From boosting your brain function to easing your anxiety, ashwagandha is touted as a cure-all or "adaptogen." This important Ayurvedic plant is a favorite in holistic wellness crowds. It's also considered a nootropic, a type of "smart drug" that boosts cognitive functions in otherwise healthy individuals.
Ashwagandha has real, documented effects, but as is often the case with natural remedies, it hasn't been studied for efficacy or safety the way a drug would. Today, we'll try and understand its safety and benefits!
What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is the Sanskrit name for the plant Withania somnifera. It's part of the nightshade family, so it's related to the tomato, eggplant, and pepper.
It grows in a few countries on the Indian subcontinent as well as in China and Yemen, but the bulk of its cultivation takes place in India where it has been an important part of the traditional medicine practice of Ayurveda.
To turn it into a supplement, the roots of the ashwagandha plant are dried and then crushed into a powder. There are also ashwagandha extracts that are made from the leaves. Both processing methods lead to a product that is rich in alkaloids and steroidal lactones, two types of compounds that are very bioactive and are likely responsible for the various effects of the plant.
In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is given as a remedy for a very wide range of conditions, including inflammation, constipation, insomnia, parasites, and even age-related weakness. Even the Latin name gives a hint for what ashwagandha does, since "somnifera" means sleep-inducing.
While we have a lot of respect for traditional and herbal medicine practices, we always like it when a supplement has some scientific backing.
Ashwagandha's Real Effects
Ashwagandha is part of a class of wellness ingredients called adaptogens. To understand what they are, we asked Triniti Gawthrop, the CEO & Founder of Ami Wellness.
"Adaptogens work to counteract the effects of stress in the body," she explains. "Stress causes very real physical changes in the body, including harming the neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. Adaptogens have properties that help counteract those harmful effects."
This kind of holistic effect has made ashwagandha a popular remedy for anxiety and a variety of different issues. The most common is as a self-treatment for anxiety, ADHD, and mood swings. There have been multiple studies so far, including double-blind ones, that have shown that ashwagandha can reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety and that it can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Ashwagandha is also anti-inflammatory, and it has been found to work in animal models both topically and internally, helping to reduce a few symptoms of inflammation including pain. Combined with its stress-relieving effects, it makes for a great alternative to CBD, although the two are also often taken in tandem.
Finally, it's very clear that ashwagandha has a powerful effect on hormones, from its ability to reduce cortisol levels to increasing thyroid hormone levels, which makes it a potential treatment for hypothyroidism. Men often take it since it promotes beneficial hormones that improve their vitality and support their immune system.
Ways of Using Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha can be taken in a lot of different ways. The most popular method is as a capsule, which offers a controlled amount of the extract. A typical dosage is between 250-800 mg per day.
However, there are many other ways of benefiting from it! Bala Sarda, the founder of Vahdam Teas, recommends taking it as a milk tea, which is reminiscent of traditional techniques.
"This method of having Ashwagandha tea is similar to the ancient Kshirpaka method. Kshir means milk and paka means cooked," he explains. "It involves boiling the Ashwagandha tea in milk till it is reduced to almost half. This will ensure the goodness of Ashwagandha is extracted in the milk."
Ashwagandha also has benefits when applied topically, surprisingly enough! Brands like Ami Wellness are using it in conjunction with full-spectrum hemp to make deeply soothing and reparative skin oils.
"It is a potent antioxidant, it helps protect the skin against free radical damage and slow down the aging process by firming your skin. It also stimulates the production of natural skin oils which creates a more youthful look," explains Triniti Gawthrop.
As is often the case with any bioactive substance, ashwagandha can also have unpleasant side-effects or risks, especially when it's taken internally in high quantities. There have been multiple instances of liver injury caused by ashwagandha, which often occurs along with severe itching or jaundice.
Additionally, some of the positive effects of ashwagandha can become negatives - since it's a treatment for hypothyroidism, it worsens hyperthyroidism, and it can trigger unnecessary immune responses in people who have immune disorders like MS or lupus.
Finally, some users on Reddit's Nootropics community note a negative effect on their mood: A few users mentioned worsening anxiety, while another reported feeling overly emotionless and detached. These side-effects generally went away once they stopped taking ashwagandha.
As with many other natural supplements, sourcing is also extremely important. It's not unheard of for the ashwagandha plant to absorb heavy metals from the soil where it's grown. Tainted ashwagandha can come with a whole range of its own side-effects, which is why buying from reputable sellers is always important.