by Dr. Will Cole
One of the wellness world’s favorite buzzwords these days is adaptogens, which are powerful herb and plant medicines that help the body adapt to stress and regain balance. Health-oriented businesses love to highlight these plant substances—from Ginseng and Holy Basil to medicinal mushrooms—by creating elixirs, recipes, and even beauty products containing them. While there are quite a few types of adaptogens to choose from (depending on the results you seek), a handful of popular adaptogens have reached something akin to “celeb status,” and if I had to name just one adaptogen that has reigned supreme in the wellness world, it would be ashwagandha.
But is ashwagandha all it’s cracked up to be? This herb (actually the root of a berry plant native to India) is no stranger to controversy. Does it really cure all your problems, or does it trigger more symptoms, as some literature suggests? Here’s the lowdown on what exactly ashwagandha does, its many health benefits, and its possible side effects.
Ashwagandha is nothing new. It’s been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine, but modern science backs up its use as a medicinal therapy. Here are a few of its benefits that have been supported by research:
1. Ashwagandha reduces stress.
Ashwagandha can help regulate your body’s stress hormone, cortisol, which can make you feel more calm and potentially soothe adrenal fatigue—a condition that causes extreme exhaustion, body aches, and muscle pain—by supporting the brain-adrenal (HPA) axis, too. Research shows significant reduction in cortisol levels and significant reduction in self-reported stress and anxiety symptoms in those taking ashwagandha.
2. Ashwagandha boosts immunity.
Your immune system contains two different types of white blood cells, called TH1 and TH2. Just like a seesaw, they need to stay balanced—if one gets out of control, it throws your immune system out of whack, which can contribute to inflammation and autoimmune conditions. In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is commonly used to help boost the immune system after an illness, and several scientific studies have also correlated the use of ashawagandha with improved immune function.
3. Ashwagandha supports healthy thyroid function.
Considering low thyroid hormone levels are occurring in epidemic numbers, especially in women, it’s good to know that research has shown ashwagandha can do wonders for boosting an underactive thyroid. One study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that after just eight weeks of supplementing with ashwagandha, patients with a thyroid disorder had much healthier TSH and T4 levels, and therefore more normal thyroid function.
4. Ashwagandha can calm anxiety.
Many studies have demonstrated the calming effects of ashwagandha. One study showed that people who took just two months of ashwangandha supplementation had reductions in anxiety of up to 44 percent.
5. Ashwagandha enhances brain health.
Ashwagandha was found to have a neuroprotective effect for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It has also been shown to promote the formation of dendrites, which are essential to brain health—all good news for anyone worried about preventing neurological decline.
6. Ashwagandha helps regulate blood sugar levels.
Diabetes and pre-diabetes-related blood sugar instability is another huge health problem in the developed world, but ashwagandha has been shown to help manage symptoms of diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity as well as lowering blood glucose levels.
7. Ashwagandha is a powerful antioxidant.
The next-level antioxidants in ashwagandha can impart a youthful glow and an anti-aging effect by increasing levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase, which fight off the free radicals that contribute to signs of aging.
8. Ashwagandha may inhibit the spread of cancer.
Specifically, ashwagandha has been shown to inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells and slow cell division in breast tumors. It was also linked to melanoma cell death in cases of skin cancer, and has been shown to stimulate the production of immune-supporting white blood cells that are often depleted during chemotherapy.
The side effects of ashwagandha
The news may sound all good, almost miraculous, and while it’s true that ashwagandha in its recommended dose is generally safe for pretty much everyone, some people can experience some adverse effects. Look out for these possible (if rare) reactions to ashawagandha.
1. It can cause gut problems.
Just because a little ashwagandha is good does not mean a lot is better. Large doses of ashwagandha have been shown to cause diarrhea and stomach pain.
2. It might raise thyroid hormone levels.
Although ashwagandha can help to improve low thyroid hormone conditions, those with an overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism should be more cautious. If your thyroid hormone levels are already too high, ashwagandha may not be for you. If you aren’t sure about your thyroid hormone status, ask your doctor to run a thyroid panel and advise you on whether you should be adding this herb to your routine.
3. It can irritate autoimmune conditions.
Since ashwagandha is technically part of the nightshade family, it can be a potential irritant to those with autoimmune conditions, especially those with autoimmune joint pain. While many people with autoimmunity do not react negatively to nightshade plants (like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes), those who do should avoid ashwagandha as well.
Of course, ultimately, what works for one person won’t always work for the next, so while ashwagandha may have dramatic benefits for some, it may do nothing, or cause side-effects, for others. Having lab work done and working with a certified health care practitioner is the first step in taking control of your health and understanding what your body needs. Talk to your doctor before adding adaptogens to your routine, and ask if they can advise on dosing. An experienced functional medicine practitioner is likely to have good information on how to best use adaptogens for improved health.
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