The pros and cons of ashwagandha, an ancient Ayurvedic medicine with multiple health benefits. By Anna Bonet Ashwagandha is considered to be one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. Native to India, ashwagandha is often referred to as Indian ginseng thanks to its strength and vitality boosting benefits. While some might be sceptical when it comes to herbal or alternative medicines, ashwagandha comes with a number of scientifically-proven health benefits. But what exactly is ashwagandha? What are the benefits of this popular herb, and does Ayurvedic medicine come with any side-effects? We asked the experts: What is ashwagandha? Also known as winter cherry or Ayurvedic ginseng, ashwagandha is a plump evergreen shrub which produces orange or red berries about the size of raisins. It flourishes in the dry areas of India and North America. The roots are the part most commonly used in herbal medicine although the leaves and flowers also have therapeutic properties. Ashwagandha is used in medicine because it’s an adaptogenic herb. ‘From a herbal perspective, there is nothing better at restoring vitality and bringing body back to balance than adaptogens,’ says Jenya Di Pierro, a professional herbalist and founder of wellness club Cloud Twelve. ‘Many adaptogens have medicinal roots that take many years to mature,’ she continues. ‘The concentrated energy and nutrients of the plants that have been stored in mature roots are the culmination of years of growth and adaptation. Hence the term “adaptogens”.’ 13 ashwagandha health benefits Ashwagandha is an ancient medicinal herb with multiple proven health benefits. Here are 13 scientifically-backed uses and advantages: 1. Ashwagandha may reduce stress We all suffer from stress occasionally, and ashwagandha might be able to help. In one study, which pharmacist Mike Wakeman from Nature’s Way points to, found that adults with chronic stress who took two capsules of ashwagandha root a day for 60 days helped decrease stress levels by 44 per cent and reduced the stress hormone cortisol by 28 per cent. 2. Ashwagandha may ease anxious thoughts Ashwagandha is effective for managing anxiety, according to Di Pierro. ‘Most adaptogens are tonifying, but ashwagandha is a bit unusual as it is also calming,’ she says. Meanwhile, research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that taking ashwagandha resulted in improvements (significantly in most cases) with anxiety management. 3. Ashwagandha can boost immune function The herbal medicine also comes with immunity boosting benefits. ‘Ashwagandha increases resistance to infections, relieves allergies, boosts an under-active immune system while also assisting with auto-immune conditions such as lupus, MS and others,’ says Di Pierro. 4. Ashwagandha may boost your libido If you’re a woman and your sex drive has dipped or something is amiss in the bedroom, ashwagandha might be able to help. ‘In one study 50 healthy women who took concentrated oral doses of ashwagandha reported having more orgasms and more satisfying sex,’ says Wakeman. ‘The authors suggest this could have been due to the herb’s stress-reducing effects as well as its role in boosting the sex hormone, testosterone.’ Ashwagandha has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine to help promote restful sleep. 5. Ashwagandha can improve sleep Ashwagandha has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine to help promote restful sleep. ‘Indeed, the somnifera part of its botanical name, Withania somnifera is derived from the Latin word for sleep,’ says Wakeman. ‘A recent study in animals suggests that triethylene glycol, another plant chemical found in its leaves, may be the magic ingredient that improves sleep quality.’ 6. Ashwagandha can reduce blood sugar levels A number of studies have found that taking ashwagandha can reduce blood sugar levels – in both people who have diabetes and those who don’t. 7. Ashwagandha may be a natural painkiller Research, including data published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine[vi] suggests that ashwagandha may help soothe joint pain and swelling associated with arthritis – a result the authors attribute to the pain-relieving and cartilage-protective effects of withanolides and other plant chemicals. 8. Ashwagandha may aid weight management Studies have also shown ashwagandha may help with weight loss. Chronic stress is often associated with weight gain and in a study, cited by Fito, 52 people under chronic stress received either a placebo or ashwagandha for eight weeks. Those participants taking ashwagandha were found to be less stressed, had less food cravings, were happier and their body weight had reduced, compared to those taking the placebo. 9. Ashwagandha can make you stronger An eight week study, involving 57 men, saw participants consuming either an ashwagandha extract or a placebo while undergoing resistance training. The results showed, compared to the placebo group, those taking the ashwagandha extract had significantly greater increases in muscle strength, as measured when bench-pressing and doing leg-extensions, and significantly greater muscle size increase in their arms and chest. 10. Ashwagandha can boost fertility If you’re trying to get pregnant, ashwagandha might be the solution. ‘Ashwagandha is a famous fertility tonic,’ says Di Pierro. The science is there to back it up, too. In one study which looked at 75 infertile men, those treated with ashwagandha showed an increase in both sperm count and motility. 11. Ashwagandha can increase energy Ashwagandha is often used by athletes to help boost physical performance. ‘This appears to be confirmed in a study of 57 young men aged between 18-50 years old who took ashwagandha root extract twice daily,’ says Wakeman. ‘They saw significant increases in muscle mass and strength when they undertook a resistance training programme compared with those who took a placebo.’ 12. Ashwagandha can lower cholesterol Several studies have shown that taking ashwagandha can reduce cholesterol levels. This is beneficial to our heart health as high cholesterol can lead to heart disease. 13. Ashwagandha may help with depression While the research is still limited, there are a few promising studies that indicate ashwagandha may reduce symptoms of depression. However, if you think you might be suffering from depression, speak to your doctor as ashwagandha should not be used to replace treatments recommended by your GP. Ashwagandha side-effects It’s clear there are a number of health benefits to ashwagandha, and it is believed to be one of the safest herbs out there. However, as will all medicine – both traditional and herbal – it comes with precautions and long-term effects are not known. ‘Higher doses of ashwagandha taken for insomnia may cause drowsiness in the morning,’ warns Di Pierro. There are a number of health benefits to ashwagandha, and it is believed to be one of the safest herbs out there. Meanwhile, ashwagandha may cause some stomach upset such as diarrhoea and vomiting, although this tends to be if you’ve taken a higher dose. There isn’t much evidence to suggest ashwagandha can cause weight gain. As for your hormones, ashwagandha might increase how much thyroid hormone the body produces, and other evidence suggests it promotes testosterone, meaning if you already have a condition such as PCOS, you might want to avoid it. How to take ashwagandha Ashwagandha can be consumed in a number of different ways. It can be taken as a tablet, in a capsule or as powder stirred into warm milk. Is ashwagandha safe to take daily? ‘Yes, ashwagandha can be taken daily,’ says Di Pierro. Taking ashwagandha as a supplement may be an effective way to improve various health concerns, but speak to your GP or a registered herbal expert before you proceed and remember to follow the instructions on labeled products. Who shouldn’t take ashwagandha? Ashwagandha is generally considered to be safe for most people. However, according to the experts, the following people should avoid the herbal supplement: • Pregnant women. • Those who are breastfeeding. • Those with diabetes, as it might interfere with the medicines already being taken to reduce blood sugar levels. • Those with with thyroid disorders.