Is Ashwagandha Healthy?

We break down the science behind this popular adaptogen.

August 06, 2020
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Photo by: Eugeniusz Dudzinski/Getty Images

Eugeniusz Dudzinski/Getty Images

Ashwagandha, an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, has become quite popular in America. In Sanskrit, the word ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse” as the root is known for smelling like a one. It’s believed to help conditions like inflammation and daily stress, along with treating rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and epilepsy. It’s also thought to enhance the function of the brain and nervous system improving memory and promoting sexual balance. Ashwagandha does sound like a miracle supplement, but there are some things to consider before you try it.

What Is Ashwagandha?

Common names for Withania somnifera include ashwagandha, Indian ginseng and winter cherry. The small evergreen shrub grows to about four to five feet tall and is found in dry areas in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. The herb is touted as an adaptogen (used to help adapt to everyday stresses) in Indian Ayurvedic medicine in order to improve overall health, longevity and energy levels.

The Science of Ashwagandha

There are more than 35 chemical constituents of ashwagandha that have been isolated, and many have been studied, including bioactive components like alkaloids, steroidal lactones and saponins. However, most of the research on ashwagandha has been conducted in test tubes or on animals; few human studies have been done. This means there is extremely limited data of its supposed benefits. Below are two studies that show positive results, but certainly more research is needed.

One study conducted on rats examined the effects of ashwagandha in rats swimming in cold water (designated as the stressor). Rats given an ashwagandha supplement could tolerate the cold water longer compared to the rats who received placebo saline solution. A 2012 prospective, randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study looked at 64 humans with a history of chronic stress as measured by blood cortisol levels. Those who took one capsule of ashwagandha root extract twice a day for 60 days had substantially lower blood cortisol levels compared to placebo.

Is It Safe?

According to the Natural Medicine database, ashwagandha is possibly safe when used orally for up to three months. Short term side effects may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and upset stomach. Long-term safety and side effects are unknown. Ashwagandha can interact with medications used to treat conditions such as diabetes, low or high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, autoimmune disease and thyroid disorders. In addition, it is likely unsafe during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Should You Try It?

There is no safe and effective dosage for ashwagandha that has been established. The herb also tends to be added to foods and supplements that already contain vitamins, minerals and other herbs that can be contraindicated for certain health conditions and medications. That is why it is important to always check with your healthcare provider to see if ashwagandha is safe for you. If you do choose to take it, use it for a short period of time only.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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