Ashwagandha: Does it Really Work?

by Steel Jones

Ashwagandha, also known by its scientific name Withania somnifera and by other common names like Indian ginseng, Indian winter cherry, or poison gooseberry, is a popular traditional Indian medicine and a modern dietary supplement. This plant, specifically its root powder, is a well-regarded and widely-used herb of the conventional Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine. In this alternative medicine system, ashwagandha is classified as a Rasayana or an herb that rejuvenates both the mind and body and fights aging as it increases lifespan. In modern times, it is used as a dietary supplement, usually in tablets, capsules, and even chewable gummies, mainly considered an adaptogen or an herbal pharmaceutical that supposedly assists the body to fight stressors.

Various researches confirm ashwagandha’s benefits as a Rasayana. Below are some of the benefits popularly attributed to ashwagandha until now.


Stress-fighting properties

Traditionally considered as a rejuvenator, ashwagandha is popularly known as a supplement against stress. This reputation is supported by several research studies that demonstrate how ashwagandha relieves symptoms of stress. In one study, participants who took ashwagandha had lower cortisol levels and a self-assessment of overall well-being and quality of life. Reducing stress will prevent other diseases induced by it like diabetes, hypertension, premature aging, and arthritis.


Anti-inflammatory properties

Ashwagandha is known to reduce inflammation of painful, swollen joints. One study found that using the plant’s root powder relieved joint pain and swelling, similar to the effects of using the traditional root paste for the same purpose. Another study has shown that this supplement increases immune or natural killer (NK) cells that help fight infections that can cause inflammation. In another one, a decrease was seen in C-reactive protein (CRP), which is another marker of inflammation.


Increase in muscle growth and strength

Ashwagandha: Does it Really Work?Some studies have confirmed the strengthening effects of this traditional medicine. Small-scale research shows that participants that supplemented with ashwagandha have increased volume in particular strengthening exercises and, in effect, significantly gained more muscle and lost more fat versus participants who just took a placebo.

Aside from muscle gains, another study found that the supplement can improve cardiorespiratory endurance. By testing Indian cyclists’ endurance with or without ashwagandha supplementation and subsequently measuring the participants’ maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max), it was shown that those who supplemented have significantly improved their VO2 max, among other measures.


Possible adverse effects

While studies have shown the supposed benefits of this herbal pharmaceutical, there are noted possible minor and tolerable side effects such as nausea, headache, sleepiness, stomachache, and diarrhea.

While there were no severe side effects that have been found in the clinical trials of ashwagandha, there have been various, alarming case reports on this herbal supplement, including the following:

  • Severe diarrhea
  • Severe liver injury
  • Sedation
  • Burning and discoloration of the skin
  • Heavy metal or lead poisoning
  • Miscarriage due to reported abortifacient properties
  • Increased testosterone levels that may interfere with hormone-sensitive prostate cancer treatments


Other potential side effects include:

  • Ashwagandha: Does it Really Work?Decreased blood pressure. Although some people would welcome a supplement that lowers blood pressure without asking twice, this side effect of ashwagandha might be a risk for those with low blood pressure or hypertension. Many people with hypertension, or high blood pressure, need to take anti-hypertensive medication. Ashwagandha can interfere with these drugs’ effects. People with low blood pressure might risk a further reduction to blood pressure by taking it, so consult your doctor first.
  • May irritate GI tract. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen which means it can be used to treat stress and anxiety. Besides this, it can protect against gastric ulcers stemming from stress and aspirin consumption, according to a 1982 study conducted on mice. However, human studies are needed to confirm that these protective qualities hold. Too much ashwagandha consumption may lead to constipation and decreased appetite based on a study in 2012. Furthermore, massive amounts of consumption might cause enough GI discomfort to cause ulcers.
  • May increase immune activity. Having a robust immune system that’s working hard for you is good, right? Not quite. Individuals with autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis or lupus may make symptoms worse with ashwagandha supplementation. Autoimmune diseases are characterized by the body attacking itself, so the higher immune activity, the more spirited it will fight itself. As ashwagandha has been shown to boost immune response, people with such diseases should avoid taking it.


Final thoughts

Ashwagandha has been used for hundreds of years as a traditional Indian medicine and a modern-day dietary supplement. Several research studies have been conducted on this popular herb, associating it with various health benefits like reduced stress levels, increased muscle mass, and even cancer prevention. Aside from that, there are quite a few reported adverse effects noted across these research studies.

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