What Is Ashwagandha?

A registered dietitian takes a closer look at this trendy supplement.


Photo by: eskymaks


This trendy supplement (pronounced as-wa-gan-dha) has actually been around for centuries. Ashwagandha is a shrub that grows in India and parts of the Middle East, and it’s being marketed as an adaptogen, a compound that is thought to protect the body from stress. Many also believe that supplementing with ashwagandha might prevent and treat many health conditions. But as with any nutrition supplement, there’s always the question as to whether or not it really does what it promises.

What is Ashwagandha?

Also known as "Indian Winter Cherry" or "Indian Ginseng," ashwagandha is often used in Aryuvedic medicine — an ancient Indian form of medicine that is still in practice today. Although it’s mainly sourced from India, ashwagandha can also be found in other parts of Asia, like Nepal and China. The word ashwagandha means "smell of horse", which describes the root’s pungent aroma. Usually the root is crushed down into a powder form and mixed with hot water or warm milk.

Many Americans have started including ashwagandha in their daily diets as a means to reduce physiological stress and inflammation. But due to the strong taste, it’s best to try it in a way that masks the taste. "I usually mix it in my morning smoothies, and I don’t even taste it," says Registered Dietitian, Tawnie Kroll, RDN. You can purchase ashwagandha in tablet, liquid or powder form. However, like any supplement, it is not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), so there’s no way to be certain that the supplement matches what’s on the label.

What Does the Research Say?

Recently, more research has been performed on the effects of Ashwagandha on medical conditions, such as cancer, obesity, inflammation, and neurodegenerative disorders. Unfortunately, the majority of the studies have been performed in rats, which are not always indicative of human results. However, two human studies have examined ashwagandha’s efficacy in aiding with post-workout recovery and weight loss.

The first study, published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, examined the effects of consuming ashwagandha root extract on muscle mass and strength in healthy young men. Participants were given either 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root or placebo twice a day for 8-weeks. The researchers found that the group treated with ashwagandha had significantly greater increases in muscle strength and muscle size, as compared to those who took a placebo. They also experienced less exercise-induced muscle damage. Yet, the researchers admit that more research needs to be done in the area.

The second study, published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, looked at the link between consuming ashwagandha root extract and improvements in general well- being as well as reductions in the physiological markers of stress Participants took either 300 milligrams of ashwagandha or placebo twice daily. After 4 weeks of treatment, the researchers observed a reduction in scores on the perceived stress scale and a reduction of body weight and body mass index. Although the research did not examine causation, it seems that there is a correlation between taking ashwagandha root and a reduction of stress and weight.

The Bottom Line

There’s research to back up some of the health claims surrounding ashwagandha. However, human trials are limited, and many are the first of their kind. It likely won’t hurt you to add this ancient root to your daily routine, but a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and daily exercise can also help fight off stress and inflammation. "If it fits within my clients budget and they'd like to explore, then I recommend that they do so," says Kroll. "It may help with immunity, mood and energy," she adds.

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