If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Most of us think in extremes. We’re either happy or sad, fat or thin, stressed or relaxed. But the truth often lies in the middle, whether that’s emotion or health. Once you stop and consider it, it’s pretty obvious there’s a huge gap between sick and healthy. Some of the people most aware of this divide are those who feel they have a sluggish metabolism but have never been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. It’s for these people specifically that ashwagandha, a supplement with wide-reaching potential health benefits including for your thyroid, may seem especially appealing.
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is a plant known as an adaptogen, which means most people assume it’s a supplement that helps combat stress. And while that is true, adaptogens like ashwagandha (or Withania somnifera) help your body deal with all kinds of stress, whether that’s chronic stress from a job or physical stress from a grueling workout. It’s not exactly new, either. Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, has been used in Ayurvedic, Indian, and African traditional medicine. Traditional practices like Ayurveda used the root and berries of this plant to treat a wide range of health conditions, and modern research is finding evidence to support some of these uses.
- Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, a group of plants that may help your body handle stress.
- This supplement may help boost levels of thyroid hormones.
- People with low thyroid hormone levels may experience weight gain, fatigue, constipation, memory problems, and even depression.
- But ashwagandha may interact with thyroid medication, so it’s important to discuss a supplement regimen with a healthcare professional.
- Though ashwagandha may help low thyroid function, it’s not suggested for those with hyperthyroidism or people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
The potential health benefits of ashwagandha are surprisingly wide-reaching. 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. It’s fitting to describe the root this way. Many different systems in your body have to work at their best in order for you to live a long, healthy life—and potential ashwagandha benefits range from cognition to joint health in your toes. But for many people who feel like they have a sluggish metabolism, the most exciting potential benefit of this plant may be how it interacts with your thyroid.
Can ashwagandha help treat hypothyroidism?
Although there is some scientific evidence to suggest ashwagandha may help thyroid function, it’s important to make a distinction here. People with hypothyroidism are likely on prescription thyroid hormone medication, in which case beginning a supplement regimen should be discussed with your prescribing healthcare provider. If you suspect you have hypothyroidism, it’s important to first and foremost seek medical advice from a professional. Ashwagandha may interact with thyroid medication, which is why discussing your desire to add this supplement to your routine with a medical expert is important.
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A quick note on how your thyroid works: The thyroid is part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis, which means they all work together in a system. The pituitary gland produces thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which essentially prods your thyroid to make its own hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). T3 is the more active of the thyroid hormones.
To see if you have hypothyroidism, your healthcare provider will run blood tests to look at your TSH levels. High TSH numbers mean your thyroid isn’t keeping up with demand—the pituitary gland is working harder and harder to get your thyroid to make hormones, with little to no success. This would mean you have hypothyroidism, although exact ranges for this diagnosis may differ between medical experts. In subclinical hypothyroidism, TSH levels are high, but T3 and T4 levels are normal.
Ashwagandha and thyroid function
Ashwagandha may be able to help those with low thyroid function. An early study on people with bipolar disorder noticed that the ashwagandha supplements given to participants affected their thyroid levels, even though that’s not what they had intended to study (Gannon, 2014). Supplementing with ashwagandha for eight weeks improved blood levels of TSH, T3, and T4 in patients with subclinical hypothyroidism, one small placebo-controlled study found (Sharma, 2018). The participants given ashwagandha were placed on just 600 mg daily, which is about half of the dose commonly sold by companies in health stores and online. (The amount you take may depend on the condition you’re hoping to address, and we break that all down in our guide to ashwagandha doses.)
Researchers hypothesize that ashwagandha’s effect on thyroid hormone levels may have something to do with the relationship between TSH and cortisol levels. This is an area in which more research is needed. There’s debate over what, if any, treatment is best for those with subclinical hypothyroidism (Walter, 2012). And the evidence still isn’t strong enough to recommend ashwagandha to treat any medical condition. Still, if you’re interested in adding ashwagandha to your supplement routine, speak with your healthcare provider who can offer more insights based on your personal health status.
What about ashwagandha and hyperthyroidism or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis?
Hypothyroidism and subclinical hypothyroidism aren’t the only thyroid conditions. It’s possible to have hyperthyroidism, in which the thyroid gland is overactive, or have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune form of hypothyroidism. But it’s suggested that people with either of these thyroid conditions avoid ashwagandha.
Since ashwagandha may increase levels of thyroid hormones, it’s not suggested for patients with hyperthyroidism who are already overproducing T3 and T4. Withania somnifera is also not suggested for patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, but for a different reason. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease, which means it’s connected to the immune system. Ashwagandha has been shown to boost how the immune system reacts, which may potentially make Hashimoto’s thyroiditis worse (Vetvicka, 2011).
What else is ashwagandha used for?
The potential uses of ashwagandha go far beyond the thyroid, though. In fact, research shows that ashwagandha supplements such as powders and extracts:
- May boost testosterone
- 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.) The potent effects of this plant are thought to come from beneficial compounds, including withanolide (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 potential ability to ameliorate the effects of 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, human studies tend to find that they’re mild.
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
As mentioned, clinical trials on the effects of this adaptogenic herb in humans show remarkably low rates of side effects, 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). 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. If you’re taking medication for high blood pressure, blood sugar, or thyroid function, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider about ashwagandha.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid ashwagandha. And people with an autoimmune disease—such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus—should consult with a healthcare provider before starting a supplement regimen. People who are following diets that eliminate the Solanaceae or nightshade family—a group of plants that include tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants—should also avoid ashwagandha since it’s part of this family of plants.
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 although 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.