Ashwagandha and Its Health Benefits
If you keep up with the latest wellness trends, it might seem like ashwagandha is everywhere these days. This adaptogenic herb is native to India and has been widely used for millennia. Now, you can find it on trendy coffeehouse menus — sometimes mixed with chai for a chilled-out latte — as well as in powders, capsules, tinctures, and other supplement forms.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Pronounced ahsh-wuh-gahn-DUH, this herb is also known as Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, or winter cherry. Its name is a mash-up of two Sanskrit words. Ashva means “horse,” while gandha means “smell,” a nod to the unique scent of fresh ashwagandha root. This plant is also a member of the nightshade family, and is a distant relative of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.
“Many people like to take ashwagandha for its adaptogenic properties,” says Emily Kyle, MS, RDN, CLT, and owner of EmilyKyleNutrition.com. “This means the herb has traditionally been used to help the body adapt and respond to the effects of stress.”
What Are the Benefits of Ashwagandha?
“Historically, ashwagandha has been used for a variety of conditions,” says Kelcie Harris, ND, a naturopathic physician based in Redmond, Oregon. “It has been used in the Ayurvedic tradition — one of the world’s oldest holistic practice systems — for thousands of years.”
In addition to extensive traditional use, this plant has also been studied for its effects on memory and sleep. While the initial results are positive, most of the condition-specific research involves small, preliminary studies. “At this point there’s just not enough research that’s been repeated,” says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, registered dietitian and Openfit Nutrition Manager.
Ashwagandha and stress
“The best evidence out there is related to taking ashwagandha to help with stress adaptation,” Giancoli says. “In one study, people who had taken ashwagandha felt less stressed than those who took a placebo.” A 2014 literature review reported that taking it yielded significantly better results than a placebo in some cases.
Ashwagandha for sleep support
Another fun fact about ashwagandha? The species name somnifera means “sleep-inducing” in Latin! So it only makes sense that healthy sleep is among ashwagandha root’s traditional Ayurvedic uses, says Harris, and some modern research backs that up. “Ashwagandha supports healthy sleep” she says.
However, Giancoli adds that ashwagandha could interfere with sleep medications, so talk to a healthcare professional before taking it with any other supplements or medications to help you rest.
Ashwagandha and thyroid health
Stress is managed by your adrenal glands, which is part of the same system as your thyroid. Therefore, it’s no surprise ashwagandha is also traditionally used for thyroid health.
“Ashwagandha is believed to help support healthy functions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis,” says Harris, citing a 2018 study. “It can also help support relaxation and thyroid function.”
What Are the Side Effects of Ashwagandha?
Thinking about adding ashwagandha root into your supplement routine? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
“Ashwagandha is usually well-tolerated, but side effects are possible, ,” says Harris.
“It may also interfere with diabetes, thyroid, and blood pressure medications, and should not be used if you have a history of stomach ulcers,” Harris adds. “I recommend speaking with a licensed naturopathic doctor for personalized advice regarding herbal medicine before beginning supplementation.” (That’s a good rule of thumb with any new-to-you herb.) You can also consult with your physician before taking any new supplements.
How Can I Take Ashwagandha?
How you take ashwagandha is a matter of preference. It can be made into a tea, decoction (an herb extracted in water — like a strong tea), tincture (an herb extracted in alcohol), powder, or capsule. As for serving size, always read the label and abide by the suggested use listed there. When in doubt, consult with your healthcare provider.
If you’re using ashwagandha powder or ashwagandha tea in food or drinks, remember its signature scent. “Many people find it difficult to consume because of its very bitter taste and rely on the supplement form to consume this adaptogen,” says Kyle. “However, there are many recipes that incorporate this powerful herbal supplement in a way that makes consuming it delicious and enjoyable.”
She suggests mixing the powder into your favorite tea or golden milk lattes. “Because it comes in a powder form, it is easy to incorporate into other recipes such as smoothies, energy bites, or baked goods,” she says.
What Is the Best Brand of Ashwagandha?
The sheer number of ashwagandha products out there can be overwhelming: ashwagandha supplements, ashwagandha powder, ashwagandha tea. Which one should you choose, and how do you pick the best quality? “It is important to remember that not all products are created equal,” cautions Harris. “Unfortunately, many companies make false ingredient claims and some products do not contain what they say they do.”
Anytime you shop for a supplement, consider these questions: Are they processed without harmful solvents or other additives? Is the company reputable? Do they test their products (including verification that what’s on the label is really what you’re buying.)? Are they making claims that sound too good to be true? Keep in mind that supplement companies have to abide by industry regulations for their claims, which are enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.