Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Nutritive tonics are the heart of herbalism in Asia. Suitable for everyday use, they cover a wide territory and are broad builders and maintainers of health. Two of the most famous are ginseng and ashwagandha, which have similar roles in Chinese and Indian medicine, respectively.
Ask any person on the street to name the first herb that comes to mind, and it’s likely to be ginseng, a botanical that is known the world over, yet shrouded in myth. Ginseng has been shown in human studies to mitigate the impacts of stress, improve physical and mental performance and reaction time, and enhance mood and memory. Ginseng increases physical working capacity in humans in many ways, including stimulating the central nervous system and balancing blood pressure and glucose levels.
In one study, a preparation of Asian ginseng, together with vitamins and minerals, was tested among 232 people who complained of daily fatigue. Those taking the supplement had improved energy, better concentration, and less anxiety. Another double-blind study tested the effect of ginseng on reaction time during exercise. Fifteen 19-year-old soccer players performed an incremental bicycle exercise with intensity increasing every 3 minutes. Ginseng shortened their reaction time at rest and during exercise, and improved their psychomotor performance during exercise without affecting exercise capacity.
Scientists from Korea, the epicenter of ginseng culture, studied whether ginseng extract would influence exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation responses. Eighteen male college students took ginseng or a placebo and then performed a high-intensity uphill treadmill run. Inflammation markers, plasma glucose, and insulin responses were significantly reduced among those who took ginseng. These results suggest that ginseng could reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammatory responses, an all-around plus for athletes.
A 2021 study reported that the herb helped fatigue by many mechanisms, including detoxification of protein and amino acids, reduction of stress, inflammation and inflammation.
Ginseng is indicated for daily, consistent use in moderate doses. Do not use ginseng as a short-term stimulant, say Asian herbalists. A typical dose of moderate-quality ginseng powder in capsules is 4,000–6,000 mg per day.
Ashwagandha is the main tonic in the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia, especially for men. Ayurveda considers this long-term building herb to be a rasayana, or particularly powerful rejuvenator. The name ashwagandha means “like a horse,” connoting its reputation as a premier sexual tonic.
And its sexual enhancement prowess isn’t just an old wives’ tale. One study showed that extracts of ashwagandha increased production of sex hormones and sperm, presumably by exerting a testosterone-like effect. In another double blind clinical trial, ashwagandha (3 grams/day for 1 year) was tested on 101 healthy men aged 50–59, who saw significant improvements in hemoglobin, red blood cells, hair pigment, and seated stature. Additionally, their serum cholesterol decreased, their nail calcium was preserved, and 71.4 percent of those who received the herb reported improvement in sexual performance. A 2021 paper reported that the root enhanced physical capability in males and females.
Ashwagandha is one of the most promising herbs for building overall health. A scientific article published by Los Angeles researchers reviewed a host of confirmed benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antistress, antioxidant, hemopoietic, immunomodulatory, and rejuvenating properties. The scientists say that ashwagandha also appears to exert a positive influence on the endocrine, cardiopulmonary, and central nervous systems.
A study was conducted to examine the effects of ashwagandha root extract on muscle mass and strength in healthy young men engaged in resistance training. The results indicated that ashwagandha supplementation is associated with significant increases in muscle mass and strength, and may be useful in conjunction with a resistance training program.
While ashwagandha promotes stamina, it’s also relaxing and helps regulate sleep rhythms. It will not help you sleep if taken at bedtime, but it has an overall anxiolytic property that promotes sleep. A 2021 study, published in the prestigious Journal of Ethnopharmacology, also found that ashwagandha can be a potent remedy for anxiety.
A typical dose of ashwagandha is about one gram per day, taken over long periods, as a rejuvenator. But, since ashwagandha is very safe, larger quantities are often used short-term in Ayurveda, say 1–10 grams per day for quick support.
Which Is Best for You?
Both tonics are great for long-term health, but they aren’t interchangeable. Ginseng tends to be stimulating, and high doses can make some people feel agitated. It’s better to use in modest doses over months or years for a consistent building effect.
The bottom line: In general, use ginseng for stimulating energy, and ashwagandha for relaxed energy. Either way, you really can’t go wrong.