Everything You Need To Know About Ashwagandha, The Wellness World's Favorite Adaptogen

Photo: Tatjana Zlatkovic

Adaptogens are powerful herb and plant medicines that have been shown to help support and balance various parts of the body. Go to any café, restaurant, or beauty shop these days, and you’ll be sure to find a menu filled with elixirs, dishes, and products sprinkled with these popular herbs.

While there are quite a few types of adaptogens to choose from depending on what you are looking for, a handful have reached more of a "celeb status" than others. And if there was one adaptogen that has reigned supreme in the wellness world, it's ashwagandha.

But this herb is no stranger to controversy. One minute you’re reading about how amazing it is for helping you stay on top of your wellness game, and the next you hear that it can actually be a trigger for nagging symptoms. What’s a wellness-conscious person to do? Here's the lowdown on what exactly ashwagandha does, its benefits, and its side effects.

The benefits of ashwagandha.

The use of ashwagandha can be traced back more than 2,500 years, and it is highly revered in ayurvedic medicine for its value as a multipurpose herb that brings healing to so many different areas of the body. Here are a few of its benefits that have been supported by preliminary research:

1. It can reduce stress.

Ashwagandha can help regulate your body’s stress hormone, cortisol, which can make you feel more calm and potentially soothe adrenal fatigue—a condition that causes extreme fatigue, body aches, and muscle pain—by supporting the brain-adrenal (HPA) axis, too.

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2. It's an immunity booster.

In ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is commonly used to help boost the immune system after an illness. Your immune system contains two different types of white blood cells, called TH1 and TH2. Just like a seesaw, they need to stay balanced—if one gets out of control, it throws your immune system out of whack, which can contribute to inflammation and autoimmune conditions.

3. It supports a healthy thyroid.

Ashwagandha can do wonders for boosting an underactive thyroid. In fact, one study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that after just eight weeks of supplementing with ashwagandha, patients with a thyroid disorder had much healthier TSH and T4 levels, and therefore more normal thyroid function.

4. It may help calm anxiety.

One study showed that people who took just two months of ashwangandha supplementation had reductions in anxiety of up to 44 percent.

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5. It enhances brain health.

Ashwagandha was found to have a neuroprotective effect for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It has also been shown to promote the formation of dendrites, which are essential to brain health.

6. It helps regulate blood sugar levels.

In some cases, ashwagandha has been shown to help manage symptoms of diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity as well as lowering blood glucose levels.

7. It's a powerful antioxidant.

A regular dose of ashwagandha can help give you a youthful glow thanks to its next-level antioxidants. It also increases levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase, which fight off the free radicals that contribute to signs of aging.

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8. It may inhibit the spread of cancer.

Ashwagandha has been shown in multiple studies to significantly fight the growth of various types of cancer. Specifically, ashwagandha was able to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells and slow cell division in breast tumors. It was also linked to melanoma cell death in cases of skin cancer. It has also been shown to stimulate the production of immune-supporting white blood cells that are often depleted during chemotherapy.

The side effects of ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha in its recommended dose is generally safe for pretty much everyone, but there are a few side effects to consider.

1. It can cause gut problems.

Yes, there can be too much of a good thing! Large doses of ashwagandha have been shown to cause diarrhea and stomach pain.

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2. It might raise thyroid hormone levels.

Ashwagandha might raise thyroid hormone levels, so people with an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism should be more cautious. If you suspect you have a thyroid problem, ask your doctor to run tests on thyroid health and advise you on whether you should be adding this herb to your routine.

3. It can irritate autoimmune conditions.

Since ashwagandha is technically part of the nightshade family, it can be a potential irritant to those with autoimmune conditions, especially those with autoimmune joint pain.

It’s important to remember that everybody’s makeup is unique, so what works for one person won’t always work for the next. Having lab work done and working with a certified health care practitioner is the first step in taking control of your health. Talk to your doctor before adding adaptogens to your routine, and ask if they can advise on dosing.

Looking for an adaptogen specifically to calm stress or balance hormones? We've got you covered.

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional-medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam at www.drwillcole.com and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain problems.Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional-medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the author of Ketotarian in which he melds the powerful benefits of the ketogenic and plant-based diets.
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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

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