Nutrition Notes

The Biochemistry of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a botanical that has been used for thousands of years to support many aspects of human health. Its species name, somnifera, is Latin for “sleep-inducer.” Ashwagandha has many biochemical actions within the human body, and it is best known as an adaptogen or a botanical that may help parts of the body adapt to stressors. Evidence suggests it may also possess biochemical actions to help support a healthy mood, cognitive function, antioxidative stress, and healthy inflammatory response.

The root of ashwagandha contains more than 50 bioactive phytochemicals, including alkaloids, steroidal lactones, withanone, withanolides, somniferine, and withanine. The biochemical mechanisms work in part by helping to modulate oxidative stress markers, including superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, lipid peroxidation (LPO), and glutathione (GSH). It may influence axonal and dendritic outgrowth, helping to promote neuronal regeneration.

In animal studies, ashwagandha has been reported to help support a healthy response to stress. It was also observed to help inhibit nerve cells from overfiring and displayed gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-type activity. Animal studies also reported assessments on the improved effects of ashwagandha and its bioactive constituents (i.e., glycowithanolides) for symptoms related to depression.

A recently published meta-analysis by Cheah and colleagues explored the relationship between ashwagandha and healthy sleep. Randomized controlled trials involving approximately 400 participants were included in the meta-analysis. Study durations lasted between 6 and 12 weeks. Amounts administered during treatment periods ranged between 120 mg and 600 mg daily. Overall, parameters related to sleep quality, daytime mental alertness, and mood were reported to improve after supplementation with ashwagandha. However, more research is necessary, particularly in a clinical setting with more standardized amounts. Additionally, the authors cite a lack of consistency among sleep quality indices as a limitation in current studies.

A review article by Paul and colleagues published in 2021 provided a comprehensive account of current clinical research related to ashwagandha. The authors highlight studies related to cognitive health, psychological stress, and other aspects of health. Another clinical study reported improvements in testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate levels alongside improvements in parameters related to psychological stress.

Research indicates that ashwagandha may possess phytochemicals that help support brain health and a healthy response to oxidative stress and inflammation. It may also help support certain aspects of sleep quality and mood health.

By Colleen Ambrose, ND, MAT