The Health Benefits of Ashwagandha

Ancient herb eases stress, boosts memory, and may help you lose weight

ashwagandha (withania somnifera)
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Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been used in Ayurvedic medicine as a natural treatment for a number of ailments for more than 3,000 years.

Often called "Indian ginseng"—even though it is not botanically related to true ginseng—ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen, a substance said to strengthen your resistance to stress while enhancing your energy.

Uses

In addition to being used for stress and anxiety, ashwagandha is said to boost the immune system after an illness.

It is also included in formulations that aim to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, pain, fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, skin infections, cerebellar ataxia, diabetes, high cholesterol, and Parkinson's disease.

Benefits

Research on ashwagandha is limited, but several studies suggest that the herb may be useful in addressing the following health problems:

Anxiety

In a review published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2014, researchers analyzed five previously published trials on the use of ashwagandha for anxiety. All five studies found that treatment with ashwagandha resulted in clinically significant reductions in scores on scales measuring anxiety and stress.

Thyroid Problems

Ashwagandha is prescribed in Ayurvedic medicine for treating subclinical hypothyroidism, a use backed up by a 2018 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

Researchers gave 50 patients with subclinical hypothyroidism either 600 mg ashwagandha root extract a day or a placebo and found the treated group had clinically significant improvements in serum thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), serum triiodothyronine (T3), and thyroxine (T4) levels.

Weight Loss

Preliminary research suggests that ashwagandha may be useful for weight loss in people with chronic stress. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine adults living with chronic stress received either ashwagandha root extract or a placebo twice daily for eight weeks.

Treatment with ashwagandha resulted in a reduction in scores on a perceived stress scale at four and eight weeks, compared to a placebo. There was also significant improvements in food cravings, body weight, body mass index (BMI), reactive eating, cortisol levels, well-being, and happiness.

Muscle Strength and Recovery

Ashwagandha may boost muscle strength, according to a study published in the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2015. For the study, men with little experience in resistance training took either ashwagandha or a placebo for eight weeks. At the study's end, the men who took ashwagandha had significantly greater increases in muscle strength on the bench press and leg extension exercises and greater muscle size in the arms and chest.

Memory

Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for enhancing memory and cognitive functioning in patients with mild cognitive impairment. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements reports ashwagandha may be effective in enhancing both immediate and general memory in people with mild cognitive impairment.

In the study, 50 subjects were given either 300 mg ashwagandha-root extract twice a day or a placebo for eight weeks. In addition to improving overall memory, the herb was found to also improve executive function, attention, and information processing speed.

Possible Side Effects

According to a research review, side effects of ashwagandha have included giddiness, a heavy sensation in the head, blurry vision, elevated testosterone levels, and increased stomach acid.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children should avoid ashwagandha.

People with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and Hashimoto’s disease, should not use ashwagandha without consulting a medical professional. Ashwagandha may also interact with thyroid, blood sugar and blood pressure medications.

Ashwagandha may also increase the potency of barbiturates (a class of drugs that depresses the central nervous system), sedatives, and anxiety medication. People who have low cortisol levels or who take medication that affects their cortisol levels should avoid ashwagandha.

If you take blood-thinning medication or have a bleeding disorder, be sure to consult your doctor before taking ashwagandha. The herb should be discontinued at least two weeks prior to scheduled surgery.

Dosage and Preparation 

Ashwagandha is available in capsules, powders, and tinctures, all of which can be found in many health-food stores and pharmacies specializing in natural remedies. The herb is also commonly featured in adaptogen supplements that contain a variety of herbs like ginseng and rhodiola.

There is no recommended daily allowance for ashwagandha. In alternative health practices, doses of 125 mg to 5 grams a day have been used.

What to Look For 

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. The content of some products may differ from what is on the label.

When selecting a brand of supplements, look for products that have been certified by Consumer Labs, The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International.

Other Questions 

What is an adaptogen?

An adaptogen is a natural substance purported to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes. In addition to ashwagandha, common adaptogens include ginseng, kava kava, astragalus, and gotu kola.

Is ashwagandha an aphrodisiac?

Some women report ashwagandha improves libido. This may be because it helps to relieve stress, which can inhibit sexual desire. In men, however, the results are mixed. Some studies report it increases sperm count and libido, while others suggest erectile dysfunction may be a side effect.

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