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The Benefits of Ashwagandha: An Ancient, Stress-Soothing Herb

By Jenny Smiechowski

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Article at a Glance:

  • Ashwagandha is an ayurvedic herb that has a wide variety of benefits due to its adaptogenic and antioxidant properties.
  • Research shows that it has benefits related to stress, anxiety, sleep, energy, cognitive health, fertility, and blood sugar
  • It's considered safe for most people but should be avoided by people who are pregnant or have hyperthyroidism.
  • Individual dosage recommendations vary (and should be determined by a trusted healthcare professional), but most studies use a dosage between 250 and 600 mg per day.

In this fast-paced world filled with demanding work deadlines, never-ending social media notifications, divisive politics, and sensational news coverage (not to mention that sink full of dirty dishes, the basket of unfolded laundry, and those leaf-filled gutters), many of us need something to soothe our nervous system, ease stress, and restore our inner state of equilibrium. Enter: ashwagandha.

What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is an herb used for centuries in the ancient Indian healing tradition known as Ayurveda. Its nickname is the “King of Ayurvedic Herbs” because of its wide variety of benefits and ability to bring your body into a state of balance.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) comes from an evergreen shrub native to India, Africa, and the Middle East. Both the berries and root of the ashwagandha plant are used medicinally, but its name comes from the root. In Sanskrit, “ashwa” means “horse” and the root has a smell that may bring back vivid memories of the last time you visited a horse stable (don’t worry, most ashwagandha products you buy won’t have this odor).

Why Is It Good for You?

Ashwagandha powder and root on cutting board from above.

Ashwagandha’s benefits come from its adaptogenic and antioxidant properties. An adaptogen is a plant or mushroom that helps your body adapt to stress. It does this by increasing or decreasing the body’s chemical reactions depending on what’s needed.

In a situation where you’re anxious, for example, you would have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. An adaptogen would help lower cortisol levels so they’re in balance. In a situation where your energy levels are depleted and you’re feeling exhausted, you would have low cortisol levels and ashwagandha would help raise them to give you more vim and vigor.

Since it has antioxidant properties, ashwagandha can also promote healthy inflammation levels in the body.

What Are the Benefits of Ashwagandha?

Women doing yoga in the grass field.

Research shows that ashwagandha can have a positive impact on many aspects of your physical and mental health. Here are a few of the most well-documented:

  • Stress and Anxiety. Numerous studies on animals and humans show that ashwagandha root and leaf extracts have effective anti-stress and anti-anxiety properties.
  • Sleep. Research shows that ashwagandha may be able to improve sleep quality, which makes sense given its ability to ease stress and anxiety (the usual suspects behind a bad night’s sleep).
  • Energy. Although it seems like a contradiction, ashwagandha's adaptogenic properties mean that it can somehow calm you down and give you energy depending on what you need. There are a variety of studies that demonstrate its ability to increase energy and physical endurance.
  • Cognitive health. A research review that included five clinical studies found that ashwagandha has the potential to improve cognitive function in older people with cognitive impairment, as well as people with mental health conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
  • Fertility. Ashwagandha's ability to improve sperm health in men dealing with infertility seems promising according to a 2017 research review that included 4 clinical studies.
  • Blood Sugar. A research review that included data from 24 studies (5 of which were clinical trials) found that ashwagandha could help balance blood sugar.

Is Ashwagandha Safe? What Are the Side Effects?

Ashwagandha is generally considered safe when used appropriately. Side effects are typically mild if they occur at all. Side effects could include:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Stomach irritation
  • Diarrhea

Although there isn’t enough research to say exactly why some people experience side effects from ashwagandha and others don’t, we do know that stomach-related side effects (like nausea, stomach irritation, and diarrhea) are more likely to occur when you take larger doses (over 1,500 mg of root extract). Drowsiness is more likely to occur if you take ashwagandha with other sedative medications.

There are a few groups that should avoid ashwagandha. Pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha due to the risk of preterm labor, and people with hyperthyroidism should avoid it due to the risk of it making their condition worse. We always recommend checking with a trusted healthcare professional before adding a new herb to your repertoire, especially if you have health conditions.

How Should I Consume Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha root on wooden table.

These days, you’ll find ashwagandha in everything from supplements to chocolate to bedtime beverages. (It’s even in our clean energy drink Re-Lyte Boost). Honestly, the best way to incorporate ashwagandha into your daily routine will depend on your individual situation and what you’re using it for.

There’s still some discrepancy about how much you need to experience its benefits. Studies on ashwagandha typically use a dosage that varies between 250 and 600 mg of root extract per day. The most common dosage regimen in these studies is 300 mg twice per day (morning and evening). Once again, we recommend partnering with a healthcare provider you trust (your family physician, a naturopath, an herbalist, or someone else who knows your health history and has expertise in this area) to figure out what’s right for you.

Ashwagandha has the potential to support a lot of people in their healthy living journeys, but we know it’s not for everybody. If you’re looking for other ways to relieve stress and feel your best, check out this blog post. If more energy is what you’re searching for, here’s a post that could help.

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