A longtime staple in ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha root is touted for treating everything from anxiety to insomnia—but does it work? And how much should you take?
The ashwagandha root has been used for thousands of years in the ayurvedic medicine system as a remedy for stress, anxiety, and insomnia. Those benefits make it especially appealing these days, with stress levels at an all-time high. Ashwagandha is also known by several other names, including Indian ginseng and winter cherry. This classic herbal remedy comes from the perennial shrub Withania somnifera. In ayurveda, it is considered arasayana, or a tonic designed to maintain balance in the body.
Ashwagandha is one of the herbs or plants known as adaptogens, so called because they help the body adapt its function to meet physical or emotional stress. Other examples of adaptogens include turmeric, licorice, nettle leaf, reishi mushroom, and tulsi basil.
Does Ashwagandha Work?
Most of the research on ashwagandha root has been in relation to using ashwagandha for stress. For example, in one randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study, full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract was found to be both effective and safe. In the study, people with a history of chronic stress took a capsule of either 300 mg of the root powder twice a day or a capsule containing a placebo. After 60 days, the group taking ashwagandha had significantly lower cortisol levels in their blood than the people in the placebo group.
Cortisol is nature’s built-in alarm system. If you’re fleeing a mountain lion, having an emergency alarm go off is handy; this helps fuel our fight-or-flight response and gets us the heck out of the forest. It’s not so useful to have an alarm blaring for months or even years on end, however, and this is what can lead to chronic problems like anxiety, depression, weight gain, insomnia, and cardiovascular disease.
Ashwagandha may help protect our nervous system, with anti-inflammatory effects as well. According to this study, it works on a cellular level by enhancing the body’s resilience to stress by improving immunity. It also has antioxidant properties that help protect against cellular damage caused by free radicals.
Less research has been done on using the herb for other conditions, such as boosting memory and testosterone; and fighting depression, diabetes, arthritis, high-blood pressure, and high cholesterol, although it is occasionally used for these purposes.
Is Ashwagandha Safe?
Ashwagandha is generally considered safe. There are some caveats, however. If you are pregnant; have prostate cancer; or are on benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, or barbiturates, do not take ashwagandha, warns Memorial Sloan Kettering. Ashwagandha seems to work best when used for at least 60 days, but there is a lack of clinical studies covering the safety of years-long use.
You can find ashwagandha root as a powder that you can mix into milk with honey, which makes for a soothing evening beverage to sip before bed if reducing insomnia is your goal. However, if your goal is reducing anxiety, try using capsules or tablets, or a tincture. Aim for 250 to 600 mg per day of root extract, according to a 2019 study that found that eight weeks of that ashwagandha dosage level was associated with a significant reduction of stress levels, as well as a perceived improvement in the overall quality of life.
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