What should I know about Ashwagandha?

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 Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, and winter cherry, ashwagandha (you were close on the spelling!) is an evergreen shrub that grows in arid parts of India, China, Nepal, and Yemen. For thousands of years, the plant's leaves, flowers, and roots have been used in Indian natural medicine, called Ayurveda, as well as Unani medicine, for rejuvenation and treatment of a wide variety of ailments. A growing body of research gives some credence to ashwagandha's reputation, but scientists are still learning more about how and why it's beneficial.

There are various purported benefits to ashwagandha. Proponents of ashwagandha believe the herb can improve many physical and mental health issues including:

  • General well-being and energy
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Joint pain
  • Sexual arousal and performance
  • Skin diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal diseases
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Epilepsy
  • Cancer

List adapted from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Test tube and animal studies show that ashwagandha 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: one study showed that ashwagandha reduced the growth of cancer cells in lab animals and human cell cultures without harming healthy cells. Similarly, ashwagandha may help people fight off recurrent coughs and colds by improving immune function. Keep in mind, though, that these are all potential effects that have yet to be confirmed by larger clinical trials or real-life studies outside the lab.

Before stocking your medicine cabinet with ashwagandha, you may be interested in the actual chemistry and science behind the herb's purported health benefits. The active constituents in ashwagandha are alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, and withanolides, but the herb contains more than 35 phytochemicals (compounds produced by plants). Ashwagandha is considered to be an adaptogen, which means that it serves to help the body adapt to stress through various mechanisms. One of these mechanisms is by controlling key stress mediators such as cortisol, nitric oxide, heat shock proteins, and stress-activated kinases, thus improving the body's ability to resist the damaging effects of stress. Ashwagandha has also been reported to contain antioxidant properties, also known as free radical scavenging properties, as it contains phenolic compounds that allow for antioxidant activity. This means that it can hinder what’s called free radical production, a harmful process that can cause DNA damage and lead to cell death and senescence.

Research so far hasn't turned up any side effects of taking ashwagandha, although that's not to say it's a supplement free of unintended risk. For one, ashwagandha has been known to end pregnancies, so it's not recommended for pregnant people. Ashwagandha may also intensify the effects of barbiturates (sedative drugs that tamp down the central nervous system). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which only approves a new drug “on the basis of scientific data and information demonstrating that the drug is safe and effective,” has yet to regulate ashwagandha (or any other natural remedies), making it difficult to determine what a "safe" or "effective" dose would be. The FDA has even sent letters to vendors selling ashwagandha products for the intent of curing, mitigating, treating, or preventing of disease, warning them that any products containing ashwagandha may not be introduced or delivered through interstate commerce as this violates preexisting FDA regulations.

Folks who are interested in using ashwagandha may want to check in with a health care provider first about the effects of taking it or any other supplements. Ashwagandha may not be a cure-all, but it certainly has some promising health benefits. As the research grows, this may be an herb to watch!

Last updated Apr 01, 2022
Originally published May 07, 2010

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