If you’re a fan of healthy smoothies and tonics, or if you’ve spent any time on health-related social media feeds in the last year, chances are you’ve seen or heard the term “ashwagandha.” With a promise of stress relief in what feels like a non-stop world, it’s no wonder this herb is getting so much attention. As an integrative dietitian, I’ve been getting questions about it too. So, I tried it myself and want to share what I’ve found out along the way.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is a shrub native to India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. You might also see it called Indian ginseng. Most commonly the roots (and sometimes the leaves) are prepared and used in herbal medicine as a tonic, pill or powder.
What Are Ashwagandha’s Purported Benefits?
Though the research on most potential benefits of the herb is limited or inconclusive, Ashwagandha may be used to help with:
— Rheumatoid arthritis
— Sleep problems
— Infertility and sexual dysfunction
— Bipolar disorder
Ashwagandha has been part of herbal and ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Historically, it’s been used for a variety of conditions including arthritis, anxiety and stress, sleeplessness and even obsessive-compulsive disorder. One study found it was superior to a placebo for OCD, and, when it comes to rheumatoid arthritis in particular, one small study found that it may modestly improve symptoms when combined with other treatments. Still, the effectiveness of ashwagandha alone for RA is unclear.
Today, ashwagandha is becoming best known for its adaptogenic properties, meaning its purported ability to help the body cope with internal stressors like sleeplessness, fatigue or anxiety, as well as everyday environmental triggers like the sound of your alarm clock on Monday morning.
[See: 8 Ways to Relax — Now.]
Though it’s not clear exactly how it works, researchers believe ashwagandha may lessen levels of the stress hormone cortisol to promote relaxation.
This makes sense. The strongest scientific evidence points to ashwagandha’s effectiveness in stress relief. One 2012 study including 64 adults with chronic stress found that taking two capsules of ashwagandha root a day for 60 days helped decrease how stressed the participants felt by 44 percent and reduced the stress hormone cortisol by about 28 percent. Other stressed folks who got a placebo only reduced their perceived stress by 5.5 percent and their cortisol levels by about 8 percent. There’s even research suggesting ashwagandha may help prevent stress-related weight gain.
Though studies are not conclusive, ashwagandha is also being studied for a potential positive role in reducing anxiety. It’s also believed to possibly help improve brain function, decrease inflammation and even help with infertility and sexual dysfunction. Keep your eyes open for ongoing research on how ashwagandha might impact bipolar disorder, blood sugar in people with Type 2 diabetes and other conditions.
Is Ashwagandha Safe?
Ashwagandha is a supplement, which means it’s not well regulated. All brands are not created equal, and what you see on the label isn’t always what you get on the inside. Like all supplements, ashwagandha may interfere or interact with some drugs and other herbs and supplements. It is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding and hasn’t been tested in children.
Ashwagandha appears to be well tolerated, but large doses may lead to an upset stomach, nausea or abdominal pain. There have also been reports of dermatitis in one small study.
That said, research suggests ashwagandha is safe when used short term. Just be sure to talk to a qualified health professional before starting it and do your research before choosing a brand. Look for brands that are independently tested for safety and potency, and ones that are transparent about how and where the ashwagandha is sourced.
You can find ashwagandha in the supplement department of most national natural food markets, vitamin stores or online retailers. You might pay $15 to $20 for a 60-day supply of capsules.
How to Use Ashwagandha
If you decide to give ashwagandha a try, you might be wondering what to do with it. Ashwagandha has a slightly bitter and astringent flavor. You can avoid that by taking it as a pill. Or, add the powder to smoothies, energy bites or a morning latte or tea.
Though more clinical research is needed about this ancient medicinal herb, ashwagandha is considered safe for most healthy people and appears to have many potential benefits.
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