Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng, is a plant with various medicinal and adaptogenic properties in humans. Adaptogens are chemicals that attenuate our response to stress, whether physical or psychological.
In recent years, modern medical research has rapidly grown on the therapeutic effects of ashwagandha supplementation. Thus far, the evidence is quite compelling that this herb has a multitude of beneficial properties in humans.
In particular, ashwagandha root appears useful for fighting stress, anxiety, cancer/illness, as well as promoting cognition.
Ashwagandha acts through a variety of mechanisms to reduce anxiety, with the most pertinent ways being increased production of acetylcholine and decreased cortisol production. Our main concern in this article is the latter, since cortisol has many physiological ramifications in humans.
Read on as this article goes in depth on how cortisol works and how ashwagandha supplementation can help you optimize stress hormone levels in the body.
What are Stress Hormones?
The term “stress hormones” is oft-used in scientific literature to refer to glucocorticoids (mainly cortisol), glucagon and catecholamines (specifically epinephrine/adrenaline). This is primarily due to the fact that their secretion is stimulated, quite plainly, in response to stress (note that stress isn’t always a “bad” thing, which would be more properly termed distress).
Protein synthesis rates in skeletal muscle tissue appear to decrease somewhat dramatically in response to stress hormone infusions. [2, 3, 4] It appears that during prolonged exposure to stress hormones muscle protein synthesis is impaired, leading to atrophy of muscle tissue. 
Glucocorticoids are a class of steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands that regulate metabolism, development, immune function, and cognition/alertness. The primary glucocorticoid produced in humans is the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is an essential hormone necessary to sustain life, but like with many other hormones, too much (or too little) of it can wreak havoc on the body.
Cortisol is often implicated in the process of muscle atrophy/loss since it mainly acts as a catabolic hormone with regards to its metabolic functions. During periods of undernourishment/fasting, cortisol acts to maintain nominal glucose concentrations in the blood by initiating gluconeogenesis. Often times this comes at the cost of degrading proteins in order to utilize amino acids as a substrate for the gluconeogenic process.
Some research also suggests that cortisol blunts the synthesis of paracrine insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Paracrine IGF-1 is a highly anabolic growth factor in muscle tissue, so blunting its production would bode poorly for muscle growth. 
Glucagon is a peptide hormone produced in the pancreas that functions basically in reverse to insulin (e.g. it stimulates the release of glucose from the liver into the bloodstream when blood sugar drops). Similarly to cortisol, glucagon influences gluconeogenesis and also glycogenolysis.
The final hormone in this triad is epinephrine/adrenaline (sometimes referred to as the “fight-or-flight” hormone). This hormone is produced in the central nervous system and adrenal glands and acts on pretty much all tissues in the body by binding adrenergic receptors. As with cortisol and glucagon, epinephrine stimulates glycogenolysis in the liver (and muscle).
Also of note is that epinephrine and cortisol may inhibit insulin secretion, and since insulin is an anabolic hormone, this could interfere with muscle growth.
Ashwagandha Supplementation and Hormone Profiles
Ashwagandha itself contains a variety of medicinal chemicals, such as alkaloids, choline, saponins and steroidal lactones (withanolides and withaferins).
In fact, the first known withanolide – Withaferin-A – was isolated from ashwagandha root, and since then much research has been conducted on this specific chemical. Withaferin-A has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antidepressant, antioxidant, and immune enhancing properties in humans.
The mechanisms behind how Withaferin-A enacts these properties are quite complex on a molecular level. To put it quite simply, Withaferin-A either increases or decreases expression of certain proteins and enzymes in cells, which has downstream ramifications for health and longevity.
Researchers at the Indian Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University conducted a 3-month study on 75 men who supplemented with ashwagandha root extract and found that their testosterone levels increased by 40%. Their sperm cell count also increased significantly. A full clinically effective dose of Ashwagandha root is included in Primasurge.
- Kulkarni, S. K., & Dhir, A. (2008). Withania somnifera: an Indian ginseng. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology and biological psychiatry, 32(5), 1093-1105.
- McNurlan, M. A., et al. “Protein synthesis rates of skeletal muscle, lymphocytes, and albumin with stress hormone infusion in healthy man.”Metabolism11 (1996): 1388-1394.
- Gore, Dennis C., et al. “Acute response of human muscle protein to catabolic hormones.” Annals of surgery5 (1993): 679.
- Rooyackers, Olav E., and K. Sreekumaran Nair. “Hormonal regulation of human muscle protein metabolism.” Annual review of nutrition1 (1997): 457-485.
- Paddon-Jones, Douglas, et al. “Atrophy and impaired muscle protein synthesis during prolonged inactivity and stress.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism12 (2006): 4836-4841.
- MCCARTHY, THOMAS L., MICHAEL CENTRELLA, and ERNESTO CANALIS. “Cortisol Inhibits the Synthesis of Insulin-Like Growth Factor-I in Skeletal Cells*.” Endocrinology3 (1990): 1569-1575.
- Chen, L. X., He, H., & Qiu, F. (2011). Natural withanolides: an overview. Natural Product Reports, 28(4), 705-740.