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29th January, 20213 min read

What are the health benefits of ashwagandha?

Medical reviewer: Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author: Caroline Bodian
Last reviewed: 18/01/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

In alternative medicine, ashwagandha is known as an ‘adaptogen’, which means it’s thought to help your body deal with stress.

It’s also claimed to have other health benefits, and its use is growing in popularity. But are any of these claims backed by science – and are there side effects associated with taking it? Read on to learn more.

What is ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a small evergreen shrub that’s an important medicinal herb in Ayurvedic medicine – an ancient Indian medicine system based on natural healing.

It’s sometimes referred to by other names, including Indian Ginseng and Winter Cherry. It grows in India, the Middle East and Africa, and extracts or powder from its root and berry are used to make treatments, such as powder or tablets.

What are the possible benefits of taking ashwagandha?

While ashwagandha is used for a variety of health conditions, in most cases there’s not enough robust scientific evidence to prove that it’s effective.

Some studies suggest that ashwagandha can help with stress and anxiety, lowering blood sugar levels and reducing cortisol levels.

However, many of these claims are based on small-scale, individual studies, animal and test-tube studies, and a lot more research is needed.

There is some evidence from 2 small studies that ashwagandha may help with symptoms of stress. This could be because it helps to reduce levels of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, in the body. However, current research is limited and more is needed to prove this. It’s best to talk to your doctor before you consider taking ashwagandha for stress.

What are the side effects of ashwagandha?

Medicinal herbs and supplements may sound like a ‘natural’ choice, but they can still have a strong effect on your body and aren’t always as strictly regulated as conventional medications. This means that if you’re thinking of taking them, it’s important to investigate the possible side effects, as well as any warnings.

It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before trying ashwagandha, especially if you’re:

  • taking prescription or over-the-counter medications
  • pregnant or breastfeeding
  • about to have surgery
  • younger than 18 or older than 65

Taking large doses of ashwagandha may cause diarrhoea, stomach upset and vomiting, and even liver problems in rare cases.

Ashwagandha could lower your blood sugar levels, which could interfere with diabetes medications. You should also be cautious if your blood pressure is low or you’re on blood pressure medication, as ashwagandha may decrease blood pressure or interfere with such medications. Ashwagandha may alter levels of thyroid hormones, so you should also be cautious if you are on thyroid medication.

It may also aggravate certain autoimmune conditions or thyroid conditions. It can also interact with medication including sedatives and immunosuppressants.

The bottom line is that you should be cautious about taking ashwagandha. In some cases, the side effects may outweigh the possible benefits.

Key points

  • ashwagandha is a medicinal herb that’s used for a variety of health conditions
  • in most cases, there isn’t robust scientific evidence to prove it’s effective
  • there is some evidence that it may help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety
  • ashwagandha can cause side effects and shouldn’t be taken with some medications
  • speak to your doctor if you’re unsure if you should take ashwagandha
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We include references at the end of every article, so you know where we get our facts. We only ever take evidence from medically-recognised sources, approved by the UK National Health Service's The Information Standard, or certified by Health On the Net (HON). When we talk about popular health trends or claims, we'll always tell you if there's very little or no evidence to back them up. Our medical team also checks our sources, making sure they're appropriate and that we've interpreted the science correctly.

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