What is Ashwagandha? Is it safe? What does it do?
Ashwa – who? Ashwagandha or its common name, Winter Cherry, is an herb that has been around for over 3000 years but has been gaining popularity in Western Cultures of the past few years. In Ayurvedic Medicine (sort of the sister science to yoga), Ashwagandha is used for many conditions essentially acting as an anti-inflammatory agent for different systems in the body. Because this herb is growing in popularity, I wanted to share with ya’ll the evidence based research to help determine if this adaptogen is something to consider and how to consume it.
(If you are new to the word adaptogen, check out my previous post and then come back here). 🙂
Before we get into some studies….what IS ashwagandha? It’s a small woody shrub (see picture below) that grows in India, Africa, and the Mediterranean. Many adaptogens have compounds that allow the plant to thrive in such harsh conditions and the thought is if that if these compounds help plants survive, perhaps they can help humans survive our own versions of harsh conditions. The Ashwagandha root is the most widely recommended and studied part of the plant. The root contains withanolides which are essentially compounds that are precursors in many biological processes. They essentially help turn on or turn off light switches.
Ashwagandha as an anti-inflammation/anti-stress agent
Extensive studies on the adaptogenic properties of Ashwagandha have shown it to be effective in reducing resistance to stress (measured by length of time able to exercise, and reduced stress-induced increases in blood urea nitrogen and other biomarkers of stress) (1, 2, 3, )
C-reactive protein is a marker of acute stress and inflammation in the body. In one study, the ashwagandha group had a significant decrease in the CRP level (36%) compared to the placebo (only a 6% decrease).
Ashwagandha has also been shown to decrease cortisol levels. Cortisol has long been referred to as a “stress hormone” that gets released by your adrenal glands in response to stress. When we are chronically stressed, when cortisol levels remain elevated, blood sugars rise and excess fat is likely to be stored in the abdomen as a response. Ashwagandha has been shown to significantly reduce cortisol levels in at least three human studies.
Ashwagandha for anxiety, depression, and OCD
Ashwagandha has recently been studied for potential treatment of depression, anxiety, and OCD.
In one small study, participants reported a decreased perception of their depression symptoms.
With the five studies I looked at using ashwagandha for anxiety, the adaptogen significantly improved patient-reported symptoms. However, theses anxiety and depression studies with ashwagandha did not measure biomarkers to assess anxiety levels and additional research would be needed validate the efficacy, but it’s certainly a promising start. (2, 4, 5 )
Other Benefits of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha has also been shown to help reduce the number of cancer cells, to improve infertility in men by boosting testosterone, to reduce arthritis symptoms, and to help blood sugar and cholesterol levels in the body. If you want more information on these studies, let me know and I’d be happy to point you in the right direction.
So how do I use it? And how much do I need?
Aim for ashwagandha root supplements (as opposed to other parts of the plants) for many of the anti-stress and anti-inflammation benefits. Other parts of the plant (leaf) may have different actions in the body. For example, the plant leaf is commonly used in a tea for respiratory issues.
Typical doses of ashwagandha in humans are as follows: 3–6 grams (3000-6000mg) dried root daily. Ashwagandha can be consumed as a fluid extract (6-12 mL of a 1:2 solution) but most of the time you will find the root powder. Traditionally, the root powder can be combined with honey, warm milk, or ghee. It can also be blended into smoothies, rolled into energy balls, or baked into granola bars/breads.
Ashwagandha is considered generally safe. Large doses can increase potential GI upset. It is advised to avoid ashwagandha during pregnancy, or in combination with alcohol, sedatives, or other antianxiety or blood sugar lowering agents. Also, if you have an autoimmune disorder, please consult a physician before use.
Here’s the bottom line:
The available scientific data supports Ashwagandha as a potentadaptogen in reducing stress and various forms of inflammation. It can be useful for various conditions and disease states.
Ashwagandha has been used by Ayurvedic Medicine for over 3000 years and is considered as basic of a household remedy in India as ibuprofen is in the United States. If you are interested in trying ashwagandha, there are many supplements available and I would be happy to point you in a specific direction if you’re interested. Comment below with your questions and I’m curious – have you heard of ashwagandha before?
If you liked this post, you may like my 5 supplements to consider on a plant-based diet post.