If you’re the nervous or stressed-out type, someone has probably given you a mini-sermon about the wonders of ashwagandha. They’ve probably told you that it can do just about everything including make you dinner and put the kids to bed. But if you’re skeptical about herbal medicine, you probably haven’t considered looking into ashwagandha. That’s OK. We’re going to do the legwork for you.
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With the help of integrative medicine specialist Yufang Lin, MD, we’ll cover the basics and some of the medically proven benefits of using ashwagandha.
Where did ashwagandha come from?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also known as “Indian Winter cherry” or Indian Ginseng,” is an evergreen shrub that’s found in India, Africa and parts of the Middle East.
“Ashwagandha has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine to increase energy, improve overall health and reduce inflammation, pain and anxiety,” says Dr. Lin. She adds that Ayurvedic medicine is the traditional medicine system in India. It is a healing tradition that uses nutrition, exercise, mindfulness practices and herbs to promote balance between the body, mind, spirit and the environment.
Why is ashwagandha so popular right now?
Well, a stressful time calls for super-relaxing methods and remedies. Ashwagandha seems to fit the bill for those who prefer herbal medicines for a number of reasons.
Modern life is full of stress triggers. And that stress contributes to physical and mental illness and look for ways to feel better. A healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a good diet, routine mindfulness practices and adequate sleep is key to building the resilience to respond and recover from stress.
However, many people need additional, short-term support. “For some, that might come in the form of prescription medicine that supports serotonin function. For others, it may be botanicals,” says Dr. Lin.
According to Dr. Lin, ashwagandha is generally safe. “Most people can take this supplement, although it is always best to discuss it with your healthcare provider first. Ashwagandha is generally tolerated well. However, the most common side effects are diarrhea, gastrointestinal upset, vomiting and nausea.”
What are the benefits of Ashwagandha?
Dr. Lin says during stressful moments, the cortisol levels in your body become elevated, and this causes your heart to pump harder and faster. You breathe rapidly and your body generates more glucose for a quick burst of energy. Your mind becomes hyper-focused on any threats, and your body goes into fight or flight mode. When the stressful event is over, cortisol levels normalize and the associated symptoms resolve.
“Unfortunately, when a threat is chronic — whether it’s stress from finances, work or the pandemic —the stressful response also becomes chronic. Over time, long-term stress can contribute to persistent inflammation and increases the risk for developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and fibromyalgia.”
Dr. Lin points out that research has shown that ashwagandha can help normalize cortisol levels, thus reducing the stress response. In addition, ashwagandha has also been associated with reduced inflammation, reduced cancer risks, improved memory, improved immune function and anti-aging properties. This is why people who are stressed or anxious, or people with chronic conditions might turn ashwagandha to help ease their conditions.
Who shouldn’t take ashwagandha?
If you have any issues with your thyroid, Dr. Lin strongly recommends checking with your healthcare provider before taking ashwagandha.
“Ashwagandha can augment thyroid function by increasing the conversion of the less potent thyroid hormone, T4, to the more active form of the thyroid hormone, T3. Thus for some people, it can support a healthier thyroid function. On the other hand, if an individual’s thyroid is already borderline hyperactive, ashwagandha could contribute to frank hyperthyroidism.”
Other conditions which require caution when it comes to using ashwagandha include if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have an autoimmune disease. In these cases, Dr. Lin advises talking to your provider before taking anything. She stresses this with pregnant women as ashwagandha could cause complications.
What should you look for in an ashwagandha supplement?
Ashwagandha comes in a variety of forms. It’s available in gummies, capsules, liquid drops and powders that you can mix into drinks. Regardless of the direction you go in, Dr. Lin says dosing is usually 500mg twice a day.
When it comes to safety, she says it mostly depends on the quality of the supplements. Her advice is to look for supplements that have been independently tested and verified by an outside company such as ConsumerLab, United States Pharmacopeia (USP), or National Sanitation Foundation International (NSF International).
But remember, it won’t solve all of your problems
“Taking ashwagandha will not make the stress go away, but it may help reduce the symptoms so one feels more at ease. But if you take the time to develop coping tools to help manage stress in the future, that will go much further in the long run.”