What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is a small evergreen shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa.
Its botanical name is Withania somnifera, and it is also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry. The active chemical ingredients are known as withanolides.
The shrub's roots and berries are used to make an Ayurvedic medicine Ayurveda Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India, originating more than 4,000 years ago. It is based on the theory that illness results from the imbalance of the body’s life force or prana... read more (traditional Hindu medical system).
Ashwagandha is available in capsules and powders that can be mixed into soft foods (such as yogurt or oatmeal).
The root, root powder, and standardized withanolide extracts are used in a wide range of doses. (Unlike with prescription drugs, there is often little—or conflicting—evidence about the best dose of supplements, including ashwagandha.)
Some dietary supplements used to improve sleep or treat stress contain ashwagandha among other ingredients.
What claims are made about ashwagandha?
Advocates believe that ashwagandha is an adaptogen Adaptogens "Adaptogen" is a term for certain foods and supplements that are said to help the body cope with "stress." Stress may be psychologic (in the mind), but also may be physical (in the body), and... read more . This herbal medicine term means that this substance is thought to help the body respond to mental and physical stress and to restore normal emotional and physical body function.
In 2020 and 2021, some people began using ashwagandha to diminish the harmful effects of COVID-19, although there is no evidence to support that use.
The long list of other benefits claimed for ashwagandha includes
Reducing symptoms of stress that may lead to anxiety and depression
Increasing fertility in men
Helping people with insomnia sleep
Increasing muscle mass, strength, endurance, and energy
Reducing inflammation (for example, to help prevent cartilage damage caused by osteoarthritis)
Lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels
Lowering blood pressure
Improving brain function (including memory)
Reducing blood sugar levels in people with diabetes
Killing cancer cells
Reducing weight gain associated with cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress)
Does ashwagandha work?
Any single compound, including ashwagandha, is highly unlikely to have such a broad range of health benefits.
Studies in laboratories (for example, in cells and organs) have shown that ashwagandha reduces inflammation and relaxes the central nervous system. Studies in mice also suggest that this plant can reduce high blood sugar levels, boost the immune system (although what this means or how this could be done is not clear), and kill cancer cells. The findings from the studies in laboratories and mice have not been confirmed in studies of people.
Small studies in people suggest that ashwagandha might
Help reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue
Improve sleep quality in people with insomnia
Enhance brain function and help relieve anxiety in people with bipolar disorder
Larger studies in people are needed to confirm the benefits of ashwagandha.
What are the possible side effects of ashwagandha?
Taking ashwagandha by mouth for up to 3 months seems to be safe. Large doses can lead to an upset stomach, diarrhea, vomiting, and, in rare cases, liver problems.
Ashwagandha is probably unsafe for pregnant women because it might increase the risk of miscarriage.
Whether nursing mothers who take ashwagandha might pass its components into breast milk is unknown. Likewise, the effects of ashwagandha in nursing mothers and infants are unknown.
Ashwagandha can irritate the digestive system.
What drug interactions occur with ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha might lower blood sugar levels and thus make it unsafe to use with antihyperglycemic (glucose-lowering) drugs (by lowering blood sugar too much).
Because of its potential to lower blood pressure, ashwagandha might not be safe in people who take drugs to treat high blood pressure.
Ashwagandha, because it seems to make the immune system more active, could also interfere with drugs that suppress the immune system. Examples of these drugs include cyclosporine, mycophenolate, tacrolimus, prednisone, and corticosteroids.
Ashwagandha might make people drowsy or sleepy. So combining sedative-hypnotic drugs (used to help with sleep) with ashwagandha might make people too sleepy. Examples of these sedatives are zoldipem, eszoplicone, clonazepam, quetiapine, and lorazepam.
Ashwagandha may increase thyroid hormone levels, so doctors carefully monitor thyroid function by ordering blood tests for anyone who takes thyroid hormones and ashwagandha at the same time.
No beneficial health effects of ashwagandha have been confirmed in high-quality studies in people.
Use of ashwagandha is not recommended because there are no confirmed benefits to outweigh the possibility of negative side effects.
Ashwagandha is probably safe for most people; however,
Pregnant women, people with stomach ulcers, and those with liver disease should avoid ashwagandha.
Women who are breastfeeding and people who take certain drugs (including drugs to suppress the immune system, lower blood sugar, lower blood pressure, and some sedatives) should talk to their doctor before taking ashwagandha.
People taking thyroid hormones should also talk to their doctor about taking ashwagandha because blood levels of thyroid hormones may be affected.