The herb Ashwagandha is said to possess a number of health benefits and has been been hailed as a miracle substance by many. Also known by the generic name Withania Somnifera, Ashwagandha’s use as a traditional medicine can be traced back over 3,000 years, but how many of the health claims made about this herb are true and actually backed by science and are there any side effects to be aware of?
What is Ashwagandha?
The name “Ashwagandha” roughly translates as “horse smell” in Sanskrit, while the word “somnifera”, which forms part of its generic name, means “sleep inducing” in Latin. This herb is also known as Indian Ginseng— it bears no resemblance to other types of ginseng in taste, fragrance, or effects, but the structure of the plant is similar—and winter cherry.
Ashwagandha extracts are sold as food supplements, added to superfood powders, and consumed in the form of a tea. It doesn’t taste great (that would be an understatement) but there are some ways that you can mask the pungent flavour, as discussed at the bottom of this article.
Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
A lot of health claims have been made about this herbal remedy and while there is no conclusive evidence to back any of these claims up, there have been a few very promising studies.
1. It Can Reduce Stress and Depression
Just like the flowers of the camomile plant, Ashwagandha has shown to be effective at reducing stress and depression and is often consumed for this reason. In one randomised, double-blind study, extracts of Ashwagandha were given to 32 patients with a history of chronic stress and they scored significantly lower on stress-assessment scales than a placebo group. This was a controlled study and the results were significant enough to draw a positive conclusion, but that doesn’t mean that Ashwagandha will work for everyone. (1)
It’s also worth noting that highly concentrated extracts of Ashwagandha were used under strict supervision, and these may be unsafe for the average user to consume without that supervision.
2. It Has Shown Promise as an Anti-Cancer Drug
The field of cancer research is vast and there is no shortage of remedies—herbal and otherwise—that have shown to inhibit cancer growth. These are always guaranteed to generate an exciting headline or two, but the problem is, a lot of these studies take place in the lab under controlled conditions, and killing cancer cells in the lab and curing it in the body are completely different things.
Ashwagandha is one of the more exciting of these remedies, up there with the cancer killing properties of dandelion leaf and the lesser known herb from Hawaii mamaki. Not only has it proved to be effective at inhibiting growth in the lab, but there have also been a number of promising animal studies, including one where it was able to treat breast cancer in mice and another where it significantly reduced ovarian cancer growth (2) (3).
This doesn’t mean that it can prevent or cure cancer in humans. In fact, it has been used extensively enough for us to be relatively certain that it can’t do either of these things, at least not 100% of the time and in 100% of cancers, but it could lead to further developments in the future and at the very least it warrants further research.
3. It Can Reduce Inflammation
Ashwagandha is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and regular consumption could lead to reduced inflammation in the body, which in turn could reduce the risk of countless chronic diseases. Of course, this only applies if it is consumed as part of a healthy lifestyle, as a little powdered Ashwagandha isn’t going to offset the damage done by trans fats, cigarettes or binge drinking.
There are more promising anti-inflammatory herbs out there, including green tea, which is one of the healthiest teas in the world, and sideritic scardica, which has shown a lot of promise in preventing digestive and neurological issues, but Ashwagandha is still a healthy herb in its own right and may help in ways that the aforementioned herbs can’t.
Other Benefits of Ashwagandha Tea
A lot of claims have been made about Ashwagandhain in recent years, most of which come from the people distributing or selling the root. Many of these are unsubstantiated, others have some evidence behind them, but not enough to draw serious conclusions.
For instance, it is often said that Ashwagandha can boost testosterone levels, leading to this supplement being sold to bodybuilders. But no herb can increase testosterone levels high enough or long enough to have any impact on muscle growth. It may help to improve recovery though, and it could also impact on fertility.
There is also some research suggesting that it can be useful in reducing high blood sugar and cholesterol, and in improving cognitive function.
How to Take Ashwagandha
As with the foul tasting valerian root, Ashwagandha is not something that you’ll enjoy consuming in its pure form, but a little sugar and honey goes a long way if you’re consuming it as a tea. You can also try some turmeric or ginger—the strong flavours will go someway to overpowering the pungent herb while also providing some additional health benefits.
A little powder added to a thick and creamy smoothie will also go down well, or you can add a little to a sweet alcoholic drink like the hot toddy.
The easiest way to take it, however, is to buy it in tablet form. The majority of users recommend consuming it in powder form and claim that it works better this way, with many of those claims revolving around the apparent complimentary benefits of hot milk. But these claims seem to have more to do with tradition than anything else, and if you believe there is something to them then you can simply take your tablets with a glass of warm milk.
How Much to Take
The dose can vary depending on a number of factors, from the quality of the product to the reason you’re consuming it. In any case, we always recommend starting with a small dose, gauging your reaction, and then building from there. A dose of no more than 300mg per day is a good place to start, and you can split this between two or three doses. We wouldn’t recommend going any higher than 3 grams per day and if you experience any side effects then stop immediately. Smaller doses are also preferable if you plan on taking it indefinitely.