By Kevin Kolodziejski
Two Encounters Lead to This Column
A friend who doesn’t cycle and suffers from depression visited me unexpectedly. He noticed a bottle of ashwagandha on my kitchen counter and remarked he never knew I battled the disease, too. I told him I didn’t, that my battle was with sarcopenia and since ashwagandha has been shown to increase testosterone levels, I was taking it to maintain muscle mass. Not much later on a group ride, someone behind me said 10 mg of melatonin guaranteed him a good night’s sleep — the same supplement and dosage I use at times. The guy beside me declared something worked even better than melatonin for him: ashwagandha.
Keep those two stories in mind as I unburden my soul.
It’s Not Much of a Confession, But . . .
I have never worn a pair of sandals. It’s not because I have ugly feet. It’s because when I was five and asked my dad why a man playing baseball with his son was wearing them, he said that real men don’t do that. I took that to mean manly men, athletic men.
Not exactly the most enlightened words my father ever uttered, but that I can recount them 55 years later attests to the impression words and fathers can have on you. And though I’d never profess to be a father figure, it’s why I’m always wary about word choice, especially in articles about supplements — even one that’s been used successfully for 3,000 years, namely ashwagandha.
Notice the lack of modifiers before the term. I did not call the supplement a muscle builder, a performance enhancer, a health aid, a sleep inducer, or an anxiety inhibitor. Making any or all of those claims would make me feel like a nineteenth-century snake oil salesman with a shady traveling show. Legitimate research, though, does indeed suggest that regular use of ashwagandha could help you and your cycling in a number of ways.
Ashwagandha Does Well in a Jack-of-All-Trades Study
While it’s best to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any supplement (and first consult your doctor before using one), it’s hard to dismiss the many studies that attest to ashwagandha’s effectiveness, such as a jack-of-all-trades study published in the July 2012 issue of the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. After testing 18 seemingly healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 to confirm they indeed were, researchers administered to them escalating doses of 375 mg, 500 mg, and 625 mg of ashwagandha twice a day for 10 days each and reported the increases were “tolerated well.” Testing throughout the 30 days found no adverse effects on organ or blood function — though one volunteer did drop out after reporting “increased appetite, libido, and hallucinogenic effects.”
Testing at the conclusion found a reduction in total and LDL cholesterol and body fat percentage — as well as a “significant” increase in hand-grip strength, quadriceps strength, and back-extensor force. As a result, the researchers suggested further studies to evaluate the potential of this supplement for those with sarcopenia.
It Increases Muscle, Strength, and Testosterone
A study published in the November 2015 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition administered either 300 mg of ashwagandha or a placebo consisting of potato starch twice daily to 57 males between the ages of 18 to 50 “with little weightlifting experience.” After eight weeks of lifting, the 29 who received ashwagandha had grown stronger and larger. Their average one-rep bench strength increased 42.6 percent more than the placebo group’s. Their chests and arms grew more, too, by 57.6 and 38.4 percent respectively — and for good reason. Testosterone production in those who took the ashwagandha instead of the placebo increased by 81.3 percent.
Prior to that, a study published in the June 2011 issue of Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine found five grams of ashwagandha a day for three months increased testosterone levels by 22 percent in subjects under the sort of psychological stress that leads to infertility. Moreover, these subjects also experienced a reduction in the production of cortisol by 32 percent, a hormone that plays a huge role in your cycling and your well-being.
Controls Cortisol Secretion
Cortisol, a hormone you secrete in response to challenges on the bike — a steep climb, a serious attack — aids your effort by increasing blood sugar, heightening your senses, and increasing your tolerance of pain. But if you keep secreting cortisol after you wipe down the bike due to other stressors in life, your exercise ally becomes your enemy. Not only does stress lead to the sort of depression that causes my aforementioned unexpected guest to see a doctor, but the release of cortisol accompanying it also compromises your immune system. According to the Michigan State University website, this can lead to weight gain, difficulty losing weight, an increase in cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as an increased risk of heart disease. Sustained cortisol increases can also harm the brain and impair thinking, memory and learning. They can keep you awake well past bedtime, a situation ashwagandha can counteract.
A six-week, double-blind study published in the August 2020 issue of Sleep Medicine where 144 healthy subjects took either 120 mg of ashwagandha or a placebo daily suggests it aids sleep in a number of ways. While 29 percent of those given a placebo self-reported an improvement in overall sleep quality, 72 percent of subjects given the supplement — nearly 250 percent more — reported the same. Activity-monitoring devices recorded why. The ashwagandha group experienced less non-restorative sleep and spent less time trying to get back to sleep during the night. Their total sleep time also increased significantly.
One Final Note
Ashawagandha has been used successfully in what the Western world calls alternative medicine for more than 3,000 years, and Healthline.com calls the supplement “safe for most people.” But most people aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are, don’t take ashwagandha. Moreover, if you have any current medical conditions that compromise your health — particularly an autoimmune disease — or take prescribed medication, consult with your doctor before you start experimenting.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.