By Sue Bedford (MSc Nutritional Therapy)
Ashwagandha, also known as ‘Withania Somnifera’, was originally used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine
It is a small woody shrub and grows in India, Africa and the Mediterranean and is also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry.
Ashwagandha belongs to the Solanaceae family (nightshade family) and the Latin translation for this herb’s botanical name is ‘sleep inducing’. It is classified as an adaptogen, meaning that it can help the body to counteract the effects of stress.
Recent clinical research on Ashwaganda has shown how it plays a role in treating insomnia, depression, anxiety and stress
It has also been studied for it’s cognitive enhancing, neuroprotective, antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating, anti-cancer, cardio-protective, and thyroid modulating effects.
Ashwagandha and fertility
Ashwagandha has been shown to support the adrenal glands by normalising cortisol levels and therefore reducing stress and anxiety. This is important as ongoing stress can be detrimental to our health and fertility as high levels of cortisol can have a detrimental effect on the sex hormones. A high cortisol level will suppress the pituitary’s ability to release luteinizing hormone (LH). Abnormal cortisol levels can suppress ovulation.
Adrenal function is closely linked to thyroid function, therefore as Ashwagandha supports the adrenal glands, it has an indirect effect on improving thyroid function as well
In effect, the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA axis) in the body, which is our central stress response system, is connected to sperm production and fertility in men and hormonal balance and fertility in women.
The body produces cortisol from the same precursors used to make our reproductive hormones, and, under stress, the body will produce cortisol instead of testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone. So keeping cortisol levels at a healthy level means that the reproductive hormones will be more balanced.
Adrenal function is closely linked to the function of the thyroid gland, therefore as Ashwagandha supports the adrenal glands, it has an indirect effect on improving thyroid function as well. Initial studies demonstrate Ashwagandha’s ability to positively impact thyroid function by stimulating thyroid hormone activity, again important when it comes to fertility as in regulating ovulation, preventing miscarriage and aiding foetal brain development.
Ashwagandha has been shown to stabilise blood sugar levels
This is important when it comes to conditions such as PolyCystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) as high sugar levels cause insulin to be released, which causes the ovaries to produce too much testosterone, which in turn, interferes with the development of the follicles in the ovaries and prevents normal ovulation.
Ashwagandha has shown in studies to have immune supporting properties as as well as anti-inflammatory properties which is important for general health and also in conditions such as endometriosis.
More research is needed into this area. As this herb contains a good amount of iron it contributes to the prevention of anaemia and promoting a good flow of oxygenated blood around the body and to the reproductive organs, including the uterus.
Ashwagandha is generally well tolerated, and regarded as safe when taken within the therapeutic dosage range (3-6g daily of the dried root powder)
There are no known contraindications (Bone & Mills, 2013) however, it is a herbal medicine, and should be used with care. Always check with your G.P or qualified healthcare provider if you are unsure if it is suitable for you.