Let me begin by explaining what Ashwagandha is. According to the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), ashwagandha is an herb that has been used in Ayurvedic Medicine, and originated in India nearly 4,000 years ago (2000). Its name is descriptive of its unpleasant odor, and sedative action. In Sanskrit, “ashva” means horse, and “gandha” means bad smell. The Latin or scientific name of the herb is Withania somnifera, and somnifera comes from the Latin word somnus, which means to sleep (AHP, 2000).
Currently and historically ashwaghanda has many uses. It works as an antioxidant and diuretic, decreases blood sugar levels, reduces inflammation, reduces swelling in glands and abdomen, serves as a mild purgative or laxative, supports the immune system, stimulates the thyroid, improves cognition, supports anti-aging, and is used to treat arthritis, anxiety, cancer, high cholesterol, insomnia, physical debility, poor memory, and stress (AHP, 2000; Petersen, 2014; Ulbricht, 2010).
Evidence of Ashwagandha Supporting Stress
Ashwagandha is regarded as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are a class of natural substances that help the body adapt to stress and improve its chances of getting back to a healthy balance, known as homeostasis, when under stressful conditions.
Studies conducted on mice showed that mice that were fed ashwagandha had a reduction in the stress syndrome, including a reduction in size in the adrenal glands. Other studies showed that rats subjected to stressful conditions, such as shock or cold water swimming, that were given ashwagandha had more tolerance to these stressful conditions than those that did not (Mishra, Singh, & Dagenais, 2000). To find out more about stress syndrome, read my previous article on stress.
Although studies on animals are useful to understand the potential of an herb, they do not necessarily indicate how the herb will act in humans.
Pratte, Nanavati, Young & Morley (2014) conducted a review of several human trials that looked at the effect of ashwagandha on humans suffering from anxiety and stress. In one study, 130 participants received either 125 mg of ashwagandha daily, 250 mg of the herb daily, 500 mg of the herb daily, or a placebo. Except for the participants receiving the placebo, all the others saw marked improvement in stress reduction (Pratte et al., 2014).
Another study with 81 participants looked at two treatment options for stress. Participants were divided into two groups, where one group received counseling sessions from a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) and a daily dose of 600 mg of ashwagandha. The other group received cognitive behavioral therapy and a daily dose of a placebo. The group that saw the ND and took ashwagandha saw greater reductions in anxiety and stress than did the other group (Pratte et al., 2014).
Finally, in a clinical trial with 64 participants, where half received 600 mg of ashwagandha daily and the other half received a placebo, the group receiving ashwagandha had less perceived stress and lower levels of cortisol in the bloodstream than the group receiving the placebo (Pratte et al., 2014).
Everyone Can Take Ashwagandha Except…
Generally, ashwagandha is not considered toxic (AHP, 2000). Clinical trials have administered the herb at the correct dosage for up to 32 weeks, and seen no adverse reactions (ACHS, 2014). However, those who are allergic ashwagandha should avoid its use, as it has been known to cause dermatitis (Ulbricht, 2010). People suffering from peptic ulcer disease, type 2 diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and low blood pressure should use it with caution (Ulbricht, 2010).
Pregnant and lactating women are not recommended to use ashwagandha, given the lack of evidence of its effect. It is believed to cause abortions, although there has been no evidence of this (Ulbricht, 2010). There is also little evidence to recommend the use of the ashwagandha in infants and children. However, it is traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to support children who are debilitated. In a clinical trial children ranging in ages from 8 to 12 years were administered the herb at a dose of 2 g per day, dissolved in milk, for up to 60 days with no toxicity noted (Ulbricht, 2010).
It should also be used with caution when taking certain drugs. It may interact with diuretics, diabetes medications, drugs to lower blood pressure, cholinesterase inhibiting medications, cyclophosphamide, immunomodulating drugs, sedatives, hypnotics, central nervous system depressants, barbiturates, ethanol, drugs for hyperthyroidism, diuretics, chemotherapy agents, and paclitaxel (Ulbricht, 2010).
How Much to Consume
Adult men and women can consume ashwagandha in many forms. Most natural health food stores sell the herb. Make sure that the label indicates that it contains Withania somnifera and no other additive or ingredient, unless it is part of a multi-herb supplement. If that is the case, ensure there are no fillers or additives in the supplement, and all the other ingredients are natural and herbal. If the label states it is ashwagandha, but does not specify it is Withania somnifera I would not recommend using the product. I would highly recommend consuming only certified organic products.
According to Natural Standard: Herb & Supplement Guide, ashwagandha can be administered as follows:
- Capsule: 1 to 6 g per day
- Powder: Dissolve 3 g in boiled warm milk and take 2 times per day
- Tea made from the plant’s fresh root: Prepare using the ratio of 1 part of root to 10 parts water. Tea can be taken twice daily
- Tea made from the whole herb: Prepare tea by using 1 to 6 g of the whole herb, and pour in 1 cup of water of boiling water. Steep for up to 5 minutes. Tea can be consumed twice daily
- Tincture: 2 to 4 mL of tincture or fluid extract form, up to three times per day
- Decoction made from dried herb: Add 5 tsp of dried herb in 1 cup of boiling milk, and consume once per day
- Part of a multi-herb formula: Ensure formula includes 3 to 12 g of ashwagandha within the multi-herb formula
Regardless of how the herb is consumed, I would not recommend that it be consumed for longer than a 60-day period. Supplements are a great way to support health, but taking them for long periods can have adverse effects. Ashwagandha may make you sleepy, cause respiratory problems, decrease blood pressure, affect heart rhythms, and cause diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, and irritation of mucus and serous membranes (Ulbricht, 2010). Always consult a healthcare professional before taking any type of supplement.
American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. (2000). Ashwagandha root, Withania somnifera Analytical, Quality Control, and Therapeutic Monograph. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Compendium. Upton, R. (Ed.). Scotts Valley, CA: AHP.
Mishra, L. C., Singh, B. B. & Dagenais, S. (2000). Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review. Alternative Medicine Review, 5(4), 334-346. Retrieved from http://www.altmedrev.com/publications/5/4/334.pdf
Petersen, D. (2014). Herb 503 Advanced Materia Medica II. Portland, OR: American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Pratte, M. A., Nanavati, K. B., Young, V., & Morley, C. P. (2014). An alternative treatment for anxiety: a systematic review of human trial results reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(12), 901-903. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0177
Ulbricht, C. E. (2010). Natural Standard: Herb & Supplement Guide- An Evidence-Based Reference. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
Wichtl, M. (Ed.). (2004). Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals: A Handbook for the Practice on a Scientific Basis, 3rd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
"Ashwagandha or Withania Somnifera" By Vinayaraj - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40924406