This Asian plant is traditionally a favourite of basketball players, bodybuilders, athletes, and cheating Olympians, not dermatologists. Few acne patients have tried this medicinal plant, a plant that humans have used for at least 6000 years, but the studies look excellent to me.
The plant in question is ashwagandha, also known as Withania Somnifera, winter cherry and Indian ginseng. Ashwagandha is a hardy, woody shrub with small flowers which can grow to stand 150cm to 200cm tall. Usually ashwagandha grows at moderate altitude and naturally occurs in many areas of south East Asia.
Interestingly, it’s a very tough plant which has the ability to thrive in moderate drought whereas other plants would shrivel up and die. Why’s that?
Because the ashwagandha plant is loaded with nutrition and natural compounds that keep it strong and alive against the elements. For that reason, supplemental ashwagandha in the form of powder or root has long ranked among the elite of plants in Ayurvedic medicine, or traditional Indian medicine. Ayurvedic healers have loads of fascinating theories; for instance, some revere it as a “rayasana” or “royal herb” that boosts the immune system and prolongs life.
Some Ayurvedic practitioners believe that ashwagandha in combination with milk is the ultimate tonic for fattening up emaciated children. The most common practical uses of ashwagandha include treating snake bites, snake venom and scorpion stings. In fact, some texts suggest that ashwagandha was used on acne historically, as well as boils. Ashwagandha has been used as a traditional medicine in this way for 4000 years across India, Sri Lanka, and modern-day Pakistan.
As we just discussed, ashwagandha is also known as Indian ginseng. The ashwagandha species actually has no relation whatsoever to either Siberian ginseng, American ginseng, or Korean (Panax) ginseng.
Instead, the similarity lies in its most potent medicinal power, and a power that’s extremely potent for acne-clearing enthusiasts: the power of ashwagandha to control stress hormones and anxiety.
Ashwagandha can prevent stress-induced acne
Cortisol is the main stress hormone in the human body, and elevated cortisol levels are one of the worst problems an acne patient can have.
Basically, you can be eating a wide variety of nutritious foods for acne like broccoli or potatoes or kale, but if your cortisol is sky-high your digestive tract won’t absorb those nutrients, and all your money and calories are wasted.
Therefore every acne patient needs to have any elevated cortisol in check. The simplest solution is to de-stress yourself, but many biological hacks and foods can inhibit cortisol’s creation directly; after all cortisol is simply a hormone your body manufactures like any other…
…and ashwaganda is one of the very best of those tools. Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb, along with rhodiola rosea and Korean ginseng. “Adaptogen” is a term coined by a Russian chemist to mean this: any plant, or compound, which helps the body to regain hormonal and psychological balance (homeostasis) in times of stress.
Adaptogens lower elevated cortisol levels, prevent biological havoc wreaked by those elevated cortisol levels, and have a strong relaxing effect on the mind. Hence they’ve long been used by athletes; for instance, the Soviets were famously secretive about the adaptogen rhodiola rosea, and used it to give their soldiers in Afghanistan superhuman strength, and even to win in the Olympics until their empire finally crumbled and the secret came to light.
According to medical researchers, ashwagandha has potent relaxant properties due to a group of alkaloids called withanolides. Then there’s multiple other constituents such as alkaloids called sitoindosides, along with saponins and assorted minerals.
Tons of studies have confirmed that ashwagandha causes cortisol levels to drop like a stone:
STUDY ONE – first we have this expertly performed double blind placebo study from 2012, where 300mg of the KSM-66 brand of ashwaganda was dished out to 64 human test subjects with a history of chronic stress for 60 days.
Each patient had their blood cortisol levels measured and their mental stress was assessed using a detailed questionnaire. Patients were divided into two groups: a placebo group and a second group who received the “high-concentration, full-spectrum” ashwagandha extract. At day 15, 30, and 45, participants were evaluated for evidence of side effects.
By day 60, the ashwagandha group experienced a significant reduction in all scores on the stress-assessment scales compared to the placebo group. Best of all was the effect on cortisol; blood levels plummeted by a staggering 27%.
STUDY TWO – next we have this study where scientists used 5 grams of ashwagandha root powder with the primary objective of analysing male reproductive health. 60 infertile men were all gathered and each fed the ashwagandha supplement daily for three months.
This time the reduction in cortisol was even more colossal – 32% for the ashwagandha group. There was also an increase in blood antioxidant levels. The study had a happy ending with 14% of the infertile men going on to get their wives pregnant.
STUDY THREE – there’s also another study lurking in the depths of the internet where scientists again gave stressed volunteers the KSM-66 ashwagandha brand. This time they observed a 14% reduction in cortisol.
STUDY FOUR – a wide variety of animal studies have found similar results to the human studies above: a crushing reduction in serum cortisol levels. However, one notable study published in Phytomedicine back in 2000 found a positive effect on mental stress and anxiety.
When fed to rats, the calming effect of an ashwagandha supplement was equal to that produced by the common pharmaceutical anti-anxiety drug lorazepam, which is sold under the brand name Ativan.
Lorazepam is notorious for its side effects such as nightmares, headaches and depression, but ashwagandha caused no adverse reactions at all. The scientists concluded that ashwagandha had useful properties for treating clinical anxiety and depression.
STUDY FIVE – finally we have the most impressive study yet, albeit with a tiny sample size. One 57 year old woman with an adrenal gland disorder was fed ashwagandha and after six months of daily usage, her blood cortisol levels fell by 55%. Ashwagandha also caused a noticeable reduction in her scalp hair loss.
Some of the old Ayurvedic mumbo-jumbo is pretty promising as well, if off-the-wall. Old Ayurvedic texts reckon that the ashwagandha herb is a “Medhya Rasayana”, meaning that it can rejuvenate all three Ayurvedic aspects of the mind – comprehension, recollection, and memory.
Hence ashwagandha was often prescribed in India for boosting brainpower. Tossing all that aside, ashwagandha was most famous in all Ayurvedic textbooks as a potent adaptogen and was used for mental relaxation regularly.
The best part about ashwagandha as evidenced in the studies above is that it lowers stress levels on two fronts. Ashwagandha both inhibits the release of cortisol triggered by mental anxiety, and prevents mental anxiety itself.
Ashwagandha decreases blood free radicals
While ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties are great if you’re an acne patient who’s suffering from chronic stress, the herb also has one astonishingly well documented power for everyone.
That’s the power of ashwagandha to lower blood levels of lipid peroxides, or fat soluble free radicals, the most dangerous type of free radicals for your acne.
Lipid peroxides are a double edged sword. Firstly, they clog your pores by overwhelming fat soluble antioxidants on the skin like vitamin E, which creates a comedogenic compound called squalene peroxide. Secondly, out of control lipid peroxides across your whole body will deplete your vitamin E and redirect its defensive duties away from the skin where it’s critical for preventing acne.
Water soluble free radicals are bad but not as bad; they don’t deplete fat-soluble antioxidants across the whole body as strongly. Lipid peroxides are our true nemesis. The good news is that ashwagandha supplements can lower them:
ONE – scientists in this study gathered several sleep-deprived mice and discovered that when fed ashwagandha, their previously elevated lipid peroxide levels, which were caused by lack of sleep, fell to normal levels. Glutathione levels also increased. The scientists commented that ashwagandha was excellent for sleep deprivation too, which is another traditional usage of the herb in Ayurvedic medicine.
TWO – this 2013 study, meanwhile, identified some of the compounds in ashwagandha responsible – glycowithanolides, the main type of withanolide compounds found in ashwagandha.
It’s been claimed that glycowithanolides are behind the plant’s aphrodisiac, rejuvenating and life-prolonging qualities. The study found that after injecting six-month old mice with free radicals, and then feeding them glycowithanolides extracted from ashwagandha, lipid peroxides fell substantially. Hence the scientists concluded that “our results indicate thatWithania somnifera has a capability of preventing oxidative stress”.
THREE – other studies have found that glycowithanolides have strong antioxidant powers. In this 1997 study scientists fed rats glycowithanolides extracted from ashwagandha once daily for 21 days. Not only did their lipid peroxides levels fall, but levels of the antioxidants glutathione and superoxide dismutase shot up.
This 2001 study was similarly excellent; rats were subjected to a stress procedure once daily for 21 days, which caused an elevation of lipid peroxides in their blood. By feeding some of the rats glycowithanolides1 hour prior to the stress procedure, this increase was reversed and glutathione levels were increased as well.
FIVE – this 2003 study gathered several elderly rats who had elevated lipid peroxide levels and found that “treatment with Withania Somnifera (ashwagandha) successfully attenuated GPx activity and inhibited lipid peroxidation in a dose dependent manner”.
I’ve discussed other adaptogens in detail on this website before, namely the three ginsengs and the Russian herb rhodiola rosea. All are great at lowering stress, but so far, only ashwagandha has this fantastic power to lower lipid peroxides.
Ashwagandha also has a few promising studies for inflammation. According to this study, two compounds isolated from ashwagandha called withaferin A and 3-b-hydroxy-2,3-dihydrowithanolide F have promising anti-inflammatory properties. Meanwhile, this study found that feeding ashwagandha to arthritic rats lowered inflammation in their joints.
In Ayurvedic textbooks, one of the traditional uses is to crush ashwagandha roots into a paste which can be applied to reduce inflammatory swelling at the joints, and painful ulcers and wounds. The active ashwagandha compounds withanolides are also known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
It seems like ashwagandha is at least mildly anti-inflammatory, but it lacks the avalanche of studies enjoyed by ginseng. This gives you two crystal clear options.
If you’re highly stressed and highly determined to push your acne inflammation levels lower and lower, Korean ginseng wins. If you’re highly stressed but need particular relief from excessive free radicals from air pollution, cigarette smoke, or dodgy tap water, ashwagandha reigns supreme.
Warning: ashwagandha may cause oily skin
Despite those excellent acne powers, ashwagandha is not perfect. The herb has one extra acne “power” which may derail the skin-clearing train, especially for women.
You see, roughly translated from Indian Ayurvedic texts, ashwagandha actually means “smell of the horse”. Why? The ancient Indian medicinal practitioners believed that ashwagandha had such potent anabolic properties that it would provide the strength and virility of a horse.
Almost certainly, that’s nothing but supplement company hype (what athlete wouldn’t want to be as strong as a horse?) but it has origins in the truth. The stone cold fact is this: ashwagandha has a potent ability to increase testosterone levels, via several mechanisms:
ONE – this study on 46 infertile men gave 25 men a placebo and 21 of them an ashwagandha supplement for 90 days (675mg/day of the KSM-66 brand). This led to a 17% increase in blood testosterone levels. There was also a 36% increase in luteinizing hormone (LH), a compound responsible for stimulating testosterone production at brain level, so that could be how ashwagandha exerts the power. Some scientists claim that the active compounds withanolides in ashwagandha are also responsible for stimulating the brain to release more luteinizing hormone.
TWO – the same human study shown for cortisol above also analysed testosterone levels. After taking 5 grams of Ashwagandha powder for 3 months, the 60 test subjects experienced an average 40% increase in testosterone levels. This was in otherwise healthy participants. Remember that they were infertile, that’s important for later.
THREE – two other studies on infertile men yielded similar results (study, study). Both gave 5 grams of ashwagandha root powder to men for 90 days and by the end, noted substantial increases in testosterone (40% and 16% for infertile participants, 15% in healthy participants). Sperm quality also improved substantially.
For your wider health increased testosterone is a great thing. You get more muscle mass, a deeper voice and a more content mind. But for acne it can increase your sebum production by binding to androgen receptors in the skin’s sebaceous glands and cranking up their output.
Here’s the truth though: this isn’t enough to give ashwagandha a red card for men, because the problems of testosterone for acne can easily be overcome. I discussed in this article how you can get more antioxidants, become an expert on lowering insulin levels, and keep inflammation in check. Decreasing lipid peroxides is actually one of the best ways to protect the skin from testosterone, so ashwagandha comes with an inbuilt acne buffer.
For women, the herb should be riskier because female skin is ten times more sensitive to the effect of androgens, but ashwagandha gets another get out of jail free card. None of the studies shown above were conducted on women. Furthermore, the effect is not applicable generally because a woman’s hormonal system works completely different to a man’s.
In fact, the ability of ashwagandha to raise testosterone was strongest in men with pre-existing fertility problems; 15% for healthy volunteers vs 16-40% for infertile men in one study. If ashwagandha’s anabolic power is merely to restore testosterone to a healthy level, it probably wouldn’t affect women at all.
Overall, the testosterone boosting power of ashwagandha is a plausible downside that could scupper the acne improvements. However, I believe the practical risk to be extremely slim.
Of course if you’re an athlete hunting for higher testosterone levels, ashwagandha appears to be a stellar supplement.
Verdict, greatest product, how to cycle, side effects
Ashwagandha is a pretty potent supplement. It’s not guaranteed to clear your acne and there are no studies examining its effects on acne or other skin conditions directly.
However, it could have strong benefits, especially if your acne count cycles back and forth in tandem with your stress levels; in that case an ashwagandha supplement could be excellent.
Furthermore, almost every acne patient alive can benefit from decreased lipid peroxide levels. There’s so many antioxidant-depleting contaminants in our everyday lives (discussed in depth in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne) that we need to reduce free radicals more than ever.
The next question is: how do you take an ashwagandha supplement while maximising its potency against acne?
First of all, the Ayurvedic School of medicine has a lot to teach us about the value of various herbs like ashwagandha and foods like turmeric, but like any ancient practise, it contains a load of rubbish too.
Perhaps the biggest crime is Ayurveda’s recommendation of heavy metals for health. Old Indian doctors believed that mercury, arsenic and aluminum have healing properties, and intentionally add them to many nutritional supplements and herbal formulations. This is completely stupid; mercury is a neurotoxin, arsenic causes acne by accelerating keratin protein production, and aluminum decreases glutathione levels sharply.
Nevertheless, many of the ashwagandha supplements sold on the market today have heavy metals in them; one study freshly conducted in 2015 found that 50% of the market samples analysed contained mercury at levels “above the permissible limit“. Furthermore, they concluded that “consumption of Ashwagandha obtained from polluted areas may cause accumulated side effect as well as the toxic effect of the heavy metals”.
Clearly this is not good for acne. Mercury is a known inflammatory toxin and it must be detoxified by glutathione. Many companies foolishly add heavy metals to respectfully keep the product in line with Ayurveda’s original teachings. But they’re just ruining their supplement. Pollution is another factor.
The solution? Always buy an organic ashwagandha supplement, with no exceptions.
Also important is to cycle your ashwagandha. Like any herbal supplement, the plant contains natural phytoalexins which build up in the body and, while not unhealthy, increase your resistance to the medicinal powers of the plant they came from.
Hence, you should only take ashwagandha when you especially need it for stress reduction. For instance, you could run a two week cycle during exam season or during a busy period at work, and then take a month off. Alternatively, you could use ashwagandha for two weeks, then switch to a different adaptogenic herb such as rhodiola rosea.
Finally, some people on the internet recommend you to buy ashwagandha powders. These are certainly effective; one of the studies on cortisol used 5 grams of pure ashwagandha powder.
Powdered ashwagandha root is actually available at health food stores now. Many natural health gurus recommend taking about 1 teaspoon of the powdered ashwagandha root and boiling it for 15 minutes into a tea to be drunk 3 times per day. In India the traditional way of using Ashwagandha is to add the powder to some boiled whole milk flavoured with honey.
If the idea of a pure and versatile ashwagandha powder appeals to you, and by the way the best dosage is about a teaspoon per day, then you can buy this Terrasoul Superfoods Organic Ashwagandha Root Powder.
This stuff is really excellent for adding to all kinds of food. You don’t have to make a specific tea; you can just dump a teaspoon into an existing mug, or some coffee, or yoghurt, or add it to flavour some homemade dark chocolate.
However, if you want to skip all that and want total control over the exact dosage of ashwagandha you’re getting, I’d have to recommend these Premium Grade Organic KSM-66 Ashwagandha pills. This ashwagandha is organic and sourced from the best quality plants, while totally free from chemical additives and stabilisers.
The final issue is side effects. Like any herbal supplement, there’s a real chance that you might have an allergic reaction to one of the many compounds in it. Potential side effects include drowsiness, vomiting, and stomach upset. For the majority of people however, ashwaganda has a good safety record.
Stop taking the supplement if such side effects occur. Of course, you should always consult with your doctor before taking such supplements, especially if you have a medical condition.
There’s many different acne supplements with excellent powers, alongside some which are massively overrated. Gelatin is great for increasing glutathione levels, burdock is useful for its prebiotics, and camu camu powder contains loads of vitamin C.
Ashwagandha’s claim to fame is its ability to massively reduce stress hormones while simultaneously lowering acne-causing lipid peroxides. If that sounds good to you then ashwagandha may be worth a shot.
Ashwagandha also has great effects on heart health; studies show it can increase HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL cholesterol. Ashwagandha may even prevent Alzheimer’s disease according to one study where giving mice ashwagandha supplements for 20 days significantly improved their cognitive abilities and reduced brain amyloid plaque formation. Of course that ties in well with the mental benefits ashwagandha is most famous for.
Alternatively, if you’re an athlete you wants extra strength and power then it’s very valuable stuff; the boost in testosterone will be terrific. It may even make you “strong like a horse” if the old legends are true. If your single focus is on having kids then the studies above showed significant boosts in sperm count.
Thanks for reading!