Ashwagandha is a plant that has long been used as an adaptogenic herb in Ayurvedic medicine and has been garnering increasing attention from longevity experts as the scientific evidence of its effects has been building up. Many studies point to Ashwagandha’s anti-inflammatory properties. Its effects on stress reactivity and mental health are also well-documented. What’s most intriguing however, is the growing number of reports that point to the evidence that its bioactive compounds also have anti-aging effects.
In this article we explain what Ashwagandha is, its uses and possible mechanisms, the evidence that exists to support anti-aging as well as other health claims, and how you might incorporate Ashwagandha into your longevity protocol.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (aka Indian Ginseng, Winter Cherry) is an evergreen shrub in the nightshade family, originally found in South Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. The shrub prefers dry, sunny environments and is known to thrive in the desert regions of India, Nepal, China, Sri Lanka, and Yemen. Ashwagandha extract has long been a constituent of Ayurveda where it is used as a rasayana—herbpreparation that promotes youth and improves mental wellbeing.
Ashwagandha extract has many chemical components that serve as biological actives including alkaloids (natural organic compounds that have at least one nitrogen atom),sitoindosides and acyl steryl glucosides(natural anti-stress compounds), and a class of naturally occurring steroids called withanolides.
While the underlying mechanisms that produce Ashwagandha’s reported health effects aren’t fully understood yet, there are solid theories and evidence that validate its potential. For example, as an adaptogen, some scientists suggest that Ashwagandha’s anti-stress compounds work at the cellular level toactivate expression and release of two key stress-regulatory proteins: neuropeptide Y (NPY) and heat-shock protein 72 (Hsp72). NYP works in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to restore energy balance in the brain and improve mental wellbeing. Hsp72 inhibits the FOXO transcription factor to improve immune function. Together, both these processes enable cells to better adapt to mild stress.
Some research also suggests that this same adaptogen pathway is responsible for Ashwagandha’s anti-aging properties
Source: Panossian, Alexander. (2017). Understanding adaptogenic activity: Specificity of the pharmacological action of adaptogens and other phytochemicals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1401. 10.1111/nyas.13399.
As an anti-aging agent, the presence of withanolides—withaferin A and withanone—in Ashwagandha leaf extracts have been shown to promote apoptosis and act as antioxidants. Specifically, withanone has been shown to downregulate p21 (a cell cycle inhibitor) thereby slowing the rate of senescence and aging in normal cells.
Go Deeper: Click here to listen to Ben Greenfield’s podcast episode on the use of adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha for stress.
Check out this post from the Found My Fitness blog where Dr. Rhonda Patrick reviews a study about the effect of Ashwagandha on stress reactivity.
Is There Evidence for Lifespan Extension?
Studies on the use of Ashwagandha extracts for longevity are limited and not always well-designed. However, the studies that have provided high quality evidence do suggest that the bioactives in Ashwagandha are worth investigating further. Research in both animal and human models have shown that some of the bioactive compounds in Ashwagandha extracts target cellular senescence and telomere attrition, two of the hallmarks of aging.
Our search for Ashwagandha's link to longevity turned up some compelling results in both animal and human trials. Below we outline those with the strongest evidence:
One of the most cited studies on Ashwagandha's effects on healthspan is this 2013 study examiningbothAshwagandha root extract and its purified ingredients for lifespan extension inC. elegans. Study authors transferredroundworm embryos to agar plates both with or without the compounds in question and maintained them at 25°Cuntil they reached maturity. Once the worms reached adulthood, they were switched to daily plates with and without the compounds during the span of reproduction (2-3 days) as part of a lifespan assay. Upon completing survival graphs and statistical analysis, researchers found that Ashwagandha root extract increased the lifespan of the worms by 20%.
Another study that often shows in search results isthis 2016 study examiningWithanolide A, found in Ashwagandha root, and its effects onhealthspan, age-associated physiological changes, and lifespan inC. elegans. Again, lifespan assays were performed on worms grown on NGM plates switched every day for 2-3 days. Once the worms reached maturity, additional assays for stress resistance, acetylcholine levels, and formation of Reactive Oxygen Species were performed. Following statistical analysis, researchers found thatWithanolide A improves healthspan, delays age-associated physiological changes, has neuroprotective benefits, and extends mean lifespan by 29.7%.
Studies in humans have largely involved the use of in vitro and in vivo human cell preparations. The most notable ones include:
- This 2007 study performed on cancer cells found thatAshwagandhaleaf extract exhibits antitumor activity and kills tumor cells by either arresting their growth or inducing apoptosis.
- This study examined the effects of withanone found in Ashwagandha leaves, and concluded that in vitro cells treated with the compound showeddecreased accumulation of molecular damage and a downregulation of senescence-specific enzymes and protein markers.
- More recently, this 2016 study examining telomerase activity in human HeLa cell lines treated with Ashwagandha root extract showed that a 10-50 μg concentration of root extract increased telomerase activity by 45%.
Together, all these studies constitute significant—though preliminary— evidence that bioactives found in Ashwagandha may affect longevity and thus merit further examination.
Go Deeper: Check out this research overview of additional uses of Ashwagandha and its effects across various body systems.
Additional Health Benefits in Humans
In addition to its potential to direct effects on aging mechanisms, Ashwagandha root and leaf extracts have shown strong evidence for their effects on some of the other drivers of health that can affect our life and healthspan.
Below we briefly outline the supporting findings and link to related studies so you can dig deeper.
- Reduces Anxiety—Individuals with mental health disorders have nearly a two-fold increase in mortality risk. With this in mind, multiple studies have pointed to Ashwagandha as an anxiolytic (anxiety reducer) in patients with anxiety disorders or those under chronic stress. Additional research is required to determine the optimal dose. Go deeper with this study.
- Stress and Cortisol Reduction—Chronic stress and exposure to primary stress mediators like cortisol is associated with decreased immune function, increased risk of age-related disease, anddecreased telomere length and telomerase activity. Ashwagandha has been shown to decrease cortisol by as much as 27%. Additionally, Ashwagandha significantly reduces stress, its comorbidities, and its associated biomarkers (e.g., cortisol, TNF-a, IL-6). Go deeper with this study.
- CRP (C-reactive protein) levels rise and fall in the presence of inflammation and are good predictors of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. Ashwagandha has exhibited a dose-response relationship with CRP levels such that a higher dose of supplement produces greater reductions in the levels of this protein. CRP levels are one of the biomarkers that are tightly related to longevity. Go deeper with this study.
- Reduce Total Cholesterol—Cholesterol exceeding 200 mg/dL is not only abnormal but can contribute to age-related diseases like CVD and diabetes. Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce serum cholesterol by 10% in individuals with high cholesterol as well as in individuals with normal cholesterol levels. Go deeper with this study.
Based on our findings the use of Ashwagandha as a longevity compound is in its fledgling stages. Research in roundworms as well as human cells is promising and is likely to grow in the coming years as scientists continue to understand more about the components and effects of the Ashwagandha root and leaf extracts. One place where we do have solid evidence is on the indirect drivers of life and healthspan. For this reason, we think Ashwagandha is worth considering as a possible supplement to add to your longevity protocol.
Supplement doses vary by brand. Generally doses ranging between300–500 mg of root extract with meals is considered standard. KSM-66 Ashwagandha is the most clinically studied, full-spectrum extract used in the supplement marketplace. Click here for a list of brands that use KSM-66 extract in their supplements.
As with any supplement there are some safety concerns. Generally, Ashwagandha is considered safe to use but may cause drowsiness or sedation. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have an autoimmune disorder do not use Ashwagandha. Consult your doctor before beginning supplementation if you are taking thyroid or antidiabetic medication.
Have you ever used Ashwagandha? Would you? Let us know about your experience:email@example.com
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