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You may have heard claims that ashwagandha, a plant in the nightshade family, can treat cancer and improve your muscle strength. But many people take it hoping it will boost their testosterone. How does ashwagandha affect your testosterone levels, and are the claims backed by science? Read on to learn more.
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is a bit of a nutritional Swiss Army knife. Ashwagandha root is considered a drug of “Rasayana,” a Sanskrit word that translates to “path of essence.” It’s a practice of Ayurvedic medicine that refers to the science of lengthening lifespan.
The scientific name for ashwagandha is Withania somnifera, also called Indian ginseng or winter cherry. It’s an adaptogen, a family of medicinal plants such as herbs and roots popular in alternative medicine that help the body adapt to or deal with all kinds of stressors, from physical to mental.
Other popular adaptogens include American and Siberian ginseng, some fungi like cordyceps, and Rhodiola rosea. Many of them have been used in Ayurveda and traditional Indian and African medicine for centuries, and ashwagandha is no exception.
Ashwagandha’s health benefits extend to most parts of your body, from your brain to the aching joints in your feet. However, one of the most popular reasons people take ashwagandha has nothing to do with their brains or feet. Many people are far more interested in ashwagandha’s possible impact on testosterone.
Ashwagandha and testosterone
So, are these claims about ashwagandha and testosterone valid? There’s some indication they are! One study noted that the supplement seemed to boost testosterone. The testosterone levels of the men who took the root extract were over five times higher than those who didn’t (Wankhede, 2015).
8 Ashwagandha benefits proven by research
One study looked at 75 fertile and 75 men being tested for infertility and noted that the men who took ashwagandha had an increase in both testosterone production and their levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) (Ahmad, 2010). In men, LH stimulates the production of testosterone.
Ashwagandha may also be able to help men struggling with infertility. The root doesn’t just boost levels of this reproductive hormone. It may also make significant improvements to semen quality by increasing sperm count and motility in men with infertility (Mahdi, 2011).
Another study involving infertile men sought to test the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on stress-related reproductive issues. Not only did the semen quality of participants improve, but their stress levels also dropped, and, by the end of the study, the partners of 14% of the men had become pregnant (Mahdi, 2011).
The potential testosterone-cortisol connection
It’s occasionally reported that there is a connection between testosterone levels and cortisol levels and that supplementation with ashwagandha may play a role in this. Some studies suggest that the elevation of cortisol decreased testosterone levels (Cumming, 1983). The big takeaway here, though, is that more research needs to be done before we fully understand this relationship.
Other benefits of ashwagandha
This plant gets its potent medicinal power from withanolides, naturally occurring steroidal lactones found in the root and berries. And, as an adaptogen, it may have the ability to affect our cortisol levels directly. Research suggests that ashwagandha may decrease serum cortisol (stress hormone) levels (Lopresti, 2019; Chandrasekhar, 2012). Other clinical trials show that it may also significantly improve mental health, anxiety, and insomnia (Langade, 2019).
Ashwagandha for anxiety: is it proven to help?
More hyped health benefits include ashwagandha’s ability to potentially fight cancer and boost muscle mass.
Some people hype up ashwagandha’s potential ability to potentially fight cancer. Preliminary research suggests that, indeed, Withaferin A (WFA), a compound extracted from ashwagandha, may help treat breast, colon, prostate, lung, ovarian, among other cancers (Dutta, 2019). However, more research needs to be done to confirm these findings.
Another possible benefit that holds more water is ashwagandha’s role in boosting muscle mass. Small clinical trials suggest that ashwagandha may help increase muscle strength and improve muscle mass distribution (Ziegenfuss, 2018; Raut, 2012). Another study observed a more significant increase in muscle size and strength combined with resistance training in participants given the herb over those in the placebo group (Wankhede, 2015).
Dosage and forms of ashwagandha
Although capsules and powders are by far the most common forms of ashwagandha, you may also see extracts and liquids available. You can find Withania somnifera supplements at health stores, supplement stores, and online.
But the FDA doesn’t regulate any supplements, including ashwagandha, so it’s important to buy from a company you trust. Daily doses of 125 mg of ashwagandha all the way up to 5 g have shown benefits in clinical trials (Mahdi, 2009).
Before beginning a supplement regimen, you should always consult a medical professional and start at a lower dose to test your tolerance.
Potential side effects
Doses as large as 5 g per day were used in studies looking at the effects of ashwagandha supplementation. Though very few participants experienced side effects, one participant in a study on Withania somnifera dropped out after experiencing increased appetite and libido as well as vertigo on the lowest ashwagandha dose (Raut, 2012).
Ashwagandha is generally well-tolerated, but certain people should still avoid the supplement. Anyone with a nightshade intolerance should avoid ashwagandha. This plant is part of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
Possible benefits and side effects of ashwagandha
Talk to your healthcare provider about your medical history and any other medications you may be taking before using ashwagandha to prevent any potential side effects.
- Ahmad, M. K., Mahdi, A. A., Shukla, K. K., Islam, N., Rajender, S., Madhukar, D., et al. (2010). Withania somnifera improves semen quality by regulating reproductive hormone levels and oxidative stress in seminal plasma of infertile males. Fertility and Sterility, 94(3), 989–996. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2009.04.046. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29277366/
- Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255. doi: 10.4103/0253-7176.106022. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23439798/
- Cumming, D. C., Quigley, M. E., & Yen, S. S. C. (1983). Acute suppression of circulating testosterone levels by cortisol in men. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 57(3), 671–673. doi: 10.1210/jcem-57-3-671. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6348068/
- Dutta, R., Khalil, R., Green, R., Mohapatra, S. S., & Mohapatra, S. (2019). Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) and withaferin A: potential in integrative oncology. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 20(21), 5310. doi: 10.3390/ijms20215310. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31731424/
- Langade, D., Kanchi, S., Salve, J., Debnath, K., & Ambegaokar, D. (2019). Efficacy and safety of ashwagandha (withania somnifera) root extract in insomnia and anxiety: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Cureus, 11(9), e5797. doi: 10.7759/cureus.5797. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31728244/
- Lopresti, A. L., Smith, S. J., Malvi, H., & Kodgule, R. (2019). An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine, 98(37), e17186. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000017186. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31517876/
- Mahdi, A. A., Shukla, K. K., Ahmad, M. K., Rajender, S., Shankhwar, S. N., Singh, V., & et al. (2009). Withania somnifera improves semen quality in stress-related male fertility. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM, 2011, 576962. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1093/ecam/nep138. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19789214/
- Mahdi, A. A., Shukla, K. K., Ahmad, M. K., Rajender, S., Shankhwar, S. N., Singh, V., et al. (2011). Withania somnifera improves semen quality in stress-related male fertility. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011, 1–9. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19789214/
- Raut, A., Rege, N., Shirolkar, S., Pandey, S., Tadvi, F., Solanki, P., et al. (2012). Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 3(3), 111. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.100168. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23125505/
- Wankhede, S., Langade, D., Joshi, K., Sinha, S. R., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2015). Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12(1). doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26609282/
- Ziegenfuss, T. N., Kedia, A. W., Sandrock, J. E., Raub, B. J., Kerksick, C. M., & Lopez, H. L. (2018). Effects of an aqueous extract of withania somnifera on strength training adaptations and recovery: the STAR trial. Nutrients, 10(11), 1807. doi: 10.3390/nu10111807. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6266766/
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.