Ashwagandha – Benefits, Uses & Side Effects

by | Jul 10, 2020

Ashwagandha has been known in Ayurvedic medicine for its powerful healing properties and has been used for healing ailments since ancient times. Native to India and western Asia, ashwagandha, also known as poison gooseberry, Indian ginseng, and winter cherry, is a member of the nightshade family. Its name, translated from Sanskrit, means “horse smell” because of the potent smell of the plant’s roots.

Ashwagandha is a perennial shrub with oval-shaped pale green leaves; its yellow flowers bear bright red fruit about a grape’s size. It is a plant that mainly grows in dry areas of Southern Asia. Officially, ashwagandha is classified as a nightshade plant, which means it’s related to potatoes and tomatoes.

The ashwagandha plant is a short shrub with green flowers and a tiny red fruit in the center. Due to the fruit’s red color, people sometimes refer to ashwagandha as the “winter cherry.” The Latin name for ashwagandha is Withania somnifera, which translates to “sleep-inducing.” This Latin name highlights ashwagandha’s ability to help with sleeping disorders.

Interestingly, the Sanskrit term “ashwagandha” means “horse odor,” which refers to the herb’s ability to strengthen immunity and increase stamina. Ashwagandha is listed as an adaptogenic herb. As the name suggests, adaptogenic herbs help us “adapt” to external stressors. All adaptogenic herbs help bring the body into balance by regulating hormones and healing the thyroid and adrenal glands. In case you were wondering, a few other adaptogenic herbs include holy basil, ginseng, and licorice root. So, if ashwagandha doesn’t work for you, don’t despair; you could always look into these and other adaptogenic herbs. Ashwagandha is one of the most important adaptogenic herbs in the world.

How Ashwagandha Works

Doctors believe the main reason ashwagandha is so versatile has to do with its high alkaloid content. Alkaloids are naturally occurring nitrogen compounds found in various plants. Many alkaloids have profound physiological effects on the human body.

One of the key ways ashwagandha’s alkaloids help the body is by balancing hormone levels. Clinical studies have shown that ashwagandha is exceptionally effective at reducing the stress hormone cortisol.

In addition to alkaloids, ashwagandha contains interesting chemicals called withanolides. Withanolides, also known as steroidal lactones, are believed to contribute to ashwagandha’s incredible anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

Bottom line: Scientists claim most of ashwagandha’s benefits come from chemicals such as alkaloids and withanolides.

Types Of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is typically sold in powder or capsule form. You should have no problem purchasing ashwagandha tablets or a bag of powder online or at your local health food store. You could also purchase Withania somnifera seeds to plant in your garden or buy fresh ashwagandha root. Although less common, some manufacturers make an ashwagandha extract in tincture form.

If you feel up to it, you could order ashwagandha root and make it into a tincture with vodka or rum. Lastly, there are many ashwagandha teas in health food stores nowadays. Just be aware, sometimes manufacturers add other herbs and tonics to their ashwagandha tea sachets.

To avoid drinking any herbs you don’t want; you could simply buy ashwagandha root and place it into a cup of boiling water. 

Bottom line: Ashwagandha is very easy to find in capsule and powder form at almost all health food stores today. You could consider purchasing ashwagandha seeds, teas, or tinctures if they better suit your taste.

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Is Ashwagandha Safe?

The most commonly prescribed dose of ashwagandha for healthy individuals is one to two 500 mg tablets per day. Of course, herbalists have different opinions on how much ashwagandha is ideal, but 500 mg is a general rule of thumb.

When taking ashwagandha for the first time, be sure to drink plenty of water and reduce your sugar intake. If you experience side effects, stop taking ashwagandha right away and call your doctor. 

You might consider taking ashwagandha only when you’re particularly stressed or four weeks on and one week off. You could also look into other adaptogenic herbs to supplement with when you’re off ashwagandha.

Of course, it’s best to talk with a health professional who knows about ashwagandha supplementation to figure out the right dose for your needs. Your doctor should consider your overall health and age to figure out the optimal amount for your goals.

Bottom line: The standard ashwagandha dose for people with no pre-existing conditions is 500 mg once or twice a day. To find out the best ashwagandha supplementation plan for your lifestyle, talk with a health professional trained in ashwagandha supplementation.

Ashwagandha Uses & Benefits

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha root has been used to treat some ailments, including fatigue, poor concentration, and sexual dysfunction. The plant contains many healing chemicals, including amino acids, alkaloids, fatty acids, choline, and steroidal lactones.

In the Western medical world, numerous studies have been conducted on the leaves, fruit, and roots of this plant to discover its medical benefits. The most common reason people take ashwagandha today is stress reduction.

Research shows ashwagandha can dramatically help people struggling with mental disorders like generalized anxiety disorder and depression. The main reason ashwagandha helps so much with stress has to do with its ability to regulate cortisol.

Thanks to ashwagandha’s anti-inflammatory properties, some arthritis patients have experienced relief from taking the herb. There’s also evidence that ashwagandha could help with conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Alzheimer’s, and epilepsy.

Ashwagandha has been used for centuries to improve sexual health and balance hormone levels. People struggling with low libido, sexual dysfunction, and infertility have noted extreme benefits from taking ashwagandha just a few times each week.

Lastly, some researchers believe ashwagandha could be helpful in the treatment and prevention of cancerous tumors. There’s also strong evidence that ashwagandha helps patients ward off radiation from chemotherapy. Although doctors admit that there needs to be more research on ashwagandha’s effect on cancer, current studies look promising.

Bottom line: Although the common ashwagandha uses include stress reduction and uplifting mood, it has been shown to help diseases ranging from diabetes and Alzheimer’s to cancer and epilepsy.

More Details on Ashwagandha and:

Stress

Ashwagandha has been used as a natural stress reliever for centuries. One small-scale clinical trial on men and women found that supplementing with 240 mg of ashwagandha daily for two months significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. 

In a more extensive study involving 60 men and women taking either 250 mg, 600 mg, or a placebo, both the 250 mg and 600 mg groups showed significant improvements in perceived stress scale scores after eight weeks of participation. The treatment group also reported better sleep quality than did the control group. 

Another study of 40 women ages 30 to 50 found that supplementing ashwagandha and B vitamins for four weeks was enough to reduce “perceived levels of stress [and] state anxiety”  by nearly 20%. Women also tended to report more sleep hours, specifically in older women with higher body mass index.

Mental Health

In late 2014, researchers reviewed all current literature on ashwagandha’s effect on anxiety and stress and found, across the board, reductions in anxiety in all treatment groups. 

In patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), taking 120 mg of ashwagandha daily for six weeks resulted in improved scores on the Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale. The participants in the study were also taking SSRIs or antidepressants. 

There’s even research into the effects of ashwagandha extract in patients with schizophrenia. “early study suggests that adjunctive treatment with a standardized extract of Withania somnifera [ashwagandha] provides significant benefits, with minimal side effects, for negative, general, and total symptoms and stress in patients with recent exacerbation of schizophrenia.”

Heart Health

The effect of ashwagandha on heart health may be associated with cholesterol levels. In one study of 30 participants with elevated cholesterol levels, taking 400 mg of ashwagandha three times daily for one month was enough to significantly lower fasting blood glucose and serum triglycerides

Another study showed that 1200 mg a day for an entire 30-day period might not be necessary. In this study, participants started with 750 mg daily for 10 days, moving to 1000 mg daily for 10 days, and finally to 1250 mg daily for 10 days. During this time, “reduction in total- and LDL- cholesterol… was significant.”

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Diabetes

The impact of ashwagandha supplementation on diabetes has been studied for more than a decade. Unfortunately, to date, nearly all of the research has been completed on rat models with chemically-induced type 2 diabetes. With that in mind, there are still some significant results to report that will likely spark human trials in the future. 

In a study of 30 diabetes-induced rats, treatment with ashwagandha for four weeks “significantly reversed hyperglycemia” that was comparable to the effects of prescription medication. The same research showed in rats fed a high-cholesterol diet, the extract helped keep cholesterol levels under control. 

It appears the extract works on various components of the disease. In a second rat study, “treatment with [ashwagandha] reduced the elevated levels of blood glucose, HbA1c, and insulin in the non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus-treated rats.” 

With diabetes comes an increase in pancreatic beta cells’ number and size; it’s one of the disease’s characteristics. Research on type 2 diabetic rats has shown ashwagandha extract holds enough free radical scavenging power to significantly reduce the “number and size of pancreatic beta cells… to near normal morphology.”

Cognitive Health

Much of the research into cognitive health and cognitive decline is completed on the aged populations. In one such study that included 50 participants with mild cognitive impairment who took 300 mg of ashwagandha twice a day, “the ashwagandha group demonstrated significant improvements compared with the placebo group in both immediate and general memory.” Improvements were also seen in information processing, executive function, and attention. 

Some researchers have suggested that the extract works because of the underlying antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, as oxidative stress and inflammation are characteristic in many cognitive disorders. 

Researchers are just beginning to study the effects of ashwagandha on cognitive health. But, based on a 2020 review of all available studies, the overall consensus is that the supplement is well-tolerated and, “in most cases… improved performance on cognitive tasks, executive function, attention, and reaction time.”

According to the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, “Identified neuroprotective phytoconstituents of Ashwagandha are sitoindosides VII-X, withaferin A, withanosides IV, withanols, withanolide A, withanolide B, anaferine, beta-sitosterol, withanolide D with key pharmacological effects in brain disorders mainly anxiety, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia, Huntington’s disease, dyslexia, depression, autism, addiction, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorders.”

Insomnia

With the impact ashwagandha has on relieving stress and anxiety, there’s no wonder it’s been tested for the potential treatment of insomnia. 

Researchers are just starting to uncover the potential therapeutic benefits to sleep and sleep quality. In a study of 80 participants published in 2020, all sleep parameters showed significant improvement in participants with and without insomnia who took ashwagandha daily for eight weeks. 

In another, more extensive study from 2020, this time with 150 participants, “supplementation with the standardized ashwagandha extracts for six weeks improved the overall sleep quality… in healthy subjects.”

The real question now is how does ashwagandha improve sleep? If we jump back to 2017, research discovered that when the extraction process used alcohol, sleep improvements were not recognized. Water extraction had the opposite effect. This was when researchers uncovered triethylene glycol, which is present in water extracts of ashwagandha, but not alcohol extracts. Triethylene glycol is a sleep-inducing agent.

Thyroid

There’s not a lot of research out there on ashwagandha and thyroid function, but the research that’s been published shows impressive results. According to the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, “treatment with ashwagandha may be beneficial for normalizing thyroid indices in subclinical hypothyroid patients.” Subclinical refers to the fact that the patients don’t show active symptoms of hypothyroidism. Indices measured were thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), T3, and T4. 

Sexual Dysfunction

In addition to stress relief, improvements in cognitive and heart health, and thyroid function, it appears that ashwagandha also works to support male fertility. “Oral intake of Ashwagandha roots has been found to inhibit lipid peroxidation, improve sperm count and motility, and regulate reproductive hormone levels.”

In one study of 46 males, significant changes in fertility measures were noted after 90 days of treatment with 675 mg of ashwagandha extract daily. To be specific, active participants showed “a 167% increase in sperm count, 53% increase in semen volume, and 57% increase in sperm motility.”

And the extract isn’t just beneficial for men, according to some research. In women, it appears that the extract works to improve sexual function, including measures like “arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and satisfaction.” All of which improved with treatment. 

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Cancer

Traditional medicine systems around the world have utilized plants that have medicinal properties for millennia, providing an opportunity for modern day researchers to assess their efficacies against ailments such as cancer. Withania somnifera (WS) is a plant that has been used in Ayurveda (an ancient form of medicine in Asia) and in the recent past, has been demonstrated to have anti-tumorigenic properties in experimental models.”

There are two schools of thought as to how ashwagandha may work against cancer cells. The first suggests withaferin A, an active component of the extract, has cytotoxic effects, “suggesting it’s an anti-carcinogenic agent in the treatment of several cancers.”

The second suggests it’s the triethylene glycol, only present in ashwagandha’s water extractions, that works as an anticancer agent. According to research, triethylene glycol has “selective cancer cell growth arrest activity.”

There’s also some evidence that “Withania somnifera has potential against cancer-related fatigue, in addition to improving the quality of life.”

Arthritis

There’s not much research out there connecting ashwagandha to arthritis, but the study results we found were so impressive, they deserved reporting. According to the Indian Journal of Medical Research, in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, a combination of ashwagandha treatment and Sidh Makardhwaj resulted in significant improvements in various assessment scores used in a clinical setting when diagnosing and treating rheumatism. Sidh Makardhwaj is a “mercury-based Ayurvedic formulation used in rheumatoid arthritis and neurological disorders.”

Muscle

We also found it difficult to find much research into ashwagandha and muscle growth and recovery, but again the research we did see was pretty amazing. In a study of 57 men ages 18 to 50, half of which were used as a control, when 600 mg of the root extract was taken daily, there were notable differences between the two groups alongside eight weeks of resistance training. Not only did the treatment group gain more strength in upper and lower body exercises, but muscle size was greater in the treatment group, and recovery after exercise accounted for less muscle damage than the control group. 

Ashwagandha & Weight Loss

Many people claim ashwagandha helps them reach and maintain their weight goals. One of the reasons ashwagandha may help in this department is its ability to lower cortisol. Numerous fitness experts have pointed out that chronic stress and higher cortisol levels are key contributors to obesity.

Another reason ashwagandha and weight loss go hand in hand is the herb’s ability to strengthen the central nervous system. By taking ashwagandha before a workout, athletes can reduce the negative impacts of physiological stress and enhance their training sessions. It’s believed that the extract works by increasing energy expenditure on a mitochondrial level in fat tissue and skeletal muscle.

For the most significant weight loss benefits, of course, proponents recommend taking ashwagandha in addition to a weekly workout routine. It’s also a good idea to eat plenty of healthy veggies, fruits, and proteins while avoiding refined foods and sugars.

Bottom line: Ashwagandha is helpful for weight loss because it can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and boost the central nervous system. Although patients might experience benefits by merely adding ashwagandha to their diets, it is recommended to incorporate ashwagandha into a healthy lifestyle.

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Ashwagandha & High Blood Pressure

An estimated 1 in every 3 American adults has hypertension or high blood pressure. Only about half of these people have the condition under control, mainly because people are unaware that they are suffering from the disorder.

If left untreated, high blood pressure can result in:

  • Damage to the heart
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heart attack
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Heart disease
  • Hardening of the arteries

A blood pressure reading is made up of two numbers, for example, 120/90. Each of the two numbers has a special significance.

The top number, which measures the systolic pressure, indicates the pressure as the blood is pumped forward from the heart into the arteries.

The lower number measures the diastolic pressure, which indicates the lowest level of tension in the arteries when the heart relaxes after each contraction.

Normal blood pressure lies below 120/80; borderline high blood pressure is up to 139/89, and high blood pressure is above 140/90.

Types of Hypertension

  • Essential (or primary) Hypertension – no specific cause can be found to explain why the patient is suffering from hypertension.
  • Secondary Hypertension – this is a sign that high blood pressure is caused by another condition such as obesity, for example.

Symptoms of Hypertension

Many people are entirely unaware that they have hypertension.

What usually happens is that they will make a regular check-up visit with the doctor and accidentally find out that they have high blood pressure.

There is also a range of possible symptoms that the patient will notice:

  • Headache
  • Tinnitus
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chest pains
  • Visual disturbances

Because ashwagandha is an adaptogen, it may help lower high blood pressure. An adaptogen is a natural substance that can help the body cope with stress and reduce levels of anxiety.

Bottom line: Stress and anxiety are two major causes of high blood pressure, and ashwagandha has been shown to lower pulse rate and blood pressure.

Ashwagandha & the Immune System

Your immune system is like an army protecting your organs and tissues from a barrage of enemies, preventing them from attacking your body’s organs and tissues, and destroying your good health.

It is a vital force to be reckoned with, composed of billions of cells, continually traveling throughout your system, defending them against viruses, bacteria, and cancerous cells.

White blood cells are the generals of the immune system army, and there are two main types:

Lymphocytes

B-cells that produce antibodies to kill viruses and bacteria outside the cells and T-cells that destroy cells that have been breached by invaders.

Phagocytes

Protect the body from ingesting harmful bacteria or dead cells. Another way that the immune system protects you from disease is by helping to combat free radicals. Free radicals steal electrons from protein molecules, DNA, and enzymes so rapidly that they can change millions of molecules in a matter of nanoseconds.

This causes damage that can lead to chronic disease and, some scientists believe, increase the effects of aging. Ashwagandha can protect your immune system by promoting the healing of wounds and helping heal damage to joints, bones, and muscles, and activating growth and development. The herb may also increase the immune system’s resistance to infection, colds, and flu.

Ashwagandha Root & Gum Disease

Many adults throughout the US suffer from some form of periodontal (gum) disease. If you suffer from periodontal disease, often you will not show signs of gum disease while it is in its early stages.

Your mouth contains many bacteria; along with mucus and food particles, the bacteria build up to form a sticky plaque on the surface of your teeth. Although flossing and brushing can remove plaque, it will form tartar that cannot be removed through regular cleaning and must be removed by a professional dental hygienist if it builds up and hardens.

If plaque and tartar are left to build up on your teeth, you are at an increased risk of a type of gum inflammation known as gingivitis. This will cause your gums to appear red and to bleed easily. Gingivitis can be reversed with regular brushing and flossing. If it is left untreated, it can develop into periodontitis.

This disease causes the gums to pull away from the teeth and develop pockets that may become infected. As it advances, periodontitis can destroy the bone and connective tissue that hold your teeth in place, in which case your teeth will become loose and will have to be removed.

Signs of Gum Disease

Three common signs that you may have gum disease include:

  • Bad breath that you cannot get rid of.
  • Gums that are receding, making your teeth appear longer.
  • Loose teeth.

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Ashwagandha Supplements

The herb can be taken as a supplement in tablet form. There is no recommended standardized dose; how much you take will depend on the ailment you intend to treat. In its powdered form, it is used in amounts ranging from 450 mg to 2 g. Doses should be spread throughout the day.

Ashwagandha Side Effects

Ashwagandha may cause the following side effects.

  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Upset stomach
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive energy
  • Palpitations
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular heart rate

As with any other herb, ashwagandha has potential side effects everyone should be aware of. People on any prescription drugs, especially anxiety or depression medications, must talk with their healthcare provider before taking ashwagandha. Ashwagandha can adversely interact with many antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and other prescription meds.

Pregnant or nursing women should not take ashwagandha because the herb tends to change hormones. Also, people who have thyroid issues or have had thyroid surgery should consult their healthcare provider before taking this herb.

The more common ashwagandha side effects include stomachaches, nausea, and diarrhea. There have also been a few rare cases of heart palpitations, respiratory problems, and low blood pressure from ashwagandha. Most of these severe side effects were due to taking too much at one time.

Bottom line: The most common side effects of taking ashwagandha include digestive issues and nausea. People who are taking prescription medications, have thyroid issues, or are pregnant shouldn’t take ashwagandha without a healthcare provider’s approval. Anyone interested in trying ashwagandha should first consult with a primary care provider.

Ashwagandha Recipes

If you don’t feel like taking an ashwagandha capsule every day, there are plenty of exciting ways you can incorporate ashwagandha into your daily diet.

The easiest recipe to follow is for ashwagandha tea. All you have to do is mix two teaspoons of ashwagandha with about three cups of boiling water, and, voilà, you have your very own ashwagandha tea!

For anyone struggling with insomnia, try mixing one teaspoon of ashwagandha powder in a glass of warm milk. You can also add a little cardamom for extra stress-relief and cinnamon for flavor. Drink this mixture about an hour before bedtime.

You could even come up with your ashwagandha recipes to suit your daily routine. For example, consider adding a bit of ashwagandha powder to a morning smoothie or sprinkling a bit on your main meals.

Here are a few ashwagandha recipes to try out on your own that are simple and delicious. 

Ashwagandha Nut Butter

  • 2 cups nuts, raw
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons ashwagandha powder
  • coconut oil, as needed

Directions:

Place nuts and ashwagandha in a blender and start processing. It will take up to 30 minutes for a nut butter to develop. If the butter appears to be drier than you’d like, add a little coconut oil at a time until you achieve the desired consistency. If you want a sweeter variety, feel free to add a natural sweetener like honey to the mix. 

Ashwagandha Moon Milk

There are a hundred different varieties of moon milk, but all have one thing in common, adaptogens. This is a generic recipe designed to allow you to create your very own Moon Milk recipe. 

  • 1 cup milk, any variety works
  • 1 tablespoon nut butter or raw cacao butter, heat until smooth
  • ¼ cup fruit, fresh or frozen
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons ashwagandha powder
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons honey or another natural sweetener to taste

Directions

Place milk, fruit, and butter in a saucepan and heat on medium until it’s just about boiling. Remove from the stove and pour into a blender. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well. Serve immediately. 

Bottom line: The most common ashwagandha recipes include mixing a little powder in warm milk and mixing ashwagandha extract in boiling water for tea. You could also add ashwagandha into shakes or put it onto your favorite dishes.

If you’re on a weight-loss plan, feel free to adjust the ingredients in these recipes to reduce total fat and calorie intake. Let Noom help you lose more weight today by teaching you how to choose the best foods for weight loss.

Bottom Line on Ashwagandha

There’s a good reason why ashwagandha is one of the most popular herbs in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Sometimes called “Indian ginseng,” ashwagandha is praised for its remarkable ability to boost the immune system, increase stamina, and reduce stress.

Hundreds of scientific studies now prove that ashwagandha has incredible healing properties everyone could benefit from.

We’ve taken a more in-depth look into ashwagandha’s benefits and explained how you could safely incorporate it into your life. If you suffer from chronic stress, depression, or anxiety, you owe it to yourself to learn more about this potentially beneficial herb. As you can see, the sky’s the limit when it comes to ashwagandha’s health benefits. From helping with insomnia and anxiety to increasing stamina and warding off cancer, ashwagandha has a proven track record of beneficial research helping millions of patients overcome debilitating symptoms.

Questions & Answers on Ashwagandha

What does ashwagandha do for the body?

Ashwagandha is a natural medicine that’s been around for centuries. The treatment has been successfully used for stress, anxiety, depression, infertility, and brain function. 

Is it safe to take ashwagandha daily?

Taking between 250 and 500 mg of ashwagandha multiple times daily appears to be safe when taken for up to three months. Long-term use of ashwagandha hasn’t thoroughly been studied. 

What are the side effects of ashwagandha?

Some of the reported side effects of taking ashwagandha include vomiting, diarrhea, and upset stomach. These side effects only seem to appear when large doses of the herb are taken. 

How long does it take for ashwagandha to take effect?

It generally takes a minimum of two weeks of continued use to feel the effects of ashwagandha. 

Can ashwagandha cause weight gain?

We found no indication that ashwagandha can cause weight gain. 

Should I take ashwagandha in the morning or night?

There is no best time to take ashwagandha. You can take the herb in the morning on an empty stomach or before bed with equal efficacy. 

Does ashwagandha make you sleepy?

Ashwagandha is thought to induce or promote sleep naturally. Doses of up to 300 mg twice daily have been used by patients with insomnia. 

Does ashwagandha increase testosterone in females?

Yes, research shows that ashwagandha may elevate testosterone levels in women.