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Ashwagandha

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 17, 2020
photo of ashwagandha supplement powder

The root and berry of the ashwagandha plant are a traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India. Ashwagandha is used as a tonic (it is sometimes referred to as the “Indian ginseng”) to improve physical and mental health and to treat a number of specific conditions.

Why do people take ashwagandha?

There's some early evidence that ashwagandha affects the immune system and helps reduce swelling, from both arthritis and fluid retention. However, the practical benefits and risks for people aren't clear yet.

One study found that a compound containing ashwagandha helped relieve osteoarthritis symptoms. It's not clear which of the ingredients had the benefit since ashwaganda is traditionally used in combination with other herbs. Ashwagandha might help lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes and lower high cholesterol. Since ashwagandha has sedative effects, it could help ease anxiety and stress -- in fact, human studies have indicated as much. There is some preliminary research that it may help with epilepsy and memory loss, but these results are too early to say for sure if it could benefit humans.

Some lab tests of cancer cells have found that ashwagandha might slow down their growth. Animal studies have found that ashwagandha could boost the effects of radiation therapy. However, these are early results. It isn't known if ashwagandha will help people with cancer.

People use ashwagandha for other health conditions, including anemia. It is high in iron and has been shown to help increase hemoglobin levels. For many of the other purported uses, there isn't evidence to support ashwaganda’s benefits.

How much ashwagandha should you take?

There is no standard dose of ashwagandha. Some people use between 1 to 6 grams of the whole herb daily. Others mix 3 grams of ashwagandha powder in warm milk. There are also standardized extracts available. Ask your doctor for advice about forms of ashwagandha and doses.

Can you get ashwagandha naturally from foods?

In some parts of the world, people eat ashwagandha shoots, seeds, and fruit.

What are the risks of taking ashwagandha?

  • Side effects. Since ashwagandha has not been well-studied, we don't know all of its side effects. Large doses can cause upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Risks. Talk to a doctor before using ashwagandha if you have any health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, thyroid problems, bleeding disorders, ulcers, lupus, multiple sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis. Ashwagandha might interfere with thyroid tests. Stop taking ashwagandha two weeks before surgery.
  • Interactions. If you take any drugs or supplements regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using ashwagandha supplements. They could interact with sedatives, blood thinners, thyroid supplements, drugs that suppress the immune system, and drugs for anxiety, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Ashwagandha might also interact with supplements that cause sleepiness, like St. John's wort, kava, valerian, and others.

Given the risk of miscarriage, pregnant women should not use ashwagandha. Women who are breastfeeding should also not use the herb. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Fundukian, L. ed. The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, third edition, 2009.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center web site: “About Herbs: Ashwagandha.”

Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database web site: “Ashwagandha.”

Natural Standard Patient Monograph: “Ashwagandha.”

Kulkarni S. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, July 2008; vol 32: pp 1093-1105.

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