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We talk a lot about all the silly things people will do for money. Tune into any game show with physical challenges and you’ll see it. But less talked about, though no less true, is the sometimes far lengths people will go to in order to drop a few pounds. Swallow a tapeworm? It’s been done. Consume only water for three days? It’s called water fasting. What about not taking medications or supplements out of fear they’ll cause the scale to go up? I’m guilty. How about you?
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is an adaptogenic herb that’s been used for ages in Indian and African traditional medicine. Adaptogens supposedly help your body cope with (or adapt to) all kinds of stress, from mental to physical. 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. With researchers confirming traditional Ayurvedic uses of the plant, the supplement has moved its way to the Western world—but some people may be waiting to try it out of concern that ashwagandha may make you gain weight.
- Ashwagandha is a plant used in traditional medicine that may help the body deal with stress.
- There are a few ways ashwagandha may play a role in weight gain or loss.
- Little research is done on whether ashwagandha has a direct impact on weight.
- Anyone taking thyroid medication should speak to their healthcare provider before using this supplement.
Can ashwagandha make you gain weight?
Although everybody is different, the opposite may be true for some people. Weight loss is a complicated formula, but supporting your metabolic rate can help you maintain a healthy weight or even drop a couple of pounds—and that’s where ashwagandha may be able to help. Your metabolism actually includes all the chemical processes that are required to sustain life, but we mostly use the word to describe how many calories you burn a day. A majority of that number is determined by your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body burns on basic functions, like breathing and pumping your heart.
This energy expenditure is largely controlled by your thyroid hormones (Liu, 2017). The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the front of your throat, produces several different hormones, but we’re mostly focused here on triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). Triiodothyronine, or T3, is the more active of the thyroid hormones. In most people with hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland doesn’t produce or convert these hormones at normal levels, and weight gain is a common, though not universal, side effect of the condition.
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If you have low thyroid function, ashwagandha may help and, in turn, potentially prevent weight gain. An early study on 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 600 mg of ashwagandha daily for eight weeks improved blood levels of thyroid hormones T3 and T4 in patients with lower thyroid function, one small placebo-controlled study found (Sharma, 2018). Weight gain or loss was far from the point here, though, and neither study proves that this supplement will affect how much you weigh.
May support weight management in times of stress
It’s no secret that stress can be unkind to the waistline. Psychological stress has been connected to weight gain and even obesity (Nevanperä, 2012). It may actually seem like a wonder that we don’t gain more weight in times of stress, considering how the cards are stacked against us. Stress may change our eating behaviors (Sulkowski, 2011), causing us to not only eat more but also reach for sweeter foods in response to food cravings (Epel, 2001). But then, on top of the increased intake, stress may also make us move less (Choudhary, 2017). High perceived stress is also associated with shorter sleep duration, which has been shown to increase hunger by reducing satiety hormones and increasing hunger hormones (Choi, 2018; Taheri, 2004).
In the face of all that, where does this supplement come in? It’s possible, though far from proven, that ashwagandha’s ability to help control psychological stress may also affect your waistline. One study that gave participants a high-dose of ashwagandha root extract found that, compared to a placebo, participants reported a better quality of life because their perceived stress levels diminished (Chandrasekhar, 2012). Lower perceived stress may, in turn, affect the things mentioned above. You may sleep better, have more normal hunger and satiety hormone function, and experience less emotional eating. But the direct connection between ashwagandha and weight isn’t entirely clear yet.
Researchers did look at how ashwagandha supplements affected adults (and their waistlines) while experiencing chronic stress in one small double-blind study. The group given ashwagandha had significantly lower levels of “the stress hormone” cortisol than the placebo group, even by week four of the eight-week study. By the end of the study, the placebo group had reduced their body weight by 1.46%, whereas the group supplementing with ashwagandha showed an average of 3.03% reduction in weight. Even better, those given the supplement showed a significant improvement in emotional eating and uncontrolled eating scores compared to those not given the Ayurvedic herb (Choudhary, 2017).
Ultimately, more research is needed to show whether ashwagandha can help with weight loss. It’s better to focus on proven strategies such as diet and exercise if weight loss is your goal. But if you’re taking ashwagandha for another purpose, such as lowering anxiety, there isn’t much evidence that ashwagandha will make you gain weight as a side effect, either.
What else is ashwagandha used for?
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. Research on ashwagandha paces behind traditional medicine, but we are learning more about the potential uses for this adaptogen all the time. In fact, research shows 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
(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, human studies tend to find that they’re mild.
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
Clinical studies 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 Hashimoto’s, 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, a lesser-known member of this family.
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 powders, extracts, and capsules are readily available at health stores and online, it’s important to buy from a company you trust.