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Cinderella’s chariot was, well, fine. Sure, it broke down the same day, but hey, it was a loaner. Most of us wouldn’t be so accepting of something we thought was a chariot but turned out to be a pumpkin—especially if we paid for it. But that’s similar to what many people are doing when they buy ashwagandha extract without vetting who they’re getting it from. (Not that we’re saying you should be picky if you happen to have a fairy godmother.)
- Ashwagandha is a plant that has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine.
- Considered an adaptogen, it may help your body deal with mental and physical stressors, like oxidative stress.
- Extracts refine ashwagandha powder to retain the compounds believed to drive health benefits.
- But some extracts use other parts of the plant, which have a lower concentration of these important compounds.
- It’s important to buy from a brand you trust to make sure you get a quality product that only uses the root of the plant.
The whole point of ashwagandha extract is to provide a higher concentration of the plant’s health-boosting compounds than you’d get from using the raw plant. (We’ll go into the details of how those are made exactly in a minute.) But the supplement industry isn’t tightly regulated, which means there are companies telling you their product is a chariot when, under the label, it’s just a pumpkin. Here’s what a quality ashwagandha root extract may be able to do for your health and why you need to buy from a company you can trust.
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha or Withania somnifera is an adaptogen, a plant commonly used in alternative medicine that is believed to help your body deal with different kinds of stress. The root, leaves, and seeds of this shrub—also called Indian ginseng or winter cherry—has a long history of use in Ayurvedic, Indian, and African traditional medicine. Traditional practices like India’s Ayurveda used this plant as a treatment for a wide range of health conditions, and modern research is finding evidence to support some of these uses.
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Ashwagandha root is considered a drug of “Rasayana,” a Sanskrit word that translates to path of essence. This practice of Ayurvedic medicine focused on the science of lengthening lifespan. But there’s a difference between simply living longer and living well for longer. The potential health benefits of ashwagandha may help with the latter as they’re surprisingly wide-reaching. This supplement may have beneficial effects for systems in your body ranging from testosterone levels in men to cognitive function.
What is ashwagandha used for?
If you based your understanding of this supplement on advertising alone, you’d be convinced it’s only used to help treat chronic stress and anxiety. While it may be effective for many people used specifically in that way, ashwagandha is used for more purposes than that. In fact, the way in which ashwagandha extract is believed to help with stress is believed to carry over to other health concerns that range throughout your body.
Studies have shown that ashwagandha may effectively lower cortisol levels. As cortisol is commonly known as the “stress hormone,” it’s easy to see why this supplement is so closely associated with stress management, improved quality of life, and feelings of well-being. But this connection to cortisol means ashwagandha may also affect blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, and muscle-building potential. Though not all of these potential benefits are connected to cortisol, research suggests that ashwagandha supplementation:
- May boost testosterone levels
- May boost male fertility by increasing sperm count
- May reduce blood sugar levels
- May reduce cortisol levels
- May reduce anxiety and depression
- May decrease inflammation
- May increase muscle mass and muscle strength
- May help lower cholesterol
(We’ve gone over all of these potential effects in-depth in our guide to the benefits of ashwagandha.) Many of the potent effects of this plant are thought to come from compounds called withanolides, which are naturally occurring steroidal lactones. The most well-known of these compounds is withaferin A, which sometimes appears on supplement labels. It’s these compounds that are known for their anxiolytic properties or ability to ameliorate the effects of chronic stress. But they’re not the only powerful compounds this plant contains. The ashwagandha plant also has glycowithanolides, which have antioxidant properties, and alkaloids (Singh, 2011).
What forms does ashwagandha come in?
Ashwagandha comes in a wide variety of forms, but you’ll quickly notice that some are easier to find than others. You can get ashwagandha supplements as powders, elixirs, pills, and capsules—but the last two are the most common. The word ashwagandha is Sanskrit for “smell of the horse,” and references the herb’s ability to increase strength—and its unique smell. So while ashwagandha powder can be blended into hot beverages or smoothies, you may need to experiment with ingredients to mask the unique flavor and smell profile of the supplement. If the smell is too strong, capsules and pills are the best alternatives.
Despite the wide variety of forms of this supplement available, the more complicated topic is actually the type of ashwagandha being used. Traditional Ayurvedic treatments used the whole, dried root, which was turned into a powder and usually steeped in milk. But modern supplements are ashwagandha extracts, which could appear on the label as Withania somnifera extract. These forms start as a powder that is refined in a specific way in order to retain the compounds believed to drive health benefits. Some extracts are created using water, which is generally preferred, while others use chemicals.
Not all ashwagandha extracts are created equal
But ashwagandha extracts can also be made from the root of the plant, the leaves, or a combination of the two. These supplements aren’t all necessarily equivalent. Studies have shown that the leaves and roots of Withania somnifera have different concentrations of withanolides (Kaul, 2016). The roots are considered the best source of these health-boosting compounds, which is also why most studies on ashwagandha use extract made from this part of the plant.
This leads to a unique problem in this part of the supplement industry: Ashwagandha leaves are cheaper to produce since using the root requires digging up most of the plant. To make 100 g of ashwagandha root extract powder requires 2.2 pounds of dried root. Researchers have found that companies are mixing leaves and stems of ashwagandha into their root powders without declaring that on the label. In a study of 587 commercial Withania somnifera products that claimed to be pure root extracts, 20.4% of them were found to use other parts of the plant (Singh, 2019). This underscores the importance of buying from a brand you can trust in order to be sure you’re getting a product with an ideal withanolide concentration between 1.5–5%.
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
As mentioned, clinical trials on the effects of this adaptogenic herb show remarkably low rates of side effects, but they do happen. One human study had one participant drop out due to experiencing vertigo and increased appetite and libido (Raut, 2012). Although everyone should speak to a healthcare provider before starting a new supplement regimen, there are certain people for whom this is even more important, such as those with specific medical conditions. If you’re taking medication for high blood pressure, blood sugar, or thyroid function, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider about ashwagandha. Ashwagandha may increase your thyroid function, which could interact with thyroid medication prescriptions.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid ashwagandha. And people with an autoimmune disease—such as Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus—should consult with a healthcare professional before starting a supplement regimen, as ashwagandha has been shown to boost how the immune system reacts (Vetvicka, 2011). It’s also part of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, so those following a diet that eliminates this group of plants (that includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) should avoid taking this supplement.
Things to consider when purchasing ashwagandha
Supplements are a class of products that is only loosely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ashwagandha in any form—including ashwagandha root extract—is considered a supplement. So though products like ashwagandha powder, extract, and capsules are readily available at health stores and online, it’s important to buy from a company you trust. You can also shop for forms of this Ayurvedic herb that come with claims that do require regulation, such as “non-GMO” and “certified organic,” if those are important to you when choosing a dietary supplement.