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What if I told you there’s something that may help your diet work effectively (Nedeltcheva, 2010), improve your memory (Potkin, 2012), and make people want to be around you more? You’d probably be willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, I can’t sell it to you. It’s quality sleep. (OK, the last benefit isn’t so scientific, but there is an association between lack of sleep and increased anger, and we’ve all experienced a not-so-pleasant interaction with someone sleepy (Saghir, 2018).) But while no one has bottled a good night’s sleep yet, there are countless supplements that promise improved sleep quality. This Ayurvedic herb is one of them, but does ashwagandha for sleep really work?
- Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, a plant that may help your body cope with stress.
- There are several ways in which this herb may help improve your sleep.
- Ashwagandha may help counter high stress levels, which have been shown to disrupt and shorten sleep.
- Preliminary human and animal studies suggest ashwagandha may also help directly with sleep, but more research is needed.
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, has a long history of use in several practices, from Ayurveda to Indian and African traditional medicine. This herb is an adaptogen, a plant that may help your body cope with chronic stress, whether it’s mental stress from a demanding boss or physical stress from a grueling workout. Traditional practices like Ayurveda used the root and berries of ashwagandha—also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng—to treat a wide range of health conditions, and modern research is finding evidence to support some of these uses.
Can ashwagandha help me sleep?
This plant has traditionally been used in Ayurveda to help with sleep (Kaushik, 2017). Ashwagandha may help you get better sleep in two ways: by influencing sleep directly and by lowering stress, which indirectly benefits sleep. There’s still more research needed on this adaptogenic herb to confirm preliminary findings, though.
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Participants given full-spectrum (maintaining the same proportion of compounds as in the plant itself) ashwagandha root extract twice daily for ten weeks saw greater improvements in several sleep markers compared to those in the placebo group in one 2019 placebo-controlled study. The researchers used a combination of actigraphy, a sensor worn that tracks activity and rest, and sleep logs filled out by the participants to track their sleep patterns, including total sleep time, total time in bed, and more. Although sleep onset latency (how long it takes you to go from awake to fully asleep) and sleep efficiency improved in both groups, those given 600 mg of ashwagandha daily benefitted the most. There were other areas in which the supplement had an even greater advantage, though. Sleep quality, anxiety, and mental alertness upon waking significantly improved in the ashwagandha group compared to placebo (Langade, 2019).
Another study focused on triethylene glycol, an active component of ashwagandha found in the leaves of the plant. Traditionally, the root or whole plant was used in India to help counter insomnia. But researchers, who were working on mice and not humans, found that parts of the plant with high withanolide content didn’t help induce sleep. Withanolides are active compounds believed to be responsible for many of ashwagandha’s other potential health benefits. The leaves have comparably low levels of withanolides, but higher triethylene glycol content. The use of ashwagandha extract made from more of the leaves was associated with a significant improvement in non-rapid eye movement sleep time and a slight improvement in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in mice (Kaushik, 2017). The researchers are hopeful their findings show that ashwagandha may be sleep-inducing in humans (without the side effects of other sleep aids), but it’s still too early to tell. Since the findings of animal studies may not directly translate to humans, more research is needed.
The effects of ashwagandha on stress and perceived well-being are better studied. One clinical trial gave employees who had experienced at least six weeks of moderate to severe anxiety high-dose ashwagandha and found it significantly improved mental health, concentration, energy levels, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life (Cooley, 2009). Another had similar results; in this study, researchers gave participants a high dose of ashwagandha root extract and found that, compared to a placebo, participants reported a better quality of life because their perceived stress levels diminished (Chandrasekhar, 2012). Since high perceived stress is associated with shorter sleep duration, lowering stress may improve quality of sleep by increasing total sleep time (Choi, 2018).
Other potential benefits of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha root is considered a drug of “Rasayana,” a Sanskrit word that translates to “path of essence” and a practice of Ayurvedic medicine that refers to the science of lengthening lifespan (Singh, 2011). Research on ashwagandha paces behind traditional medicine, but we are learning more about the potential uses for this adaptogen all the time. There’s still more research to be done, but current studies suggest that ashwagandha supplements such as powders and extracts:
- 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
(Although more research is needed in some areas, we’ve gone over all of these potential effects in-depth in our guide to the benefits of ashwagandha.) The potential benefits of this plant are thought to come from beneficial compounds, including withanolides (the most well-known of which is withaferin A), glycowithanolides (which boast antioxidant properties), and alkaloids. Withanolides get the most attention, though, for their anxiolytic properties, or ability to ameliorate the effects of chronic stress (Singh, 2011). But one of the major advantages of ashwagandha is that it’s widely available and well-tolerated by most. Although the herb has potential side effects, clinical research on humans tends to find that they’re mild.
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha has remarkably low rates of side effects across various clinical trials, but they do happen. One participant in a study on Withania somnifera dropped out after experiencing increased appetite and libido as well as vertigo (Raut, 2012). Two participants in the clinical study that looked at how ashwagandha affects sleep also dropped out, one given the herb and one in the placebo group. None of the participants of the study reported adverse effects, however (Langade, 2019). But there are groups of people who shouldn’t take it, especially not without first talking to their healthcare provider.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid ashwagandha. And people with an autoimmune disease—such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, or systemic lupus erythematosus—need to consult with a medical professional before starting a supplement regimen. Also, talk to a healthcare provider if you’re on medication for thyroid function or blood pressure. It’s also part of the 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
Ashwagandha is considered a supplement, a class of products that is only loosely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 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.