Ashwagandha: 4 Powerful Health Benefits Of This Stress-Busting Adaptogenic Herb

mbg Associate Health Editor By Darcy McDonough, M.S.
mbg Associate Health Editor
Darcy is the associate health editor. She has a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Medical review by Heather Moday, M.D.
Allergist & Immunologist
Heather Moday, M.D. is the founder of the Moday Center for Functional and Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia, where she practices both traditional medicine and integrative medicine.

Image by Pixel Stories / Stocksy

Unless you've been doing a major digital detox lately (if so, props to you), then you've probably noticed that the Instagram world is a little obsessed with adaptogens. Everyone seems to be stirring ashwagandha into their lattes or sprinkling it into their smoothies. But what exactly is this hard-to-pronounce powder, and why is everyone so crazy about adaptogens?

Here, we break down everything you need to know about the history, health benefits, and major stress-relieving properties of ashwagandha.   

First of all, what are adaptogens?

It turns out this "new" trend isn't so new after all. Adaptogens are a class of ancient herbs that have been used for thousands of years to balance hormones, alleviate stress, and fight fatigue. Part of the ayurvedic tradition, a 5,000-year-old system of medicine emphasizing the mind-body connection, adaptogens are nontoxic herbal supplements that have a nonspecific effect on the human body, meaning they don't do just one thing; they actually respond to what your body needs, whether that's a boost or a little relaxation, to promote and restore balance.

Functional medicine doctor and mbg Collective member Frank Lipman, M.D., explained that "adaptogens work a bit like a thermostat. When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high, it brings it down, and when the temperature is too low, it brings it up. Adaptogens can calm you down and boost your energy at the same time without overstimulating." Basically, they know exactly how to keep you balanced and feeling calm by helping your system adapt.

OK, so you're on board and adaptogen-curious, but where to start? Considered one of the most powerful herbs in ayurveda, ashwagandha is definitely one of the most popular adaptogens. Ashwagandha has an earthy flavor, (its name literally means "horse smell"), but you can find it in easy-to-throw-in-a-smoothie powders or hidden in delicious products like granola and spicy chai drinks.

Ashwagandha and stress.

Recently, ancient herbs have gone totally mainstream. Ashwagandha, maca, and rhodiola rosea, to name a few, can be found in health food stores or even served up at your local coffee shop. And it's easy to see why. With our modern go-go-go lifestyles, who doesn't want a warm mug of Zen? All adaptogens have hormone-balancing properties, but here is exactly how Ashwagandha can help lower stress levels and promote an overall sense of calm:

When our bodies encounter stress—an overflowing inbox, looming deadline, or even just exercise—our adrenal glands get the signal that it's go time. The adrenal system is in charge of the body's stress response and regulates hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When these "stress hormones" are released, the body goes into a "fight or flight" mode. Your pulse quickens, your senses are heightened, and unnecessary systems like digestion are halted while you deal with the threat on hand, which was great when we were being confronted by real threats, like tigers, but nowadays we are constantly being bombarded by stressors and thereby constantly revving up our stress hormones. Chronic exposure to cortisol and adrenaline can take a major toll on your health and has been linked to chronic disease, as well as dysregulation of of our adrenal-brain axis, what some people refer to as adrenal fatigue.

That's where ashwagandha comes in. In ayurvedic tradition ashwagandha has long been touted for its anti-stress properties, and modern science is starting to back those beliefs up. This potent herb works by supporting the adrenal system to mediate the body's response to stress. In one study, participants who took ashwagandha for 60 days lowered their cortisol levels by almost 30 percent. In addition, they scored lower on validated surveys assessing stress and anxiety levels. Animal studies replicating chronic stress have also shown that ashwagandha can increase tolerance to stress. And with our modern lifestyles, we'll take all the help we can get on the stress front.

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Health benefits of ashwagandha.

Functional medicine physician and founder of Parsley Health Robin Berzin, M.D., calls stress "the most dangerous toxin your body faces every day." Linked to everything from inflammation to gut issues, increased stress is at the root of many modern illnesses. So, it's no wonder that a stress-reducing powerhouse like ashwagandha has a whole host of additional health benefits beyond keeping you calm, cool, and collected. Here are some of the health benefits of ashwagandha:

1. Blood sugar balancing

It turns out stress and cortisol play an important role in blood sugar levels. As part of the "fight or flight" stress response, cortisol taps into glucose stores for an instant boost of energy to help you get away from that tiger—er email. On top of flooding our system with sugar, cortisol also pulls the brake on insulin, making it harder to shuttle all that free sugar out of the blood stream and back into storage. Over time, this constant flood of blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. However, ashwagandha's anti-stress and cortisol-lowering properties can help mitigate these spikes and have been shown to balance blood sugar. In fact, one small study found that ashwagandha was as effective as oral hypoglycemic medication at lowering blood sugar levels in diabetes patients. 

2. Immunity boosting

In ayurveda, ashwagandha is considered a rasayana, or rejuvenator, and is often recommended to restore the immune system after illness. The secret to ashwagandha's immunity-boosting powers may trace back to stress. Stress is known to weaken the immune system, leaving you susceptible to infection. That's because, as part of the "fight or flight" response, the immune system is put on hold. But ashwagandha can act as a powerful antioxidant, stimulating the immune system. In fact, ashwagandha has been shown to increase cytokine levels, an important indicator of immune response. 

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3. Thyroid and hypothyroidism

About 20 million Americans suffer from hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, and women are especially at risk. The thyroid produces important metabolism-regulating hormones. Often accompanied by weight gain and fatigue, hypothyroidism can affect everything from bone strength to heart health and even sex drive. Although hypothyroidism is typically caused by an underlying autoimmune disorder like Hashimoto's disease, chronic stress can exacerbate symptoms. This is because stress, and elevated cortisol levels, actually inhibit thyroid hormone production as part of the "fight or flight" response, deprioritizing digestion and metabolism. Ashwagandha has been shown to support the thyroid, increasing the production of both T3 and T4 thyroid hormones. In one study, participants with subclinical hypothyroidism who supplemented with ashwagandha were able to normalize their thyroid hormone levels in eight weeks.

While raising thyroid hormone levels is beneficial for those suffering from hypothyroidism, it is important to note that it can be dangerous for those who already have elevated thyroid hormone levels. Functional medicine practitioner Will Cole, D.C., warns, "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." It is always better to err on the side of caution.

4. Cognitive health

Although the science is still emerging, studies of ashwagandha have shown promising results for cognitive function and neuroprotective properties. In-vitro studies show that ashwagandha can protect glial and neuronal cells from oxidative stress, potentially defending against cognitive decline. In addition, ashwagandha has even been shown to stimulate neural growth and regeneration in memory-impaired mice. One study found that ashwagandha reversed signs of Alzheimer's in mice. Ashwagandha may offer a potent therapeutic alternative for brain health.

Is ashwagandha safe?

To be classified as an adaptogen, an herb must meet three requirements: It must have a nonspecific effect on the body, it must promote and restore balance, and finally, it must be nontoxic and safe for long-term use. As such, ashwagandha is generally considered safe to consume. However, large doses have been reported to cause side effects such as upset stomach and diarrhea. 

There are some people who should avoid ashwagandha. Dr. Lipman cautions, "Avoid if you're pregnant, taking sedatives, or have severe gastric irritation or ulcers." As noted before, those with elevated thyroid hormone levels should also use caution with ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha is part of the nightshade family, a group of plants that includes eggplants, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Nightshades are a common culprit of food sensitivities due to their high lectin content. Food sensitivity symptoms include bloating, headache, and digestive issues. If you have a food sensitivity to nightshades, you may not be able to tolerate ashwagandha. Food allergies are more severe than food sensitivities. Nightshade allergies are rare, but if you have history of food allergies or have experienced fever, rash, or other symptoms after consuming nightshades, you should avoid ashwagandha.

As with any supplement, consult with your physician before adding ashwagandha to your routine.

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How (and how much) ashwagandha should you take?

There is no standard dose of ashwagandha, but many studies cite 100 to 500 mg as an effective dose. Adaptogens are highly individualized, though, so start small and see how you feel, slowly upping your dose until you hit your personal sweet spot.

Luckily, there are tons of delicious ways to add ashwagandha to your day. Ashwagandha can be found in many forms, but traditionally it has been consumed in the powdered form, combined with water, ghee, and honey to create a tonic. It can also be easily incorporated into baked goods, like these apoptogenic pumpkin-spice muffins, or combined with other adaptogens for a healing golden milk latte.

Adding adaptogens like ashwagandha to your supplement routine is a great way to naturally mediate stress and reap major health benefits. However, don't expect to be stress-free overnight. Adaptogens take the slow-and-steady route, gradually offering subtle support to help your body find balance and increase resilience. So, with adaptogens, consistency (and patience) is key.

And, while ashwagandha is a powerful ancient herb, it isn't magic. Stress management and self-care are still an important piece of the puzzle. Try these nine ways to shift your mindset when you're feeling stressed.   

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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