracle Nutrition, or More Expensive Wee?
As cyclists, many of us are looking for an edge, and ashwagandha is the new kid on that block. We just love the latest dietary tweak that brings on lasting health or popping a supplement that could help us sprint past the competition, but will this one stand the test of time?
Used by traditional medicine practitioners for eons, ashwagandha brings with it a promise to promote youthful vigour, make life a little more stress-free, and give users nearly hulk-like strength. The herb is categorised as having “rasayana” or rejuvenating powers. And because of these high hopes, ashwgandha has become more mainstream.
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Which begs the question: Is this trending supplement worth taking or is it just another example of something where the sales pitch outpaces the science? We took a deep dive into the science to find out what the legit health benefits of ashwangandha really are.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (botanical name: Withania somnifera) is gleaned from a small evergreen shrub used extensively in Ayurveda, a type of traditional medicine practiced in India that’s based on principles of natural healing. Native to India and North Africa, various parts of the plant are used for medicinal purposes, but the most common part found in supplements is an extract of its root. Also called Indian ginseng or winter cherry, “ashwagandha” is Sanskrit for smell of the horse, which refers to both its rather unique equine-like odor and purported ability to increase strength.
What Are the Health Benefits of Ashwagandha?
There is nothing concrete, but ashwagandha is surrounded by some promising science with respects to a handful of health and exercise performance measures.
If the thought of riding into a headwind leaves you feeling too anxious to hop on the saddle, perhaps taking ashwgandha can help. Ashwagandha is most often prescribed to help dampen stress and anxiety, with some research supporting this benefit. For instance, in a 60-day randomised, double-blind study in 64 people suffering from chronic stress, those in the group that supplemented with 300 milligrams of ashwagandha twice daily reported a greater reduction in stress symptoms including anxiety and insomnia compared to the placebo group. The ashwagandha users also had a 28-percent reduction in their levels of cortisol, a hormone released in greater amounts in response to stress and can contribute to poor health over time when chronically elevated.
This is why the root is often referred to as an adaptogen—herbs that help your body better handle stress. However, more larger-scale research is necessary before we can have a great deal of confidence in the power of ashwagandha to bring more calm to our lives or know the optimal dose needed for this to occur.
From a fitness standpoint, ashwagandha may offer an added boost. A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that male participants that took 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract twice daily experienced greater improvements in muscular strength and developed bigger chest and biceps muscle size in response to an eight-week resistance training program than those also pumped iron but consumed a placebo.
One reason for the boost could be that the supplement group experienced a larger increase in testosterone levels—a hormone that plays a crucial role in muscle size and strength. A separate investigation discovered that active men who consumed 500 milligrams of aqueous extract of the root for three months had increased upper- and lower-body strength (as tested on the bench press and squat machine) as well as 7.5 kilometer cycling time trial performance compared to subjects who just popped a placebo. Greater muscle strength can translate into greater power in the pedals.
Another study involving elite cyclists in India discovered that those who popped 500 milligrams of Ashwanghda twice daily for two months experienced greater improvements in VO2 max and time to exhaustion on an endurance test than their counterparts who were provided just a placebo. A rise in VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilise during intense exercise—has been played out in other research as well. And if your Strava segment pursuits frequently leave your knees crying foul, you may like to hear that in one investigation in people with knee joint pain, a standardised extract of ashwanghda administered twice daily seemed to improve pain, physical function, stiffness, and swelling.
Some preliminary research also shows that taking ashwangandha can help improve blood sugar numbers. There is also some documentation that it can aid in improving blood cholesterol numbers, including reductions in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which could make it a heart-healthy dietary supplement. However, there’s not much knowledge to date of how it accomplishes this feat.
Now, before you run out and buy a mega-sized bottle of ashwanghda believing it will make you the strongest, fittest rider on your Sunday group ride, just keep in mind that these observations are based on a small pool of research conducted virtually all on men—much more research like randomly-controlled, high-quality trials with larger sample sizes is needed to confirm these benefits and what the optimal safe dose and freqency would be.
Is Taking Ashwagandha Safe?
Based on research papers, it appears taking reasonable amounts of ashwagandha is a well-tolerated and safe supplement for most people, although its long-term effects are not fully apparent.
Dosages typically administered are 300 to 500 milligrams of a root extract (a form likely more effective than just ground root or leaf powder), taken once or twice daily preferably with meals. Individuals with existing conditions such as diabetes or hypertension or who are pregnant or breastfeeding should speak with their healthcare practitioner before diving into ashwagandha. As with most supplements, it’s important to get it from a reliable source.
The Bottom Line
There appears to be a kernel of truth when it comes to the hyped benefits of ashwagandha. But you shouldn’t think that popping a daily pill of the stuff is going to iron-plate your health and make up for a lousy diet and sedentary lifestyle. Remember, it’s a supplement and not something that should be a foundation for healthy living.