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There’s nothing new about stress and anxiety. It’s something humans have been experiencing for centuries, but it does seem like our modern lifestyles have caused anxiety levels to hit a fever pitch. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults ages 18 and older in the United States alone. That’s 18.1% of the US population. Children aren’t spared: 25.1% of kids ages 13 to 18 suffer from anxiety (Facts & Statistics, n.d.). And while many look to modern medicine to help anxiety disorders, we’re also starting to look back at older, traditional treatments like ashwagandha.
- Ashwagandha is an essential herb in the practice of Ayurveda, a type of traditional Indian medicine.
- It’s part of the practice of “Rasayana” which refers to the science of lengthening lifespan.
- Studies have shown that ashwagandha extract is able to lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in people with chronic stress.
- The herb also eases self-reported anxiety, depression, and stress scores in certain populations.
- Although ashwagandha is generally well tolerated, there are some groups of people who should be cautious about taking the supplement, such as people with thyroid conditions.
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is a hallmark of Ayurveda, one form of traditional Indian medicine. The medicinal plant, which is also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, is also found in practices of other types of Indian and African traditional medicine. It’s considered an essential herb for these traditional practices and an adaptogen, a group of plants that help your body deal with or adapt to physical and mental stressors alike.
Ashwagandha root is considered a drug of “Rasayana,” a Sanskrit word that translates to a path of essence, and a practice of Ayurvedic medicine that refers to the science of lengthening lifespan. Traditionally, people believed this root could affect your body from your nervous system to your blood pressure. Although more research needs to be done, modern science is starting to find potential health benefits of ashwagandha. Studies suggest the herb may be able to fight infection by boosting immune cells (Bhat, 2010), decrease inflammation markers (Auddy, 2008), and protect the brain from a plaque that may contribute to Alzheimer’s and preserve brain function (Jayaprakasam, 2009). These benefits are suspected of coming from withanolides, naturally occurring steroidal lactones that are found in the root. Some people may not experience the same benefits, though.
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Ashwagandha and anxiety
Though we’ve been slow to catch on, despite ashwagandha’s long history of medicinal use, science is now beginning to uncover some of its potential benefits. One of the most eagerly embraced is its potential ability to mitigate the physical and psychological effects of chronic stress. Possibly the most well-known effect of ashwagandha is its supposed ability to lower cortisol, the stress hormone. Doses as low as 250 mg daily for 60 days significantly reduced self-reported anxiety levels as well as serum cortisol levels in participants of a small 2014 placebo-controlled study on ashwagandha supplements (Auddy, 2008).
While you do want some cortisol—it’s essential for vital functions like metabolism—chronically elevated levels of this hormone can lead to other problems like blood sugar issues and weight gain. So supplementing to reduce cortisol levels is a potential therapeutic use of Withania somnifera with wide-ranging benefits.
Ashwagandha may ease anxiety beyond cortisol levels
An earlier study of safety found the same thing in participants who were experiencing considerable stress. On a perceived stress scale (PSS) graded from 0 (essentially no stress) to 40, all participants self-scored at a 14 or higher. After 60 days, the placebo group’s PSS had dropped an average of 5.5%, while those who supplemented twice a day with full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root saw an average of a 44% decrease in their self-reported stress score (Chandrasekhar, 2012).
But these researchers didn’t stop there. Along the way, they also had participants fill out depression anxiety stress scale (DASS) questionnaires, which breaks down concerns by type. That means researchers could see how people experienced depression, anxiety, and stress separately before and after treatment with the medicinal herb. Their results showed that the adaptogenic herb really was living up to the hype with both an anti-depressive and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect. By day 60, there was a significant reduction in all areas: 77% for depression, 64.2% for stress, and 75.6% for anxiety. Of course, this was just one study, and determining whether or not ashwagandha actually has these effects will require further investigation.
It’s potentially successful at reducing stress in more severe cases, too. Ashwagandha significantly helped participants in a randomized double-blind study in the treatment group with ICD-10 anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), mixed anxiety and depression, panic disorder, and adjustment disorder with anxiety (Andrade, 2000). Treatment with a combination of therapy and prescription medication is common for these disorders, but the strength of herbal options shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, in an animal study, treatment with Withania somnifera glycowithanolides, active compounds extracted from ashwagandha root, was found to be as effective as lorazepam (Bhattacharya, 2000).
That’s not to say that ashwagandha is a cure-all for anxiety. One study looked at how anxiety would be eased through standard psychotherapy intervention (PT) versus naturopathic care (NC). Both groups were guided through deep breathing exercises. The PT group received psychotherapy, and a placebo pill, while those in the NC group got nutrition counseling, a multi-vitamin, and ashwagandha. After at least eight weeks of treatment, the adaptogenic effects were clear: Self-reported anxiety had dropped by 30.5% in the PT group and 56.5% in the NC group (Cooley, 2009). There were other factors involved, but the study at least gives hope and a scientific basis to believe that ashwagandha extract could be a helpful part of a holistic treatment plan to ease anxiety and boost overall mental health.
Dosage and forms of ashwagandha
Luckily, ashwagandha is generally well-tolerated (more on that later). It’s available as an extract, but the most common form is capsules of powder. These are readily available at health stores, supplement stores, and online, but supplements like ashwagandha are not regulated by the FDA. Always do your research and go with a product you can trust and talk to your healthcare provider if you don’t know where to start.
A wide range of daily doses has been used in research on the medicinal herb with few adverse effects reported. In many cases, this dose was broken up so that the participants took the herbal supplement from 2–4 times a day instead of all at once. Whiles doses in anxiety-specific studies go as high as 5 g. You should always start low to gauge tolerance and discuss the upper range with a medical professional. It’s worth noting that most experimental studies looked at effects over the course of 8–12 weeks, though in some cases, there were positive outcomes noted as early as six weeks. Give your supplement time to work before deciding whether it’s a treatment worth continuing.
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
Generally, studies of safety have found that the most common side effects of ashwagandha are mild and include sleepiness, loose stools, and gastrointestinal discomfort. Ashwagandha root extract may also interfere with thyroid function testing. Pregnant women should also never take the herbal supplement, as it may cause early contractions or even miscarriage (Herbs & Pregnancy, 2019). Find out more about all of the side effects of ashwagandha in our article, which outlines the potential adverse effects.