The Benefits of Ashwagandha

ashwagandha (withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha. Vaithinathan Muthuramann/StockFood Creative/Getty Images

If you live with stress in your life, you may be searching for ways to keep it at bay. You may have tried exercise or stress reduction techniques, like meditation, but there is also some research showing that the herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) may help.

Often called "Indian ginseng"—even though it is botanically unrelated to true ginseng—ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen (a substance said to strengthen your resistance to stress while enhancing your energy).

Uses for Ashwagandha

In addition to being used for stress and anxiety, ashwagandha is said to boost the immune system after an illness.

It is also included in formulations that aim to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, pain, fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, skin infections, cerebellar ataxia, diabetes, high cholesterol, and Parkinson's disease.

The Benefits of Ashwagandha

Research on ashwagandha is limited, but several studies suggest that the herb may be useful in addressing the following health problems:

1) Anxiety

In a review published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2014, researchers analyzed five previously published trials on the use of ashwagandha for anxiety. All five studies found that treatment with ashwagandha resulted in greater score improvements (compared to placebo) on scales measuring anxiety and stress.

In their conclusion, the researchers cautioned that there was an unclear or high risk of potential bias and a variety of study methods used in the trials.

2) Weight Loss

Preliminary research suggests that ashwagandha may be useful for weight loss in people with chronic stress. In a 2017 study, for instance, adults living with chronic stress received either ashwagandha root extract or a placebo twice daily for eight weeks.

Treatment with ashwagandha resulted in a reduction in scores on a perceived stress scale at four and eight weeks, compared to a placebo.

There was also significant improvement in food cravings, body weight, body mass index (BMI), reactive eating, cortisol levels, well-being, and happiness.

3) Muscle Strength and Recovery

Ashwagandha may boost muscle strength, according to a study published in the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2015. For the study, men with little experience in resistance training took either ashwagandha or a placebo for eight weeks. At the study's end, the men who took ashwagandha had significantly greater increases in muscle strength on the bench press and leg extension exercises and greater muscle size in the arms and chest.

Where it's Found

Ashwagandha is available in capsules, powders, and tinctures, all of which can be found in many health-food stores and pharmacies specializing in natural remedies. The herb is also commonly featured in adaptogen supplements that contain a variety of herbs like ginseng and rhodiola.

Side Effects

According to a research review, side effects of ashwagandha have included giddiness, a heavy sensation in the head, blurry vision, elevated testosterone levels, and increased stomach acid.

The herb may induce an abortion if it is taken in very large doses. Therefore, pregnant women should avoid the use of ashwagandha.

Breastfeeding women and children should also avoid ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha may also increase the potency of barbiturates (a class of drugs that depresses the central nervous system), sedatives, and anxiety medication. People who have low cortisol levels or who take medication that affects their cortisol levels should avoid ashwagandha.

If you take blood-thinning medication or have a bleeding disorder, be sure to consult your doctor before taking ashwagandha. The herb should be discontinued at least two weeks prior to a scheduled surgery.

In a case report, a 32-year old healthy woman developed thyrotoxicosis (a condition that causes excess thyroid hormone in the body) after taking capsules containing ashwagandha.

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is on the label.

The Takeaway

Chronic stress is most effectively managed with a variety of approaches, such as regular exercise and relaxation techniques. While there is some research suggesting that ashwagandha can help reduce stress and stress-related conditions like insomnia and overeating, there haven't been any large-scale clinical trials. If you're still thinking of trying it, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider to determine whether it is right for you.

Sources:

Choudhary D, Bhattacharyya S, Joshi K. Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017 Jan;22(1):96-106.

Pratte MA, Nanavati KB, Young V, Morley CP. An alternative treatment for anxiety: a systematic review of human trial results reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). J Altern Complement Med. 2014 Dec;20(12):901-8.

Wankhede S, Langade D, Joshi K, Sinha SR, Bhattacharyya S. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Nov 25;12:43.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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