Health Benefits of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb with a long history. It’s one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda, an ancient study of natural healing that’s been practiced in India for more than 6,000 years.

Although it’s better known as ashwagandha, the small shrub native to East Asia and North Africa is referred to as Withania somnifera in many studies. Some of ashwagandha’s traditional and medicinal uses include:

Modern research confirms some aspects of these claims and points to additional potential health benefits. Ashwagandha is made up of nutrients with anti-inflammatory, brain-protective, and stress reduction abilities that may protect your body against many diseases. 

Ashwagandha is available in powder, extract, and supplement form at nutritional shops and health food grocers. It’s also sometimes called Indian ginseng or Winter cherry. 

Health Benefits

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is most commonly known for its mood-lifting effects. Scientific research supports its potential to treat clinical depressive disorders. Studies show that its effects are comparable to common prescription antidepressants

These findings are in line with ongoing research into the herb’s potential to treat a wider range of cognitive diseases — like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s. Ashwagandha may also be helpful for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Research also shows how taking ashwagandha provides you with more health benefits, like:

Stress Reduction

Cortisol is a hormone your body releases in response to stress, activating your fight-or-flight response. High and chronic stress levels have serious health effects over time, including reduced immunity, heart problems, and nervous system problems.

Studies show ashwagandha reduces cortisol levels in your body, reducing stress and its symptoms like elevated blood pressure and heart rate.

It also helps block nervous system activity associated with conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, and clinical depression

Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases

Ashwagandha has anti-inflammatory properties. While inflammation is a natural response to infection or stress, chronic inflammation over time is linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases

The herb also contains high levels of many antioxidants that protect your cells from damage caused by aging, your environment, and lifestyle. Studies have found that in particular, these antioxidants support healthy brain and nervous system activity. 

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Ashwagandha has long been believed to boost memory and concentration. While modern research is still ongoing, early studies show it may improve your cognitive performance and may reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline and disease. 

Anti-Cancer Properties

Along with lowering risk factors of many chronic diseases, ashwagandha may help reduce your cancer risk. Studies focus on a specific antioxidant called withaferin that can kill cancer cells and block tumor growth. While much more research is needed, animal tests show it can help treat several types of cancer — including lung, cervical, prostate, thyroid, breast, and colon.  

Lower Risk of Diabetes

Research suggests that ashwagandha can help manage your blood sugar levels and lower possible insulin resistance — a condition where the body doesn’t use sugars properly. Scientists suggest that ashwagandha may help prevent and treat diabetes and other metabolic disorders

Health Risks

Ashwagandha has been safely used for thousands of years to promote good health and treat a wide range of conditions. However, the herb’s potent nutritional profile may cause health risks for some people. Talk to your doctor before adding ashwagandha to your diet.

Before taking ashwagandha, consider these risks:

Mild Side Effects

Reported negative side effects are generally mild and resolve quickly. They include stomach discomfort, diarrhea, and drowsiness.

If you experience more severe or ongoing symptoms like vertigo, decreased appetite, blurred vision, skin rash, or irregular heartbeat, discontinue taking the herb and see your doctor. 

Drug Interactions

Ashwagandha may interact with common medications that treat depressive and nervous system disorders like benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, or barbiturates

Because it can lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels, people taking medications to manage these conditions or diabetes may need to adjust their dosage to use ashwagandha safely.

Increases in Hormone Levels

Ashwagandha can increase testosterone levels. This effect can be harmful to people with hormone-resistant prostate cancer. It can also raise thyroid hormone levels in some people, so speak to your doctor if you are on medication for thyroid disease

Pregnancy Termination

At higher doses, ashwagandha can induce abortion in pregnant women.

There is not enough research to determine if it is safe for breastfeeding women. 

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Amounts and Dosage

The recommended daily dose of ashwagandha depends on the product and formulation. Talk to your doctor to help you find a reliable, safe brand.

In general, the easiest way to take ashwagandha is in capsule form. Most supplements contain about 450 to 500 milligrams.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 07, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines: ATJCAM: “An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda.”

Bagchi, D. (Ed.) Sustained Energy for Enhanced Human Functions and Activity, Academic Press, 2017.

Future Science OA: “The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain—body communication.”

Harvard Medical School: “Understanding acute and chronic inflammation.”

Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine: “A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults.”

International Journal of Molecular Medicine: “Ashwagandha root extract exerts anti inflammatory effects in HaCaT cells by inhibiting the MAPK/NF κB pathways and by regulating cytokines.”

Journal of Ethnopharmacology: “Direct evidence for GABAergic activity of Withania somnifera on mammalian ionotropic GABAA and GABAρ receptors.”

Kaul, S. and Wadhwa, R. (Eds.) Science of Ashwagandha: Preventive and Therapeutic Potentials, Springer International Publishing, 2017.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “Ashwagandha.”

Molecular Nutrition & Food Research: “Withania somnifera: from prevention to treatment of cancer.”

Natural Medicine Journal: “Effect of Ashwagandha on Tests of Cognitive and Psychomotor Performance.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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