Health Benefits, Uses, Side Effects

ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HAS been planting seeds in our health and wellness routines for thousands of years. Common wellness practices such as yoga, meditation, and acupuncture stem from alternative medicine origins, and all have well-researched benefits.

Is the same true for the touted health benefits of alternative medicine’s popular supplement ashwagandha?

“Ashwagandha is a plant used in traditional Indian, or Ayurvedic, medicine,” says Perri Halperin, M.S., R.D., clinical nutrition coordinator at Mount Sinai Health System in NYC. Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for thousands of years, and is based on ancient writings and practices that rely heavily on natural and holistic approaches to medicine. That includes products derived from plants and other natural substances, like ashwagandha.

The plant-derived supplement has continued to stand the test of time, returning to popularity as of late—mostly because of its potential effects on stress and anxiety.

Do the Internet claims hold up with modern science? Dietitians explain, below.

What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha, otherwise known by its scientific name Withania somnifera, is an evergreen shrub that’s found in India, Africa, and parts of the Middle East. The plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years. The leaves, berries and roots of the plant all have different active ingredients, many of which are thought to be anti-stress agents.


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Because of this, the supplement is often “referred to as an adaptogen, which are substances believed to help the body and mind manage stress,” Halpern says.

Potential Benefits of Ashwagandha

“Most of the chatter [regarding ashwagandha] has to do with it better anxiety, stress, and insomnia,” says Halperin. Spoiler alert: More research is needed to prove that it does any of these things.

There have been a handful of studies on the effects of the supplement as an alternative treatment for anxiety, with some promising results. But, most of the studies did not deem the improvement significant enough, had too small of a sample size, or had a high probability of bias.

There’s preliminary evidence that the supplement might help in cases of stress, though.

“Ashwagandha seems to be better at reducing anxiety in people who are chronically stressed and experiencing an anxiety disorder. It seems less effective for standard forms of anxiety that aren’t related to stress,” MH advisor Brian St. Pierre, R.D., C.S.C.S., director of nutrition at Precision Nutrition told Men’s Health.

The supplement has also been promoted as a support to the immune system. But, no supplement can boost your immune system.

The only thing that can help are your lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, sleep quality, environment, alcohol and drug intake, and more. As Toby Amidor, R.D., a dietitian based in N.Y.C., told Men’s Health—we don’t have the research to support the statement that ashwagandha can help your immune system.

Potential Side Effects of Ashwagandha

Again, the research surrounding ashwagandha is quite limited.

Some short-term side effects have been researched, but the long term safety and effects of the supplement are not yet known. It does have some effect on our neurotransmitters, which means possible implications of long term supplementation, Halperin says. Because of this, Halperin and St. Pierre both recommend not taking it for any longer than 3 months.

In the short term, possible side effects of ashwagandha may include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In men, there have been reports of the supplement increasing testosterone levels—in turn, increasing sex drive and energy levels.

That might sound like a good thing, but there are downsides to high levels of testosterone, too. High testosterone is linked to increased levels of aggression, high risk of prostate cancer, baldness, moodiness, and behavior changes, Halperin says. There have also been a small number of liver injury reports related to the supplement.

Ashwagandha interacts with certain medications, including anticonvulsants, high blood pressure, and thyroid medications. Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also not take ashwagandha, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

How to Take Ashwagandha

“Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so [supplement companies] can make claims that are unsubstantiated,” says Halperin. “So, what you want to look for when you are buying a supplement is that it’s tested and verified by an outside company, such as Consumer Lab or NSF. That will help you feel confident that you’re buying a high quality supplement.”

Ashwagandha can be found in gummies, powders, pills, and liquid drops. Supplement brands will suggest taking about 300 to 500 milligrams once or twice a day. Halperin says to not exceed the upper limit of 1000 milligrams a day.

As with any changes to your diet or supplement program, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian before trying ashwagandha. They’ll be able to advise on whether this supplement is right for you based on your needs and health goals.

Headshot of Cori Ritchey, C.S.C.S.

Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.


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