It is no stretch to say that Ashwagandha is able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most powerful nootropics for anxiety and depression, and is easily one of the best adaptogens in existence.
In Sanskrit, Ashwagandha means “smell of horse”. Meaning This herb gives strength and vitality to stallion. Ashwagandha can be found in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It is also being grown in other areas, including the United States.
Ashwagandha helps protect your central nervous system. It is an alternative treatment for many degenerative brain diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Ashwagandha acts as an antioxidant and seeks to eliminate free radicals. Many age-related diseases have been linked to free radicals . Some evidence suggests that Ashwagandha has anticancer benefits.
In this article, we’ll be exploring how Ashwagandha can benefit your brain. We will look at how ashwagandha works in the brain, what its main benefits are, and how you should take ashwagandha for maximum benefits. We will take you through the optimal ashwagandha dosage and the most likely side effects. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section at the end. Please share your experiences with ashwagandha too!
Ashwagandha Nootropic Quick Summary
Ashwagandha helps cognition, mood and brain health in numerous ways, including:
- Stress: Ashwagandha can help reduce stress. It rapidly and significantly lowers the stress hormone cortisol
- Neuronal Regeneration: Ashwagandha is known to help regenerate the axons, dendrites, and brain nerve cells. Rebuilds synapses, which are the junctions between nerve cells and other cells. Memory enhancement and restoration of neural networks damaged by neurodegenerative diseases
- Neurotransmitters: Ashwagandha extract inhibits acetylcholinesterase. This enzyme is responsible for the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Enhances memory, learning, and cognition
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is Withania somnifera, one of the most powerful herbs used in Ayurvedic healing. This ancient herb remedy is known for its remarkable antidepressant properties. It has been proven to be as effective as prescription medications in treating anxiety and depression.
Ashwagandha, also known as ” Indian Ginseng”, is often used to refer to its rejuvenating properties. However, Ashwagandha is not related to Ginseng .
It is native to India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Ashwagandha can now be grown in other areas, including the United States.
Ashwagandha belongs to the same family with the tomato. It is a small, woody shrub with oval-shaped leaves and five-petal yellow blooms. Its fruit is about the same size as a raisin and it is red. This plant is also called the ” Winter Cherry”.
Ashwagandha is often referred to as an adaptogen. This means it helps you adapt to stress both mental and bodily. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ashwagandha is one of the most important substances in Ayurverdic medicine. It has been a staple of traditional Indian medicine for centuries, and today it remains one of the most widely-used medicinal herbs in India, Nepal, Pakistan, and the surrounding areas.
Today of course, Ashwagandha is a hugely popular supplement in the West. Because Ashwagandha has such broad benefits, it is used in a wide variety of supplements, including greens powders, probiotics, sleep aids, stress gummies, and of course, nootropic stacks. Let’s take a look at how Ashwagandha actually works to warrant such a varied use.
How does Ashwagandha work in the brain?
Ashwagandha improves brain function and health in many ways. It actually has several mechanisms of action all happening at once, but the main way Ashwagandha works is by lowering cortisol levels.
Study after study shows that Ashwagandha consumption produces a rapid and signficiant drop on cortisol levels. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. It is released during times of peak stress and anxiety. Its purpose is to divert resources to what we need to survive. Unfortunately, this causes all the side effects associated with stress, including brain fog, poor memory function, mental fatigue, poor decision-making, and low mood.
Ashwagandha also has a few other ways in which is affects brain function and cognitive performance.
Ashwagandha increases GABA receptors in the brain. It seems to activate neuron receptors which allow GABA connections to be made easier. It reduces stress-related brain signals. As a result, anxiety is reduced, inhibitions are lower, and overall mood is improved.
Ashwagandha has also been found to increase serotonin activity. It isn’t clear exactly how this happens. It is possible that anmy increases in serotonin system activity is the result of lower cortisol levels, since cortisol seems to severely impair serotonin production and receptor activity. However, it may also be that Ashwagandha increases serotonin levels by itself. It is a powerful adaptogen and a potent hormone modulator, so it makes sense that it would have some knock-on effects on neurotransmitters like serotonin.
While there is some disagreement over how Ashwagandha does the things it does, one thing is for certain: Ashwagandha works.
A study was done at The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine using 75 volunteers suffering from moderate-to-severe anxiety. Ashwagandha showed a significant reduction in anxiety levels compared to the control group. This produced significant improvements in mental performance. The researchers concluded that Ashwagandha enhances cognitive and psychomotor performance in healthy brains.
Researchers at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India, recruited 20 male volunteers and tested the efficacy of ashwagandha as a nootropic and anxiolytic. In this double-blind, placebo-controlled trial participants were given 250 mg capsules of standardized Ashwagandha extract for 14 days. At the end of the trial, significant improvements were observed in the reaction time. At the end of the trial, significant improvements in reaction time were reported in the group taking Ashwagandha compared to the control placebo group. It should also be noted that the participants in this study were otherwise healthy men with normal cognitive function. Even when you’re at your best, cognitive and psychomotor performance are still possible.
Stress, Anxiety & Nootropics
Long-term stress or cortisol may cause brain damage. Research shows that chronic stress alters neural networks. Cortisol causes a domino effect where hardwires pathways between the Hippocampus and Amygdala become eroded. The amygdala is responsible for your fight or flight response. This damage caused by chronic stress thus begets more stress and anxiety, leading to more brain tissue damage.
Unfortunately, this rewiring seems to be permanent.
One very worrying effect of stress on cognition is its effects on stem cells in the brain. Under conditions of chronic stress, stem cells in the brain are transformed into a cell type that blocks connections to the prefrontal cortex. Many of you will know that the prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for executive decision-making, working memory and information processing. Inhibiting neuron branching in this area is going to be devastating for executive cognitive function. It causes a feedback loop which can be devastating to memory function long-term:
- This lays the foundations for anxiety and depression
- Chronic stress coats neurons in myelin
- Chronic stress reduces the number of neurons
- Gray matter decreases and white matter increases
Your brain’s neurons become covered in myelin when you are under chronic stress or excessive cortisol. This “sheathing”, when used under healthy circumstances, is protective. This excessive sheathing may be an evolutionary step to strengthen the link between the amygdala and hippocampus. Enhancing the fight-or flight response during prolonged periods under threat or attack.
Chronic stress in the modern world hijacks your fight or flight response system. This can lead to problems in your daily life, even if you’re not in danger.
Fortunately, there is a relatively large number of nootropics capable of not only lowering short term levels of stress and anxiety, but also of partially undoing the damage done to your brain by stress. Of of these substances is Ashwagandha. As an adaptogen, ashwagandha appears to be protective of the brain during times of peak stress. As a nootropic and anxiolytic, it also seems to be highly effective for promoting a calm, clear mind and killing the main symptoms of stress in the short-term. This is why Ashwagandha is one of the best nootropics for anxiety in existence.
So what does this adaptogenic herb do for you exactly? Let’s take a closer look at the practical benefits of Ashwagandha.
One of the most impressive things about Ashwagandha is the broad scope of the benefits it is associated with, as well as the magnitude of those benefits.
By reducing cortisol levels, Ashwagandha may help calm the brain, reduce swelling, lower blood pressure, and alter the immune system. But what about as a brain supplement?
As a nootropic, Ashwagandha has the potential to improve cognitive function and brain health, improve sleep quality and duration, and help fight symptoms of anxiety and depression. This makes it one of the most powerful natural nootropics in existence, and one that every good nootropic stack needs to at least consider using.
The main benefits of Ashwagandha all stem from its profound effect on cortisol levels. The benefits you can expect to get from Ashwagandha include:
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Clearer thinking and reduced brain fog
- Improved concentration, focus and decision making ability
- More mental and physical energy
- Increased confidence and motivation
- Improved mood
- Elevated sex drive and lower social anxiety
More long-term, the benefits of supplementing with Ashwagandha on a daily basis include improved brain health, better memory function, and potentially a reduced rate of cognitive decline. This final benefit no doubt comes from the lower levels of stress your brain cells are subjected to over time thanks to Ashwagandha’s efficacy as an adaptogen.
Ashwagandha is what we call an adaptogen. It is a powerful adaptogen at that. This means it makes you more robust and resistant to stress, both mentally and physically. By reducing the severity of cortisol spikes, suppressing excessive CNS activity and promoting healthy levels of “feel good” neurotransmitters, Ashwagandha allows you to ride through stressful periods without the usual side effects of poor cognitive function, low mood and high blood pressure.
How does Ashwagandha feel?
What does taking Ashwagandha feel like?
Lots of people asusme that Ashwagandha acts as a kind of sedative or relaxant. This is incorrect. Ashwagandha is an anxiolytic, and it does promote a calm, relaxed mind and body. But it does nto do so by suppressing brain activity. Instead, it actively suppresses stress hormones and stimulates “reward” neurotransmitter activity. As such, Ashwagandha does not feel like you’re taking a drug; its effects are powerful but subtle.
Our supplement review team have used Ashwagandha extensively. Here is their collective summary of their experiences with the nootropic and how it feels to use it:
- Ashwagandha is a stress-reliever. It’s possible that you have severe fatigue or headache. You can hide severe or chronic stress in many different ways. This includes feeling tired and excessively fatigued. It is possible to feel tired and not get enough sleep. You don’t feel refreshed and rested when you wake up each morning. Even after taking a sleeping pill. Many people report feeling a sudden increase in energy and motivation after taking Ashwagandha. Some people won’t notice the benefits for several weeks before they feel relief. Ashwagandha will work when you feel refreshed and awake in the morning. You’ll be eager to start your day.
Ashwagandha is an anti-anxiety drug. Anti-anxiety drug users report feeling more confident. You will find your speech easier and more fluid, especially when speaking in public. There will be no panic attacks.
- Ashwagandha is an antidepressant. Even if depression is not diagnosed professionally, it can cause severe depression and even death. Ashwagandha is a favorite antidepressant. They feel energized, motivated, and able to focus.
Ashwagandha is a brain chemical that works at many levels. Cortisol levels have stabilized. The brain starts to heal itself from the damage. Acetylcholine levels increase so that you can think clearly once again.
When you’re taking Ashwagandha, your neurons are repaired at faster rates, they experience less stress-induced degradation, and you experience far less anxiety-related brain fog. As a result, cognition as well as memory returns to the levels they were when you were younger. The GABA receptors get reactivated, resulting in a calming affect and reduced social anxiety. This is why Ashwagandha is often described as a sleep aid; reduced stress and anxiety leads to better quality sleep.
Ashwagandha Clinical Research
The Asha Hospital, Hyderabad, India, conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study with 64 subjects who had suffered from chronic stress. For 60 days, the study group received a 300mg capsule of full spectrum Ashwagandha root. Participants were contacted on the 15 th, 30 th and 45 th days. 60 thdays were also called. Researchers found that serum cortisol levels were significantly lower. The report concluded that “A high-concentration, full-spectrum Ashwagandha root Extract that effectively and safely improves stress resistance and self-assessment of quality of life”.
Ashwagandha is a nootropic
In India, a study was done that subjected laboratory mice and rats to shock treatment with electroconvulsive shock. Or, they were given scopolamine to cause amnesia (memory impairment). After the chemical or shock treatments, both sets of mice received Ashwagandha Extract each day. Ashwagandha Extract restored their memory, motor skills.
This is just one study of dozens showing Ashwagandha having significant nootropic effects.
Ashwagandha is an antidepressant
Researchers conducted a study in rats to determine if Ashwagandha was as effective as the benzodiazepine antidepressant Lorazepam (Ativan). The tricyclic antidepressant imipramine, also known as Tofranil, is also available.
The researchers gave the rats Ashwagandha and Lorazepam. They put the rats through a maze and had them interact socially.
They concluded that Ashwagandha could be used to treat anxiety and depression as well as the antidepressants. The antidepressant effects of Ashwagandha are even more pronounced when it is combined with another adaptogen like Rhodiola rosea.
Ashwagandha Dosage: How much should you take?
Ayurvedic Pharmacycopoeia India recommends 3 to 6 grams per day of standard ground Ashwagandha Powder. However, the best dosage for Ashwagandha depends on what you are looking to get out of the nootropic. Different goals require different Ashwagandha dosages. The correct dose of Ashwagandha for you also depends on what you are using: whole root powder, or a potent ashwagandha extract. With the latter, far lower doses are needed to see effects.
For people looking to enjoy Ashwagandha’s nootropic benefits, doses of 250-500mg per day seem to be highly effective. This assumes you are using a good quality ashwagandha extract, not a whole root powder. Doses of 800-1000mg of potent ashwagandha extract are far too much.
Here is a rough table showing the different recommended doses of Ashwagandha for different purposes:
- For arthritis: 250-500 mg of extract (4-55% with anolides).
- Antioxidant protection: 100-200 mg extract (2-4% with anolides).
- To increase immunity, 100-200 mg of extract (2-4% with anolides).
- Relaxation: 250-500 mg of extract (2-4% with anolides).
- Stress: 250-500 mg of extract (2-4% with anolides).
- Extract 250-500 mg (4-5% with anolides) for sexual performance
Take 250 mg of Ashwagandha in the morning, and 250 mg in afternoon for higher doses such as 500 mg. Note the difference between standard ground Ashwagandha Powder and an Extract. The extract contains much more, meaning you can take a significantly lower overall dose.
We strongly recommend you learn more about how much Ashwagandha to take from our comprehensive Ashwagandha dosages guide.
Ashwagandha Side Effects
Is Ashwagandha safe?
Overall, Ashwagandha is a safe nootropic for the vast majority of people. This natural nootropic herb has been studied in dozens of robust clinical trials using human participants. Few studies report even moderate side effects when using Ashwagandha for up to 4 weeks (the usual length of a study).
Ashwagandha use is known to have no significant effect on heart rate, and it appears to slightly lower blood pressure. It does not cause weight gain, and it has no links to insomnia. In rare cases it has been linked to liver injury. This injury has been mild-to-moderate in severity and self-limited. This is typical of most herbal supplements.
When side effects from Ashwagandha do occur, they are typically mild and transient. The main side effects of Ashwanagdha include:
- Stomach cramps
- Brain fog
In very rare cases, Ashwnagadha may actually make anxiety worse. This is especially true when mixing Ashwagandha with other nootropics which also affect cortisol, serotonin and dopamine in significant ways. It is vital that you talk to your doctor before using Ashwagandha or any other anxiolytics, especially if you are taking medications that may interact with the nootropic.
Ashwagandha stimulates the thyroid. Hypothyroid patients should not use Ashwagandha. To be safe, consult your endocrinologist. We would not recommend taking Ashwagandha with levothyroxine or any other thyroid medication.
Ashwagandha can be used in moderate amounts and is not toxic. Ashwagandha should not be used if you are pregnant as it could cause miscarriage. This is a rare adverse effect but the evidence suggests the risk is real. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that has powerful hormonal effects; it interferes with cortisol, serotonin and dopamine levels. It should therefore not be taken by anyone who needs to carefully control hormone or neurotransmitter levels or by people taking medications to control these things.
Ashwagandha can increase the effectiveness of antidepressant, sedative, and anti-anxiety medications including St. John’s wort. Ashwagandha should not be used with powerful sedative medications such as Benzodiazepines.
It may also interact with and potentially amplify the effects immunosuppressants and blood pressure medication and drugs used for controlling glucose levels. Ashwagandha has immunostimulatory effects which can be severely problematic. In one study, researchers note that Ashwagandha use may may lead to kidney allograft rejection due to its effects on the immune system.
Ashwagandha may enhance the effects of Alcohol. If you have bleeding or prior to surgery, don’t use Ashwagandha. Ashwagandha side effects that could occur if mixing with alcohol include nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain, drowsiness, and slow pulse.
Is it OK to take Ashwagandha everyday?
Yes, taking Ashwagandha daily is safe. That is assuming you are not taking other medicines or supplements known to interact with Ashwagandha, you are not pregnant and you do not have any adverse reactions to the nootropic itself. Assuming you do not exceed the recommended dose, Ashwagandha is fine to take every day for prolonged periods of time. If you do experience any drowsiness, brain fog or stomach problems, stop taking Ashwagandha and talk to your doctor.
Does Ashwagandha increase dopamine?
Ashwagandha does not directly increase dopamine. There is some evidence that Ashwagandha may suppress stress-induced increases in dopamine receptors in the brain. However, people taking Ashwagandha do not exhibit significant increases in dopamine levels.
Does Ashwagandha increase serotonin?
Chronic administration of ashwagandha was found to significantly increase serotonin levels in the brain. This likely happens as a consequence of the dramatic drop in cortisol which Ashwagandha delivers. There is some evidence that Ashwagandha may upregulate serotonin receptors in the brain, but more work is needed here.
Does Ashwagandha increase GABA?
Ashwagandha has been found to increase GABA activity in animal studies. In one study, Ashwagandha treatment significantly increased GABA levels in the corticohippocampal lysates over both control and ethanol-treated animals. But the same evidence does not exist for humans.
Can I take Ashwagandha before bed?
Yes you can take Ashwagandha before bed. You can take ashwagandha any time of day or night and the effects will be broadly the same. Taking Ashwagandha before bed may give added benefits in terms of sleep quality.
Can I take Ashwagandha with anti-depressants/SSRIs?
Ashwagandha has no known severe interactions with any drugs, but you should not try to use Ashwagandha as a substitute for antidepressant medication.
Brian Johnson is current Editor of Vagarights.com and a long-time writer for VAGA. A former psychologist, Brian is passionate about improving mental health and finding ways to stave off cognitive decline. He is an expert on nootropics, cognitive enhancement and biohacking more broadly. You can see his work on Google scholar.