Ashwagandha: Health Benefits, Side Effects, and How to Use

Last modified on October 19th, 2023

If I were to name one of my favorite supplements available, I would have to say it’s ashwagandha. As someone who’s suffered from anxiety for my entire life, I would say ashwagandha is one of the most important supplements I take to help me stay calm, balanced, and productive.

Below, I will explain everything you need to know about ashwagandha, why you should take it, the benefits, and how to choose a supplement. The effects of ashwagandha and the efficacy of ashwagandha are well-backed by research, which is another reason I’m such a fan. 

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen used in Ayurveda for thousands of years and is a core part of traditional and Indian medicine. 

What Are Adaptogens?

An adaptogen helps your body react and respond appropriately to chronic physical or mental stress. Adaptogens are medicinal plants that can help combat fatigue and improve mental performance. They’re also potent at helping with symptoms of depression and anxiety in adults. A lot of people find that taking adaptogens helps them be sharper and clearer in their thinking and generally improves their quality of life. Adaptogens are often used to help with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, but they have many other applications. 

Having an understanding of adaptogens is such an important part of seeing the benefits of ashwagandha.

  • When we face any stressful event or situation, whether mental or physical, our bodies go through general adaptation syndrome or GAS. GAS includes three stages—alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. When you take adaptogens, they help you stay in the resistance phase longer by stimulating effects that prevent fatigue. In simpler terms, adaptogens help you avoid crashing when facing stress.
  • You will respond better when you adapt to stress, no matter the situation or its specifics.
  • Your adrenal gland releases something called cortisol when you’re stressed. It’s an integral part of dealing with potential threats and helps us handle emergencies. Too much cortisol is bad, however. Consistently high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, especially around the midsection. If you reduce stress using adaptogens, you can reduce cortisol and help with mid-section weight gain.
  • Adaptogens can broadly help with several other health issues, including digestive problems, insomnia, pain, and problems with hormone and immune system function.

What is Ayurvedic Medicine?

Another reason adaptogens are so valuable is that we know a lot about them, thanks to use in Ayurveda for thousands of years.

Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems. Ayurveda originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. Ayurveda is a word that comes from Sanskrit, and it translates to knowledge of life. This practice is based on the idea that disease is because of stress or imbalance in your consciousness. Ayurvedic treatment aims to rebuild a sense of balance between your mind, body, spirit, and environment.

Basics of Ashwagandha Benefits

Ashwagandha is an ancient medicinal herb, and it’s one of the most important of all the herbs used in Ayurveda. The botanical name is Withania somnifera.

The extract comes from an evergreen shrub known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng. It comes from the ashwagandha plant, a small, flowering shrub. The shrub is native to North Africa and India. The leaves and roots are used to make extracts and powders.

Many of ashwagandha’s most significant health benefits are due to the high concentration of withanolides. Withanolides fight tumor growth and inflammation.

Here are several active compounds in ashwagandha, including:

  • Alkaloids
  • Steroidal lactones
  • Saponins

In vitro studies show that ashwagandha is neuroprotective and has anti-inflammatory properties that can help with some chronic conditions like osteoarthritis. Ashwagandha may have immunomodulating properties, and it can have benefits for sexual performance, low red blood cell counts and low hemoglobin, and male infertility.

How Does Ashwagandha Work?

If you take ashwagandha, the active components are biologically active. In animal studies, the anti-inflammatory effects are similar to hydrocortisone. The herb influences GABA receptors, and the roots and leaves are similar to steroids in their biological actions.

Scientific analysis finds that the herb represses the expression of pro-inflammatory genes and may increase cytotoxic T lymphocyte production, which can help inhibit tumor growth.

Withaferin A can induce reactive oxygen species or ROS generation and disrupt the mitochondrial function of human leukemia cells among its mechanisms of action. We’ll talk more about the anti-cancer benefits below.

What Are the Benefits of Ashwagandha?

There are so many benefits of this powerful Ayurvedic herb that it would be challenging to cover them all, but below we’re going into some major ones.

Stress and Anxiety Relief

One of the most consistently proven benefits of this herbal supplement is anxiety and stress relief, known as anxiolytic effects. There was a study published in 2019 for example, that was conducted on 60 healthy adults with self-reported high levels of stress. Taking 240 mg of ashwagandha extract seemed to significantly reduce mental stress compared to study participants who took a placebo.

Researchers have found in other studies that the herb can block the stress pathway in the brains of rats through the regulation of chemical signals in the nervous system.

There have been several controlled studies in humans finding taking an ashwagandha supplement can reduce symptoms in people with anxiety and stress disorder.

In a six-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 88% of participants taking ashwagandha reported reduced anxiety, compared with 50% who took a placebo.

A pilot trial study in 2000 found ashwagandha had an anti-anxiety effect similar to lorazepam, prescription anxiety, and sedative medication used as a treatment for anxiety. 

The study was in mice, but again, similar anti-anxiety results have been seen in human studies.

Depression Relief

The benefits of ashwagandha for depression aren’t as well studied as they are for anxiety, but there is some promising evidence the herb could be helpful.

For example, in a 60-day controlled study taking 600 mg of high concentration ashwagandha extract led to a reported 79% reduction in severe depression, while the placebo group saw a 10% increase.

Sleep Quality

You can feel more relaxed when taking ashwagandha, which can help you fall asleep. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it will make you drowsy during the daytime. As an adaptogen, it can help you adapt to the situation you’re in at the time.

An experimental study published in 2019 found that taking either 250 mg or 600 mg of ashwagandha helped people sleep better than the participants taking a placebo.

Lower Cortisol Levels

One specific way ashwagandha helps reduce stress is because it can lower your cortisol levels. Cortisol is something your adrenal glands release in response to stress. Cortisol, a stress hormone, can become chronically high, increasing fat storage in the abdomen and raising blood sugar levels.

In one study of chronically stressed adults, taking ashwagandha led to significant reductions in cortisol compared to the control group.

We talked a bit about these effects above. Chronically high cortisol is a pervasive problem for many, and remedying it could have many health benefits.

Arthritis and Pain Relief

Here’s some evidence this herb can work as a natural pain reliever for joint pain associated with arthritis. Part of this is due to the anti-inflammatory properties of the herbal preparation. At the same time, it prevents pain signals from traveling in your central nervous system. For these reasons, it may help with arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Cardiovascular Health

Ashwagandha root extract and ashwagandha tea may help improve various heart health factors. For example, it might lower blood pressure and high cholesterol. There’s some evidence taking the extract could help prevent heart disease.

Boost Testosterone Levels and Helps Male Fertility

Ashwagandha, for men, is a powerful, natural way to improve testosterone levels and also help promote reproductive health. In both men and women, ashwagandha has been studied for various sexual problems.

In one study of women experiencing sexual dysfunction, taking 600 mg of ashwagandha a day helped them experience more lubrication and arousal, more orgasms, and more satisfaction with sexual encounters. Sexual function in women could be significantly improved with the use of ashwagandha based on the clinical relevance of this study. 

In men, ashwagandha tablets or other supplements may help with testosterone levels and reproductive health. For example, in a study of 75 men with infertility, a group treated with ashwagandha significantly increased testosterone, sperm quality and count, and motility.

Strength and Muscle Mass

Researchers have found ashwagandha may improve strength and body composition. For example, in a study of healthy men taking 750-1250 mg of ashwagandha daily, they gained muscle strength after 30 days. A separate study found similar results, and participants taking ashwagandha had more gains in strength and size of their muscles.

The ashwagandha group also doubled their reduction of body fat percentage compared to the placebo group.

Ashwagandha may help physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance. 

Is Ashwagandha Safe?

One of the things we like the most about ashwagandha is that it’s considered very safe for most people with minimal known adverse events. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your doctor first; it isn’t medical advice. However, it’s a well-studied herbal remedy with few adverse effects or contradictions.

The primary side effect you may notice, especially with higher doses, is drowsiness, and some reports also indicate it could cause some digestive upset.

If you have a hyperthyroid condition, you should speak to your doctor before taking this herb. The herb can help the thyroid function by increasing the conversion of the thyroid hormone T4 to the active hormone T3. In that sense, if you have hypothyroid, it can be helpful. If your thyroid is close to being hyperactive, ashwagandha may not be ideal for you to use because of the effects of root and leaf powder on thyroid hormone concentrations. 

If you’re a pregnant woman or breastfeeding, don’t take anything without talking to your healthcare provider. 

If you have an autoimmune disease, talk to a holistic health practitioner before taking ashwagandha to ensure they don’t think it would send your immune system into overdrive. As an adaptogen, the herb can reduce inflammation and other factors related to autoimmune diseases, but it’s still good to check.

If you have hormone-sensitive prostate cancer, talk to your health provider before taking this alternative treatment because it can increase testosterone levels and affect your treatment due to the mechanisms of ashwagandha. 

When Should You Take This Herb?

First, like a lot of other herbal remedies, you’re probably not going to notice the benefits of ashwagandha immediately, and it can take a few days or weeks.

As far as when to take it, many people take a divided dose, once in the morning and once in the evening. If you take it at night, it can help promote sleep. If you take it in the morning, you may find it gives you a calm sense of focus. If you take it in the morning and feel too tired, take your entire dose at night before bed.

How to Take Ashwagandha

If you take a supplement, you won’t have a shortage of options. You’ll find teas, powders, capsules, drops, and gummies.

So how much ashwagandha should you take?

The typical dose for ashwagandha supplementation, regardless of the specific way you take it, is usually 500 mg twice daily. Some studies have ranged from 250 to 600 mg, and others have used much higher doses. You’ll often find capsule dosages ranging from 250 to 1500 mg.

Ideally, look for supplements independently tested and verified by a third party like ConsumerLab or the National Sanitation Foundation International (NSF International).

Choosing An Ashwagandha Supplement

When you’re spending money on any supplement, you want it to be high-quality and safe, and you also want it to be effective and not packed with ineffective fillers. The following are some considerations to keep in mind when you’re choosing a quality ashwagandha supplement:

  • If possible, a supplement should be made with just the root rather than the leaves. The maximum clinical benefits come from the root rather than the leaves. Also, in Ayurvedic medicine, the root is the most effective part of the plant. Most studies we link to above use extracts made only with the roots and no leaves.
  • Choose a high-concentration full-spectrum extract. Full-spectrum ashwagandha extracts have many constituents that give you health benefits rather than just one or two. A high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract helps you make the most of the money you spend on it. 
  • There are two trademarked extracts that we’re going to talk more about below. One is Sensoril. In general, Sensoril is more calming and relaxing. The other, KSM-66, is a full-spectrum extract similar to raw ashwagandha and is good if your goals are related to physical health and performance.

Sensoril vs. KSM-66

One last thing we think is important when talking about ashwagandha is two patented herb types. One is Sensoril, and the other is KSM-66. 

Sensoril Ashwagandha uses extract from the leaf and roots of the plant, which isn’t always the best option. However, Sensoril, as a result, is high in something called Glycowithanolides. Glycowithoanolides are suitable for sleep and stress management. If you want a calming effect, and that’s your top priority, you might look for a supplement that uses Sensoril. Sensoril is known for stress-relieving and pharmacological action. 

KSM-66, on the other hand, is another patented ashwagandha extract that only uses the roots. The company that makes it, Ixoreal Biomed, uses only the root extract to ensure they can preserve and maintain the active components in natural proportions.

KSM-66 pre-treats the plant roots with milk. This is a practice used in traditional Ayurveda. The result is a high-spectrum, very high-quality product. KSM-66 tends to be very absorbable and bioavailable.

Benefits of KSM-66 in clinical studies include better stress management, improved cognitive function, endurance, and physical recovery.

According to the Oxoreal Biomed company, KSM-66 has the highest concentration of all major bioactive root compounds available. It’s been studied in dozens of human trials.

Both can be good options, but we personally prefer products that use KSM-66.

We like that KSM-66 is full-spectrum, so you get maximum benefits. The blend of phytochemicals also operates at a systemic level in your body.

Finally, we wanted to note a few other things about choosing a supplement.

First, we prefer tinctures, which are liquid solutions using alcohol as a solvent. Ashwagandha’s active constituents are polar molecules that are soluble in alcohol. When you use a liquid supplement as a tincture, it will absorb faster than a capsule or a powder. You can also put drops of the tincture under your tongue, known as taking is sublingual. That improves bioavailability as well.

Another way to compare ashwagandha supplements before selecting one is to look at the withanolide content. As we’ve noticed, withanolides are one of the bioactive components of ashwagandha, but you want a full-spectrum extract. A full-spectrum extract maintains the balance of the original herb so that none of the bioactives are overrepresented. The bioactive being in their natural proportion is what makes an extract full-spectrum.

You should aim to choose a supplement where the withanolide content isn’t too high. For example, it should be less than 25%. Optimally, the percentage of withanolides should be between 3% and 5%.

If you take ashwagandha powder or capsules, it might take hours or days to notice the effects.

We also think it’s a good idea to choose a supplement that already has BioPerine, a black pepper extract, or take a standalone black pepper extract with your ashwagandha. BioPerine or black pepper extract makes ashwagandha more bioavailable, so your body can use it as much as possible.

You can find different options at health food stores and on Amazon. We also thoroughly review some of our favorite specific ashwagandha supplements. 

Final Thoughts

The Indian Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha is a powerhouse for herbal remedies and supplements.

From boosting testosterone to alleviating depression and anxiety and having anti-cancer properties, it is one of the most remarkable herbal remedies available, with clinical trials highlighting many benefits.

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Ashley Sutphin Watkins
Ashley Sutphin Watkins is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's a medical content writer, journalist and an avid researcher of all things related to health and wellness. Ashley lives near the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee with her family.
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