All About Ashwagandha: The Wellness World’s Most-Loved Adaptogen

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One of the wellness world’s favorite tools these days are adaptogens - 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, it's many health benefits, and it's possible side effects.

Ashwagandha benefits

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:

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1. Ashwagandha reduces stress

Ashwagandha can help regulate your body’s stress hormone, cortisol, (1) 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 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. (2)

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 that ashwagandha can do wonders for boosting an under-active 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. (3)

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 supplements had reductions in anxiety of up to 44 percent. (4)

5. Ashwagandha enhances brain health

Ashwagandha was found to have a neuroprotective effect for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s (5) and Parkinson’s. (6) It has also been shown to promote the formation of dendrites, which are essential to brain health (7) - 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 (8) as well as lowering blood glucose levels. (9)

7. Ashwagandha is a powerful antioxidant

The next-level antioxidants (10) in ashwagandha can impart a youthful glow and have 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 (11) and slow cell division in breast tumors. (12) It was also linked to melanoma cell death in cases of skin cancer, (13) and has been shown to (7) 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.

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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References:

  1. Chandrasekhar, K et al. “A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.” Indian journal of psychological medicine vol. 34,3 (2012): 255-62. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022
  2. Ruchi Tiwari, Sandip Chakraborty, Mani Saminathan, Kuldeep Dhama and Shoor Vir Singh, 2014. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Role in Safeguarding Health, Immunomodulatory Effects, Combating Infections and Therapeutic Applications: A Review. Journal of Biological Sciences, 14: 77-94.
  3. Sharma, Ashok Kumar et al. “Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Subclinical Hypothyroid Patients: A Double-Blind, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.) vol. 24,3 (2018): 243-248. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0183
  4. Chandrasekhar, K et al. “A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.” Indian journal of psychological medicine vol. 34,3 (2012): 255-62. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022
  5. Sehgal, Neha et al. “Withania somnifera reverses Alzheimer's disease pathology by enhancing low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein in liver.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 109,9 (2012): 3510-5. doi:10.1073/pnas.1112209109
  6. Prakash, Jay et al. “Neuroprotective role of Withania somnifera root extract in maneb-paraquat induced mouse model of parkinsonism.” Neurochemical research vol. 38,5 (2013): 972-80. doi:10.1007/s11064-013-1005-4
  7. Singh N. et al. "An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda" Special Issue:Reviews of Modern Tools in Traditional Medicines   Vol. 8 No. 5S (2011) doi:10.4314/ajtcam.v8i5SS.9
  8. Anwer, Tarique et al. “Effect of Withania somnifera on insulin sensitivity in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus rats.” Basic & clinical pharmacology & toxicology vol. 102,6 (2008): 498-503. doi:10.1111/j.1742-7843.2008.00223.x
  9. Udayakumar, Rajangam et al. “Antioxidant effect of dietary supplement Withania somnifera L. reduce blood glucose levels in alloxan-induced diabetic rats.” Plant foods for human nutrition (Dordrecht, Netherlands) vol. 65,2 (2010): 91-8. doi:10.1007/s11130-009-0146-8
  10. Bhattacharya, S K et al. “Antioxidant activity of glycowithanolides from Withania somnifera.” Indian journal of experimental biology vol. 35,3 (1997): 236-9.
  11. Hahm, Eun-Ryeong et al. “Withaferin A-induced apoptosis in human breast cancer cells is mediated by reactive oxygen species.” PloS one vol. 6,8 (2011): e23354. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023354
  12. Khazal, Kamel F et al. “Effect of an extract of Withania somnifera root on estrogen receptor-positive mammary carcinomas.” Anticancer research vol. 33,4 (2013): 1519-23.
  13. Mayola, Eleonore et al. “Withaferin A induces apoptosis in human melanoma cells through generation of reactive oxygen species and down-regulation of Bcl-2.” Apoptosis : an international journal on programmed cell death vol. 16,10 (2011): 1014-27. doi:10.1007/s10495-011-0625-x

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.