It will come as no surprise to learn that, as a society, we are very stressed. In fact, the American Psychological Association found that 27% of Americans report being too stressed to function.
So it’s easy to see why any product that claims to help with stress is appealing to potential buyers. While there are claims on many supplements and pills that help you feel a sense of calm, there is one in particular that has caught the eye online and in the natural health arena: ashwagandha.
“(Ashwagandha is) an herb that grows in parts of South and Central Asia, including India, where it is used in Ayurvedic medicine,” said Dr. Susan Blackford, an internal and integrative medicine physician at Duke Integrative Medicine Center in North Carolina. .
The Latin name for the shrub is Withania somnifera. In Latin, somnifera means inducing sleep, Blackford said, which is one of its uses. Ashwagandha also claims to help with issues other than sleep and stress, including anxiety and depression.
So is it for real? Here’s what the experts say:
Certain ashwagandha supplements can help with stress and other problems.
“There are many other ways that (people) use it, but I would say in integrative medicine we probably use it primarily for stress,” Blackford said.
Indeed, ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means that it “boosts the body’s resistance to stress,” she added.
Amala Soumyanath, director of the Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University, explained that it can refer to several types of stress — psychological stress, physical stress (like that from an infection) and more. “These adaptogens (are) believed to have a very wide range of effects,” Soumyanath noted.
Blackford added that it is not entirely clear how ashwagandha has an impact on stress, but it appears to work with GABA-A and GABA-B receptors, which are “known to produce calming effects” in the body. And a calmer disposition also has a natural impact on anxiety and sleep. So it’s easy to see how ashwagandha can potentially have an effect on all of these issues.
Soumyanath said preclinical and clinical studies have looked at ashwagandha as a treatment. A 2019 study in 60 adults found that people who took ashwagandha daily had reduced morning cortisol levels, according to Blackford. But it should be noted that with only 60 people, the sample size for this study is very small.
“I would say…there is reasonably strong clinical evidence of effects on stress and sleep,” Soumyanath said. “There is plenty of preclinical evidence for its effectiveness in anxiety, but perhaps less clinical evidence.”
In other words, there needs to be more studies on the effectiveness of ashwagandha to help manage anxiety before any stronger conclusions can be drawn.
Only specific ashwagandha products have been studied – not everything off the shelf.
There’s a big caveat with all of this: While there’s some promising evidence that ashwagandha works for certain conditions, these studies typically focus on a specific ashwagandha product makeup, Soumyanath said.
This means that not all supplements containing ashwagandha are created equal. “Because products are variable, we can’t necessarily assume that every product on the shelf will have the same effects,” Soumyanath explained.
“If you look on the shelf, you’ll see a whole variety of different ashwagandha products available for sale,” Soumyanath said, noting that these products use different types of extracts, which impacts their effectiveness.
“Sometimes it’s just the powdered root, sometimes it’s an extract of the powdered root, sometimes the extract is made with water, sometimes it’s made with a mixture of alcohol, sometimes l The extract is made from (the) root as well as the leaf,” she said. continued. In other words, there are many formulations out there, and not all of these extracts have been studied or proven to be effective.
Your first thought might be to find the products that have been studied, but Soumyanath said dietary supplements are not necessarily standardized. The manufacturer may change their manufacturing process at any time, which impacts future batches of the product.
Instead, Soumyanath said, you can compare products that use different formulations, like dried root versus an extract, and see what works for you. “In general, products with extracts are stronger because the type of extract concentrates some of the botanical constituents,” she said.
Additionally, Blackford said, you can check out consumerlab.com, which compares available products.
“It doesn’t say whether it’s useful or not, it says ‘does it contain what it’s supposed to contain and does it contain contaminants you need to be concerned about,'” Blackford said. “So it’s kind of like a watchdog group to make sure what you’re taking is safe.”
What exactly makes an effective ashwagandha supplement is still being researched.
Soumyanath said she and other researchers are trying to figure out what parameters are needed to ensure ashwagandha’s effectiveness.
“There is still a lot of research to be done to try to link the chemical profile of an ashwagandha plant to its biological activity so that we can design better dietary supplements that contain the right components at the right doses – but for now we we don’t have that information,” Soumyanath said.
“I guess the take-home messages in all these caveats about variability…it’s a very useful herb and it’s generally considered safe, but individual products may or may not provide” results such as stress reduction and anxiety, she said. .
Make sure you know the potential side effects.
When it comes to ashwagandha, there are usually no side effects, Blackford said, and if there are, they tend to be short-term. “It could cause headaches, cause drowsiness…and it could cause stomach upset.”
“There have been very rare cases of liver toxicity,” Soumyanath noted.
And while side effects aren’t common, it’s still important to tell your healthcare provider about any supplements or medications you’re taking, Soumyanath said.
Ashwagandha also affects other systems; it might also lower your blood pressure, blood sugar and increase hormone levels, Blackford said. “So it probably won’t be dramatic, but if you’re on blood pressure or blood sugar or thyroid medication, you just have to know that you want to monitor that.”
Additionally, from a Western medicine perspective, Blackford said, taking ashwagandha is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding. “We just don’t have enough data to determine its safety,” she explained.
Soumyanath added that it’s important to follow the recommended dosage – “don’t assume that taking more will always be better for you.”
Like any medicine, be responsible when taking ashwagandha. “Don’t assume natural is safe,” Soumyanath says. Taking too much of the supplement or taking it for a long time may increase your risk of side effects.
Finally, when it comes to stress relief, Blackford said ashwagandha was not his choice. “Whether someone comes to me with stress and anxiety, I will first look at what factors contribute to it.
Think about your coping skills, your sleep habits (sleep is important for stress reduction, Blackford added), your exercise habits (another stress reliever), and your connection to your community.
“(Ashwagandha is) just a tool. I always get a little concerned when people focus on one thing, whether it’s…an approach, an herb, a drug,” Blackford said. “If we focus so much on one thing, we lose all of the other influencing factors and we’re not going to have any meaningful long-term change.”