Adaptogens are everywhere these days. These powerful herbs are said to help our bodies manage and adapt to stress. And, well, anything that can help us get a handle on stress definitely has our attention. We wouldn't be surprised to hear that many of you feel the same way.
One of the most popular adaptogens is an herb called ashwagandha—also known as Withania somnifera or Indian ginseng. The root of ashwagandha is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. It can be taken in various forms, including as a capsule, powder, tea, or tincture (check out our roundup of some of the best ashwagandha supplements here).
While ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years, it has also become popular outside Ayurveda for its many supposed health benefits. Ashwagandha is said to be able to help us in many different ways, from increasing energy levels to regulating our nervous system, improving sleep and rest, preventing or stopping stress-related hair loss, and even boosting libido.
"One of the hallmarks of ashwagandha is its adaptogen and nervine properties," says Ellie Heintze, a licensed acupuncturist and naturopathic doctor at Starting Point Acupuncture and Wellness. "It can help with balancing stress levels, boosting mood, and helping with mental clarity and focus. There are also studies that show ashwagandha can help with inflammation and reduce pain."
Read on for some benefits and side effects of ashwagandha.
It May Help Balance Stress in Your Body
Adaptogens can help increase the body's resistance to many different forms of stress, including physical, chemical, biological, and psychological stress.
"Adaptogens are intended to bring the body into balance and help cultivate and maintain resilience," says Jaclyn Tolentino, DO, who is a physician at Parsley Health.
Ashwagandha in particular can help with balancing stress levels. "One of the hallmarks of ashwagandha is its adaptogen and nervine properties," Heintze says.
One reason ashwagandha may help to reduce and balance stress is by reducing cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a the body's primary stress hormone and plays a huge role in the body's "fight or flight" response. When cortisol levels are elevated, you may experience symptoms like increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Many studies on adaptogens are small and limited in scope, so there isn't a ton of clinical data to support the various potential benefits of adaptogens on the body. But Tolentino points out that adaptogens like ashwagandha have been used in forms of traditional medicine for hundreds of years.
"I personally recommend adaptogens in my practice when appropriate—if it's something I think the patient would benefit from incorporating into their wellness routine, and it's not contraindicated in any way," she says.
It May Have Cognitive Benefits
Having trouble focusing lately? Ashwagandha may help with memory, mental clarity, focus, and other related areas of cognition.
"Ashwagandha...has been used traditionally to improve memory and cognitive function, and it may also improve mood," Tolentino says. "While we have limited clinical data on these benefits, ashwagandha may still be incorporated safely into your wellness routine if ashwagandha is determined to be clinically appropriate for you."
It May Reduce Inflammation and Pain
Studies show that ashwagandha may decrease inflammation in the body. This is important because inflammation in the body plays a significant role in overall health, especially when the inflammation is chronic (read all about how inflammation can affect your health here).
While these benefits may urge you to give ashwagandha a try, it's important to be aware of some potential side effects, too. Here are some that are important to know about.
You May Experience Digestive Issues
Nausea, stomach irritation, diarrhea, and other digestive issues are possible when taking ashwagandha. One positive here is that if you stick to the recommended dose, this may not be as much of a problem.
"Ashwagandha is a safe herb when used as directed," Heintze says. "When taking doses exceeding recommendations or larger doses, it may cause digestive upset or nausea."
You Might Experience Headaches
Headaches and drowsiness are both potential side effects of ashwagandha. But these headaches—along with the digestive side effects—aren't always long-lasting. "Some of these side effects can be short-lived," Tolentino explains.
Not Recommended for Pregnancy
The experts we spoke with for this piece agree that taking ashwagandha during pregnancy is not recommended. If you have any questions about this, it's important to consult with a medical professional.
Consult With Your Doctor
"Ashwagandha may be contraindicated if you take certain medications or are currently being treated for certain medical conditions, including autoimmune disorders or certain thyroid conditions," Tolentino explains. For that reason, it's a great idea to check with your doctor before taking ashwagandha. This is an important step that can help you make sure that ashwagandha won't interfere with any medications you are taking, or present problems or heightened risks in relation to any other conditions you have.
"Herbal medicines and supplements can be powerful," Tolentino says. "While ashwagandha is safe and well tolerated for most individuals, I do recommend discussing the usage of these treatments with your healthcare provider prior to incorporating them into your routine."
Ashwagandha may have some benefits for your health, from stress reduction to improved cognition. But as with many types of herbal supplements and pharmaceutical medications, it carries potential side effects as well, ranging from headaches to digestive issues. Remember that before taking ashwagandha, it's important to check in with your doctor to make sure this supplement is the right choice for you.
Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012;34(3):255-262. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022
Cay M, Ucar C, Senol D, et al. Effect of increase in cortisol level due to stress in healthy young individuals on dynamic and static balance scores. North Clin Istanb. 2018;5(4):295-301. doi:10.14744/nci.2017.42103
Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019;98(37):e17186. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000017186