Ashwagandha cures what ails you?

Originally Published: May 7, 2010
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Dear Alice,

What do you think about Ashwaganda (not spelled right). Are there any major side effects? What is your opinion? Thanks.

Dear Reader,

Also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that grows in arid parts of India (you were pretty close with the spelling!). Different preparations from the plant's leaves, flowers, and roots are commonly used in Indian natural medicine, called Ayurveda, for rejuvenation and treating a wide variety of ailments. A growing body of research gives credence to ashwagandha's reputation, but scientists are really just beginning to uncover how and why it's beneficial.

Proponents of ashwagandha believe the herb improves many physical and mental health issues including:

  • general wellbeing and energy
  • stress and anxiety
  • pain
  • sexual performance
  • skin diseases
  • diabetes
  • gastrointestinal disease
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • epilepsy
  • cancer
    List adapted from the article Ashwagandha from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Before stocking your medicine cabinet with ashwagandha, you may want to consider the actual chemistry and and science behind the herb's purported health effects. The active ingredients in ashwagandha are considered to be alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, and withanolides. Test tube and animal studies show that ashwaganda has anti-inflammatory properties that may relieve arthritis and other pains. Other animal research has demonstrated that ashwagandha improves sugar and insulin control related to diabetes. Ashwagandha also has promise in cancer treatment. A 2007 study showed that ashwaganda reduced the growth of cancer cells in lab animals and human cell cultures without harming healthy cells. Similarly, ashwaganda may help people fight off recurrent coughs and colds by improving immune function. Keep in mind, these are all potential effects that have yet to be confirmed by larger clinical trials or real-life studies outside the lab. 

Research so far hasn't turned up any side effects of taking ashwagandha, although that's not to say it's an entirely safe supplement free of unintended risk. For one, ashwagandha has been known to induce abortion so it is not recommended for pregnant women. Also, ashwagandha may intensify the effects of barbiturates (sedative drugs that tamp down the central nervous system).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate ashwagandha (or any other natural remedies), and a "safe" or "effective" dose is unknown. Folks who are interested in using ashwagandha may want to check in with an herbalist, pharmacist, or other health care provider first. If you're a student at Columbia, you can talk with a provider at Primary Care Medical Services (PCMS) about the effects of taking ashwaganda or other supplements. To make an appointment at PCMS, call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator.

Ashwagandha may not be a cure-all, but it certainly has some promising health benefits. As the research grows, this is one herb to watch!