If you’ve been browsing the aisles of your local pharmacy or swiping on TikTok, you’re probably familiar with ashwagandha or have seen celebrities and influencers touting the supplement’s stress-relieving benefits.
Ashwagandha is a “very powerful herb that has its origins in Ayurveda, which is the ancient form of medicine from India [that is] 5,000 years old,” says Dr. Meena Makhijani, an integrative medicine physician at UCLA Health and board-certified Ayurveda practitioner.
“So, ashwagandha has been used and described through all of these years within Ayurveda. And now of course, [it’s] gaining popularity throughout the world.”
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“Traditionally, ashwagandha is used in a tea form or powder form,” Makhijani notes, but now, ashwagandha is also available in capsules, gummies and even beverages. A 30-day supply of the supplements is usually around $20 to $30.
Some of the health benefits that people associate with the herb are stress management, reduced inflammation and improved reproductive health. But just how true are these claims, and is ashwagandha even safe?
A few of the common side effects of taking ashwagandha can include stomach problems like irritation of the gastrointestinal lining, diarrhea, and in rare cases, vomiting and nausea.
Here’s what experts say, and research shows, about ashwagandha’s effects on health.
Ashwagandha is ‘very effective’ at reducing levels of stress and anxiety
The great news is ashwagandha seems to live up to the hype as it relates to lowering stress.
“It is very effective, especially when we’re talking about stress and anxiety. There’s thousands of years of anecdotal evidence, but also there’s research that’s being done,” Makhijani tells CNBC Make It.
The strongest evidence for use of ashwagandha as a supplement is that it seems to reduce cortisol levels and perceived stress levels, says Andy De Santis, a private-practice dietitian and writer from Toronto.
“As a result, there is a little bit of evidence that it can help with sleep, falling asleep sooner and having better sleep quality,” De Santis says.
A 2021 systematic review published in the Journal of Herbal Medicine analyzed seven studies that tested the effects of ashwagandha on the stress and anxiety levels of nearly 500 adults in India. Researchers found that the groups who used ashwagandha for six to eight weeks saw a reduction in their levels of stress, anxiety and cortisol, and reported better sleep and less fatigue, than those who didn’t add the herb to their diet during the same time.
A 2022 clinical trial done in Florida with 60 men and women who reported that they were experiencing stress, tested the efficiency of ashwagandha capsules for 30 days. Those who received the supplements within that time frame reported positive changes in their levels of anxiety, stress, food cravings and depression, in comparison to those who didn’t take ashwagandha.
The supplement’s rise in popularity in recent years likely stems from the evidence that it improves a person’s mental health, says De Santis. “There’s so much demand for that outcome because stress is a significant part of all of our lives,” he adds. “People are just looking for help in this area.”
Yet, the benefits of ashwagandha don’t stop at stress and anxiety management. The herb may also help muscles heal faster and improve male reproductive health.
Ashwagandha “can be used for strengthening our bodies, especially the muscles. So people are using it for workouts to build endurance and strength that way,” says Makhijani. Many people use the supplement for rejuvenation, she adds, which “can be used for anti-aging purposes.”
Ashwagandha is ‘safe’ for most people but ‘herbs aren’t used for life’
When it comes to safety, ashwagandha is “safe for everybody” generally, but pregnant people and those with certain autoimmune conditions or cancers should avoid using the supplement, says Makhijani. People who have ulcers may want to avoid taking ashwagandha supplements as well, she adds.
“It might not be right for everybody at all times, and so it is really important to speak with your physician, an Ayurveda practitioner or a doctor of Ayurveda to see if it is right for you, as an individual,” says Makhijani.
The most common dose of ashwagandha is 250 milligrams daily, she says. Some people time their use of the supplement around workouts for performance enhancement or before bed to improve sleep quality, Makhijani adds.
But “the biggest potential downfall” of using ashwagandha is developing an over-reliance on it to “provide a long-term solution to problems,” says De Santis. “What else are you doing around those areas?”
It’s important to note that in Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha isn’t used consistently for extended periods of time, says Makhijani. Users of the herb typically take breaks between uses, she says.
“Usually, in Ayurveda, herbs would not just be used for life. They have a certain period that we would use them, potentially three months or so. Then, you might take a break,” she says. “If it’s used in a proper way, it would be very beneficial for most people [to take breaks].”
Also, be very mindful of where you purchase your ashwagandha supplements, she warns.
“Supplements are not very well regulated necessarily by the FDA, so there can be tremendous variety in the quality of the product people are receiving, in the strength of the product [and] in the potency of the active compounds of the herb. There can be a difference based on the part of the herb that’s used: roots, leaves or berries,” she says.
“It’s [also] being blended with other supplements, so you just kind of have to be aware of what you’re consuming.”
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