Ashwagandha 101: Benefits, Usage, & Side Effects Of The Adaptogen
If you’re someone who deals with stress or anxiousness, you may have heard someone recommend ashwagandha before. Here's what to know about the popular adaptogen and exactly how to use it to find calm.*
History & uses of ashwagandha.
Although you may not have heard of it until relatively recently, ashwagandha, an evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, is nothing new.
It is one of the most revered plant medicines in Ayurveda, a natural system of medicine originating in India more than 3,000 years ago. Today, many people refer to ashwagandha as an “adaptogen,” meaning it can increase our body’s power to adapt to and counter various stressors, but in traditional Ayurveda, it is known as a “rasayana” or a “rejuvenator.”*
“It’s soothing and especially helpful for those who are feeling ‘wired and tired,’ anxious and stressed,”* says integrative physician Cindy Tsai, M.D.
Extracts are typically taken from the plant's roots or leaves and are made into capsules, tinctures, or powders to help ease stress and promote a number of other health benefits.*
Benefits of ashwagandha.
If you’re curious about ashwagandha and whether or not it may be useful to you, consider these six studied benefits of the powerful herb.*
When we are stressed, our body produces extra cortisol (a stress hormone) to keep up with the demands of life. “Ashwagandha helps to regulate various brain pathways to decrease cortisol levels overall so that we can stay calm and relaxed,” says Tsai.*
“Specifically, it contains withanolides, compounds that help activate GABA receptors in the brain to decrease activation of our nervous system and stress response,” she adds.* In short, it helps support the body's ability to recover from any number of stressors that come our way daily.*
Helps promote sleep.
If you're someone who has trouble shutting their mind off at night, ashwagandha could be a useful tool to help get you some much-needed shut-eye.*
Research is still ongoing, but science is finding that ashwagandha may have the potential to improve cognition.*
“The withanolide components of ashwagandha have also been shown to improve memory,”* says Tsai. “A 2017 randomized controlled study found adults who took ashwagandha (300 mg twice daily) showed improvement in immediate and general memory compared to a placebo group.”*
Aids in attention.
In addition to memory, ashwagandha may also help support attention and other cognitive functions.*
“The exact mechanism isn't known, but studies suggest [ashwagandha] helps with cognitive functioning, and it helps to lower stress, boost energy, optimize sleep [...] which all help with augmenting cognition and attention,”* says integrative doctor Dr. Julie Chen, M.D.
Promotes healthy blood sugar levels.
Stress raises cortisol, which in turn counteracts insulin. This can lead to higher blood sugar in the body over time, according to Tsai. “Ashwagandha has been shown to improve blood sugar balance through regulating insulin and insulin sensitivity pathways,”* she says.
The benefits of ashwagandha seem to extend to the physical as well. A 2015 study in an Ayurvedic research journal found that ashwagandha enhanced cardiorespiratory endurance in athletic adults.*
“Studies suggest a possible increase in muscle and red blood cell production/functioning, [which would lead to] optimal oxygenation VO2 max to support cardiovascular functioning during workouts,”* says Chen. She adds that ashwagandha also has anti-inflammatory actions in the body, which could help.*
Potential side effects.
Before taking ashwagandha, it’s recommended to speak with your doctor. However, according to Tsai, this botanical is generally well-tolerated at recommended doses. “High doses can occasionally cause GI issues like stomach upset or loose stools,” she says.
Ashwagandha is great for people who are generally healthy but notice occasional stress and exhaustion. However, anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding should proceed with caution before consuming the adaptogen.
Furthermore, for those with glucose levels in mind, “be mindful because while ashwagandha can help with blood sugar balance, unexpected rapid decreases in blood sugar can be dangerous,” Tsai says.
“Ashwagandha can potentially increase thyroid hormone levels, so those with thyroid considerations should consult a doctor before taking. Ashwagandha is also part of the nightshade family so avoid it if you have a sensitivity to the nightshade family of foods," she adds.
According to Chen, ashwagandha can mildly interact with some medications, so she recommends taking all supplements 2-3 hours apart from all medications (and of course, consulting your doctor).
How to use it.
Ashwagandha comes in different forms, from capsules to tinctures and powders.
“The exact dose may vary depending on the type, as extracts tend to be more concentrated compared to the whole ashwagandha root,” says Tsai. “Select a form that works best for you containing standardized ashwagandha extract if possible.”
Extracts with a high glycowithanolide content, 20 percent or higher, are considered higher quality and more premium. Glycowithanolides are ashwagandha's unique plant compounds (aka phytonutrients) that deliver its health benefits in the body.*
There’s a wide range of doses but most people can start somewhere between 240 mg and 450 once a day and increase to three times daily as tolerated. For example, at a dose of 240 mg, clinical research demonstrates ashwagandha extract's ability to provide benefits of enhanced mood and stress relief, accompanied by a reduction in key stress biomarkers (e.g., cortisol).*
“If your body is more sensitive, start with a lower dose and go slow,” says Tsai. Eventually, she recommends taking it throughout the day so that you can keep your system calm and feel balanced overall.* “Give it six to eight weeks to see the full benefits over time,”* she suggests.
The bottom line.
Ashwagandha can be a powerful tool for easing stress and anxiousness.* To maximize its benefits, be sure to pair it with other stress-relieving activities such as exercising, meditating, and eating whole foods.
Carina Wolff is a freelance writer and blogger who covers food, health and wellness. Her bylines have appeared in Bustle, Reader’s Digest, FabFitFun, and more. Carina has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology from New York University. She is the author of two cookbooks and runs a clean-eating food blog called Kale Me Maybe. When she's not writing and cooking, you can find her reading, hiking, or at the beach.