Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that has become increasingly popular as more people learn about how herbal medicine can support their health. It has myriad possible benefits, from potentially acting on your body’s inflammatory response, to promoting a healthy brain. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of Ashwagandha.
What is Ashwagandha?
According to WebMD, “Ashwagandha is a plant. The root and berry are used to make medicine”.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has many aliases, such as Indian Ginseng and Winter Cherry, and has been used in Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) for thousands of years. Considered an ancient medicinal herb, it is known to help your body manage stress and is used in a number of natural treatments.
Ashwagandha Risks and Warnings
Before we jump into the benefits of Ashwagandha, it's most important to identify when it should not be used. The below identifies the situations when you should not use Ashwaghanda:
- Certain autoimmune conditions could be made worse for some people who take Ashwagandha (e.g. lupus), but this isn't true for everyone. In fact, some autoimmune conditions improve with the use of adaptogens. It's always good to chat with your doc if you have an autoimmune condition and are considering this herb.
- It might cause problems for people with hyperthyroidism because it can stimulate an already over-stimulated thyroid gland
- Since it is in the nightshade family, those with nightshade sensitivities should be cautious*
- Should not be used in pregnant women
Is Ashwagandha an Adaptogen Herb?
Adaptogens, as their name suggests, help the body remain in balance and adapt to different stressors. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen because it helps the body regulate cortisol. This hormone helps balance the adrenals, boost the immune system, improve brain function, and more. As an adaptogen, Ashwagandha can even have a benefit to those on hormonal birth control.
Other Adaptogen Herbs
- Licorice Root – can increase energy and decrease inflammation
- Panax Ginseng (American Ginseng) – decreases inflammation and is a strong antioxidant
- Rhodiola rosea – “endurance herb” that helps with mental and physical stamina
- Cordycep mushrooms – support the adrenals and improve liver function
I talk more about adaptogens (especially those useful in supporting the adrenals) here.
What are the benefits of Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha has a variety of health benefits. It can help with anxiety and stress reduction, improve thyroid function, boost immunity and can even help with hormonal birth control.
1. Reduce Adrenal Fatigue
Our lives today are filled with stressors: emotional stress, physical stress and mental stress.
As a result, many of us struggle with Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) dysregulation (more commonly known as adrenal fatigue). Essentially, if your body is under chronic stress, it triggers the adrenals to secrete cortisol and other stress hormones. Over time, your brain and adrenals begin sending confusing signals which affects your HPA-axis (how your brain and adrenals communicate).
Because Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, it works through your HPA-axis and can therefore help balance how much cortisol your body makes.
There have also been studies to show that Ashwagandha helps prevent the depletion of cortisol and vitamin C (which is highly concentrated in the adrenal glands) in the adrenals following a stressful event.
It’s a great herb to take before bedtime to help you reduce the “wired to tired” feeling so you get a better night’s rest. That’s why Adrenal Calm is formulated with Ashwagandha and designed to be taken in the evening.
2. Reduce Stress and Anxiety
This is probably the most well-known benefit of taking Ashwagandha. As well as being an adaptogen, it is also an anxiolytic (which means it can be used to manage anxiety). Ashwagandha is beneficial for those with anxiety and chronic stress because it helps the body regulate cortisol and stress hormone output.
It appears that one way Ashwagandha may work to lower anxiety is via the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor. GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps calm the nervous system.
In a small, randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study, benefits were observed after 60 days of continuous Ashwagandha use at a dose of 300 mg twice daily.
3. Lower Cholesterol
Chronic stress is at the root of so many chronic conditions. When cortisol is chronically elevated, it can lead to high cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Ashwagandha, with its cortisol-balancing properties, may support your body in decreasing bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and increase good cholesterol.
4. Prevent and Treat Cancer
Because Ashwagandha is a strong antioxidant, research suggests that it could help with tumor growth and cancer treatment by preventing the spread of cancer cells in the body. This is not to say that this herb should replace the medical care or advice from your doctor. It is not a replacement for cancer drugs or other treatments. It may, however, be a helpful adjunct therapy and worth mentioning to your doctor.
The herb’s stress-relieving properties also shine in those undergoing chemotherapy. By lowering stress levels, Ashwagandha can help with pain brought on by chemo. It can also aid in reducing chemo-induced suppression of the immune system.
Because of the benefits in reducing cancer risk as part of a healthy lifestyle, Ashwagandha is one of the herbs I recommend for women on hormonal birth control. You can read about breast cancer risk and birth control here.
Several trials have shown benefits of Ashwagandha in combating breast, brain, lung, and colon cancer.
5. Stabilize Blood Sugar
Ashwagandha contains phenolic compounds, one of which is flavonoids. Studies have shown that flavonoids can lower blood sugar levels and decrease insulin resistance.
By doing this, Ashwagandha can support healthy blood glucose levels and therefore reduce inflammation caused by insulin resistance.
The added bonus is that Ashwagandha can help support healthy cortisol levels, which, in turn, helps promote better blood sugar regulation.
6. Boost Immunity
Chronic stress can eventually lead to a compromised immune system. It does this by decreasing lymphocytes (the white blood cells that help fight illness). Additionally, chronic high stress levels can cause inflammation, which leads to a burned-out, less effective immune system.
And that’s where Ashwagandha can be helpful. It increases the production of immunoglobulin, and also suppresses pro-inflammatory cytokines—leading to a healthier immune system.
One of the signs of adrenal fatigue (aka HPA dysregulation) is getting sick often. If this is true for you, you may want to consider adding Ashwagandha to your regimen.
7. Reduce Brain Cell Degeneration
Stress in all its forms can cause degeneration (breakdown) of brain cells, which can lead to various neurological problems and diseases.
Ashwagandha boosts a powerful antioxidant known as glutathione. Antioxidants protect us from free radical damage that causes aging. And I’m not just talking aging of the skin—I am referring to degeneration of all systems in the body.
Ashwagandha not only protects us from free radicals, it can also boost memory and concentration, facilitating better overall brain function. Some studies have shown benefit in dementia and Parkinson’s.
8. Improves Thyroid Function
You know I am all about how different organs/glands in the body communicate and work with each other. I do not believe that problems occur in isolation. So if you have a thyroid issue, there are other systems that are compromised as well.
A well-functioning Ovarian-Adrenal-Thyroid Axis (OAT) is vital in the pursuit of balanced hormones. So what happens when we are chronically stressed and our adrenals are working nonstop? Yep: The ovaries and the thyroid struggle, too. So the most obvious benefit of Ashwagandha for those with thyroid problems is that it helps to calm you down and reduce stress levels (because you have happier adrenals).
Additionally, studies have shown that Ashwagandha can help those with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). Ashwagandha has been shown to improve both TSH and T4, leading to the conclusion that it could help stimulate a sluggish thyroid. Note, however, that since it helps to stimulate the thyroid, Ashwagandha may not a good idea for those with hyperthyroidism from Grave's disease (unless under the supervision of your medical practitioner).
9. Help with Depression
There isn’t a ton of research on this, but there have been some studies (here and here) that lean toward the conclusion that Ashwagandha can help in the treatment of depression by acting as a mood stabilizer.
Ashwagandha Side Effects and Precautions
As with any new treatment, herbal or otherwise, it’s important to monitor your symptoms. While Ashwagandha is widely regarded as being safe for in general, there is always a chance that it may not agree with your body.
Ashwagandha Side Effects
- Ashwagandha has been known to cause digestive upset (stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea) in some people
- It can stimulate the immune system (not good if you’re on immunosuppressant medication)
- Can lower blood pressure
- Can stimulate the thyroid
* Clinically I’ve found that a very small percentage of my autoimmune patients experience symptoms when taking Ashwagandha, even if they do have a nightshade sensitivity. But it is important to note that might not be true for you, which is why it is in this list.
Most people do well starting with approximately 100-200 mg daily of standardized herb containing 5% withanolides as a standalone therapy.
The Different Forms of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian Ginseng, is available as an extract in capsule form, and also as a powder and a tea.
Ashwagandha tea is one of the most popular forms, warm and comforting and typically found in health stores. You can also make your own tea using dried Ashwagandha root.
Our products that contain Ashwagandha
Adrenal Support: A blend of the most effective adaptogenic herbs and nutrients to support adrenal health! Adrenal Support is a comprehensive formula designed to balance stress hormones, support a healthy menstrual cycle, and optimize energy.
Adrenal Calm: This supplement is a literal chill pill, dropping stress hormones like nobody's business! A synergistic blend of adaptogenic and nervine herbs, paired with nourishing B Vitamins and calming amino acids L-Theanine and Phosphatidylserine, this formulation supports restful sleep and cortisol balance.
Both Adrenal Support and Adrenal Calm are available together as part of our Optimal Adrenal Kit.
Summary of Ashwagandha Benefits
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an adaptogenic herb that also goes by Winter Cherry and Indian Ginseng. It has many possible benefits for our health.
The main benefit of Ashwagandha is its ability to help to calm and support the adrenals. Well-functioning, balanced adrenals have a ripple effect throughout the body: stress and anxiety are reduced, and the immune system is boosted. Since nothing in the body occurs in isolation, these positive effects extend as far as the brain and the ovaries.
Because it has such a wide variety of uses, Ashwagandha is gaining popularity in conventional medicine; however it has been used in Ayurveda for many years.
As with anything we consume, it can have side effects for some, but it is typically safe. Be sure to check our risks and warnings and remember, Ashwagandha should not be used during pregnancy.
- Dushani L. Palliyaguru, Shivendra V. Singh, and Thomas W. Kensler. Withania somnifera: from prevention to treatment of cancer. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2016.