Adaptogens have been trending for a while now. These powerful substances found in mushrooms and plants are said to help your body fight stress and adapt (hence the name) to find a natural balance. But one particular adaptogen, ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is creating even more than the usual buzz. Gwyneth Paltrow says she drinks it every morning in a smoothie and has a collective billion views on her TikTok videos spewing all sorts of health benefits. Is this just another trend or the real deal?
“Ashwagandha was among the first adrenal adaptogens to hit the mainstream—probably because of its versatility,” says Robin Forutan, RDN, an integrative nutritionist in New York. “We have a stress epidemic these days, so the popularity of an adaptogen that helps our bodies become more resilient to stress makes a lot of sense.”
This isn’t a quick trend – the herb has been used to improve health and well-being long before any of us or even our great-great-grandparents were born. Ashwagandha (scientific name: Withania somnifera) is an evergreen shrub found in India, Africa and parts of the Middle East. “The leaves and roots of this shrub have medicinal value and have been used in Ayurveda for many centuries to increase energy, improve overall health, and reduce inflammation, pain, and anxiety,” says Prajakta Apte, RDN, a Phoenix-based holistic a nutritionist who specializes in Ayurveda, a natural healing science developed in India thousands of years ago.
What are the potential health benefits of taking ashwagandha?
It can improve sleep
Ashwagandha has long been touted as a natural way to help you sleep. “Ashwagandha can help improve communication between the adrenal glands and the brain’s control centers,” says Forutan. She explains that when the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) doesn’t communicate well, you can feel “tired and stressed at the same time, or tired and sluggish throughout the day, then get a second wind of energy in the evenings, which makes it difficult to get good sleep.” Apte points out that ashwagandha leaves are full of a compound called triethylene glycol, which helps induce sleep. A recent study found that people who took 120 mg of ashwagandha extract for six weeks, improved sleep quality, took less time to fall asleep, and increased total sleep time.
It can help drelieve stress and anxiety
Perhaps the most well-known benefit of ashwagandha is its ability to relieve stress. “Ashwagandha helps the body balance cortisol levels [the stress hormone], which should naturally be higher during the day and low at night,” explains Forutan. “Because it can help balance cortisol, rather than lowering or raising levels, it’s considered an adaptogenic herb. It can also help reduce stress-related anxiety.” One study found that when stressed adults took 240 mg of ashwagandha for 60 days, they experienced a greater reduction in anxiety symptoms than those who They also had a greater reduction in the stress hormone cortisol when they woke up in the morning.
It can improve brain health
As the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia continues to rise, there is always excitement about any natural way to improve brain health. One review found that ashwagandha can help older people with mild cognitive impairment or mental illness improve performance on cognitive tasks, as well as attention and reaction time. “Laboratory studies show that ashwagandha may benefit cognitive function by promoting neuronal growth and protecting neurons from damage and oxidative stress,” says Apte. However, as Apte points out, these results have not been confirmed in humans, and much more research needs to be done.
It can enhance athletic performance
Can taking this herb help you run faster, lift better, play harder, and recover faster? It’s possible: A large recent review concluded that there is reason to believe that taking ashwagandha may improve athletic performance by increasing oxygen uptake and improving muscle strength in the lower extremities, as well as reducing fatigue. Another small study found that men who took 300 mg of ashwagandha twice a day had greater gains in muscle mass and strength after 8 weeks of resistance training than those who received a placebo.
It can reduce inflammation
Ashwagandha contains compounds with anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers in the body. These include Withaferin A (WA), which targets inflammatory pathways. In laboratory studies, WA has helped suppress inflammatory markers for several chronic diseases, but again, more human trials are needed.
It can increase both fertility and testosterone in men
Can men trying to have a baby improve their chances with this multipurpose herb? Possibly. “Ashwagandha may help increase testosterone levels and may have some potential benefits for male fertility,” says Apte. A review of four studies found that men who took ashwagandha had increased sperm concentration and motility, as well as a slight increase in testosterone levels. The authors cautioned that the results are promising, but more research needs to be done.
It can help control blood sugar
Although you shouldn’t take a supplement in place of reliable diabetes treatments, some research shows that the substance can help control blood sugar levels, as well as triglycerides and cholesterol. However, these studies are generally very small.
Are there any negative side effects of taking ashwagandha?
Although the herb is generally considered safe when consumed in small doses, it can interact with other medications you are taking. “It is generally not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding, mainly due to a lack of safety data.” Forutan adds. As always, consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplement. There is some research that shows that taking large doses of ashwagandha can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and in very rare cases it can even damage the liver. Apte also points out that ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers—if you have an allergy or intolerance to those foods, you might want to skip this one, too.
Can you take ashwagandha every day?
It is generally safe to take daily, but as with all supplements, stick to the recommended dosage. According to Apte, it’s best to take ashwagandha either in the morning on an empty stomach or at night before bed.
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