Ashwagandha is a powerful traditional stress reliever that enhances memory and balances immune function. It may also protect the brain, liver, and kidneys, but some people don’t tolerate it well. Read on to learn all about its benefits, how it works, and how to use it safely.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family of plants. It goes under several other names, such as Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, or Indian winter cherry .
The name Ashwagandha can be traced back to ancient Sanskrit. It translates to “smell of a horse” (ashwa “horse” and gandha “smell”) since the scent of its roots is similar to that of horse urine. Others say its name indicates it will make you “strong like a horse,” and there may be truth to this claim [1, 2].
Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens increase the body’s resistance to stress, offsetting detrimental effects and helping to balance bodily functions and the immune response .
- Combats the effects of stress on mind and body
- Stimulates the immune system and fertility
- Reduces pain, inflammation, and oxidative damage
- Improves memory and physical performance
- Protects the brain, liver, lungs, and kidneys
- May help with diabetes, infections, and cancer
- Has unpleasant taste
- May increase thyroid hormones
- May cause digestive issues
Why Adaptogens Are Great (& Why They Sometimes Don’t Work)
The following section is based on personal experiences of Joe and the SelfHacked Science Team. We at SelfHacked love adaptogens. They can help when life gets too stressful and anxiety-provoking. Still, several people have told us that they tried ashwagandha and other adaptogenic herbs and didn’t feel anything.
To get the most out of adaptogens, you have to find the right ones and understand how they work with your body. It takes trial and error. Some of us have tried 4-5 different ones and their combinations until something worked, and it was challenging to pinpoint why.
If you tried a bunch of supplements for reducing stress and none worked, it’ll feel frustrating and you might want to give up. We’ve been there. And here we’ll explain why this can happen, and what you should do before you decide if ashwagandha is worth the hype.
Hormesis is a big part of it. If you’ve never heard of hormesis, you’re missing out on a huge aspect of health enhancement.
You may be taking too many adaptogens at high doses. This could be increasing your stress, instead of lowering it. This is hormesis gone wrong. Hormesis is when you introduce small stress to your body to prep it for much larger stressors. It’s basically building your stress reserves in a healthy way.
Hormesis makes you stronger; it might even make people live longer. What nobody talks about is that most adaptogens work by hormesis. That might be why ashwagandha is said to make people strong .
Here’s the catch: more is not better with adaptogens. Ashwagandha has a ton of benefits—if you don’t overdo it. In one cell-based study, all its benefits went away after a very high dose. That’s the essence of hormesis: too little doesn’t work, a bit more is good, and too much has the opposite effect .
All adaptogens can work no matter what your immune profile is. But ashwagandha can over-stimulate the Th1 response in some people. Ashwagandha is an immune balancer, but it mildly increases the Th1 response. So it’s a bit more suited for Th2-dominant people .
Additionally, ashwagandha is a nightshade. Some people who don’t do well with nightshades, like Joe, reported inflammatory reactions from high ashwagandha doses. If you’re one of them, you want to be especially careful with the dosage and stay on the lower end.
Here’s what to do when starting ashwagandha:
- Buy a standardized supplement (with a specified amount of active compounds). More expensive products aren’t necessarily better, just be sure to buy from a reputable manufacturer.
- Be patient—ashwagandha won’t work overnight.
- Experiment with the dosage. It’s best to start on the lower end and gradually increase it if you don’t experience side effects—but don’t up it to megadoses.
- Stimulate your vagus nerve and reduce stress in your life. You can override the benefits of ashwagandha if you feel your life is way out of hand.
If you’ve taken ashwagandha for 2-3 weeks at a reasonable dosage and still don’t feel anything, then it might not be for you. Try a different supplement for:
In the Indian traditional medicine system of Ayurveda, ashwagandha is seen as a broad-spectrum remedy. It’s classified as a Rasayana or rejuvenator. These are some of the traditional uses [1, 6, 7, 1]:
- The roots are used as a tonic, aphrodisiac, diuretic, antiparasitic, astringent, and stimulant
- The leaves are recommended for fever and painful swelling
- The seeds are antiparasitic while the flowers are used as an astringent, diuretic, and aphrodisiac and have detoxifying effects
- The berries and tender leaves are applied externally to tumors, ulcers, and wounds
- Other useful parts are the stem, fruit, and bark
Ashwagandha root is also used to restore health in women after giving birth and to thicken and increase the nutrition of breast milk. Despite its centuries-long use in India, Ashwagandha has only recently gained scientific recognition in the West [8, 1].
Ashwagandha contains a range of active components, including a unique family of compounds called withanolides, as well as alkaloids, saponins, terpenoids, flavonoids, tannins, phenols, and resins [9, 6].
Among Ashwagandha’s components, the most biologically active are the withanolides, and the best studied is withaferin A. This component has recently become a focus of research because of its ability to hinder the growth of tumors [10, 11, 12].
Withaferin A is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory withanolide. Researchers are currently investigating whether it could be used to fight glioblastoma, the most common and deadliest brain cancer .
One of the main obstacles to using withaferin A as a therapeutic agent is low bioavailability, meaning that only a small amount of ingested withaferin A makes it into the bloodstream. Some researchers have proposed loading withaferin A into a biodegradable implant to deliver it more effectively to the blood [10, 13].
Benefits of Ashwagandha
1) Combats Anxiety & Stress
Ashwagandha is traditionally used as a tonic to calm the nerves. In two studies of 116 chronically-stressed people, the root extract improved stress, well-being, and happiness; it also reduced cortisol levels [1, 15, 2].
2) Improves Memory
3) Supports Fat Loss & Muscle Growth
Ashwagandha root extract reduced food cravings, eating, and body weight in a study of 52 people .
- Reduced body fat
- Increased muscle strength
- Boosted testosterone
- Reduced body fat
4) Enhances Endurance
In a trial of 49 healthy athletic adults, Ashwagandha extract improved endurance and self-reported physical health after 12 weeks .
It had the same effect on 40 elite cyclists after 8 weeks of supplementation .
5) May Help Manage Diabetes
In a small trial of 12 people, Ashwagandha decreased blood sugar levels as effectively as diabetes medication, without significant adverse side effects .
In other animal studies, Ashwagandha reduced the severity of complications from diabetes, such as testicular dysfunction, cataracts, and nerve pain. Supplementation also improved antioxidant status; this is helpful because excess glucose creates oxidative stress [35, 36, 37, 38].
6) Promotes Heart Health
7) Fights Infections
In a study of 133 people with tuberculosis, Ashwagandha and other herbals in combination with antibiotics relieved coughing and fever better than antibiotics alone. In another study of 99 people with tuberculosis, Ashwagandha improved symptoms, inflammation, and body weight [44, 45].
An herbal remedy containing Ashwagandha sped up recovery from viral hepatitis in 29 patients .
Ashwagandha inhibited the growth of multiple species of fungus (Aspergillus flavus, Fusarium oxysporum, and Fusarium verticillioides) in a cell study .
8) May Reduce Symptoms of OCD & ADHD
Ashwagandha also effectively treated the symptoms of OCD in mice .
ADHD is usually treated with psychostimulants, such as Ritalin. However, their long-term safety has been questioned in several studies. A safer alternative would be preferable for many parents [59, 60].
An herbal mix containing Ashwagandha, peony, Gotu Kola, spirulina, bacopa, and lemon balm improved response time, impulsivity, and focus in a study of 120 children with ADHD, with no adverse side effects reported .
No studies have yet investigated the effect of Ashwagandha alone in ADHD.
9) May Help With Schizophrenia Symptoms
However, it did not help with feelings of isolation or depression in another study of 25 schizophrenic patients .
10) Reduces Pain
Ashwagandha reduced pain, stiffness, and disability in 60 people with knee joint pain. Ayurvedic treatment containing ashwagandha reduced pain, joint tenderness, and swelling in a study of 86 people with rheumatoid arthritis [64, 65].
In another study of 42 people, an herbal mixture containing Ashwagandha, Indian frankincense, turmeric, and zinc reduced pain from osteoarthritis. Ashwagandha also relieved pain in three rodent studies [66, 67, 68, 69].
11) Boosts Reproductive Health
Ashwagandha may reduce the complications of menopause. In a trial of 51 menopausal women, ashwagandha reduced symptoms such as hot flashes, mood fluctuations, sleep issues, irritability, and anxiety .
In 50 healthy women, Ashwagandha improved self-reported measures of sexual function such as arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and satisfaction .
In a clinical trial of 150 men, Ashwagandha reduced oxidative stress, increased testosterone, and lowered FSH. These hormonal changes encourage the production of new sperm cells. It also improved sperm count and mobility .
In 46 men with low sperm count, Ashwagandha increased :
- sperm count, by 167%
- semen volume, by 53%
- sperm motility, by 57%
It recovered semen quality in 180 infertile men .
12) Improves Sleep
The root or whole plant extract has been used as a sleep agent in Ayurveda. A mouse study found that triethylene glycol is the active component of Ashwagandha responsible for sleep induction .
Sleep loss is unhealthy and leads to increased levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and cell death in the brain. Interestingly, Ashwagandha prevented the negative effects of sleep deprivation in rodents, likely through antioxidant mechanisms [79, 80, 81].
13) Boosts Immunity
In a small trial of 5 people, Ashwagandha extract improved the immune response by activating white blood cells. In two other trials (a total of 142 people), an herbal mix containing Ashwagandha increased the activity of natural killer cells, white blood cells specialized to fight tumors and viruses [82, 83].
Finally, in a combined mouse and cell study, Withaferin A inhibited the activity of myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs). These dysfunctional immune cells can stimulate tumor growth and prevent the immune system from attacking cancer cells [87, 88].
14) May Improve Gut Health
In a single case report, an Ayurvedic medication containing Ashwagandha helped treat constipation, stomach pain, and vomiting .
Note, however, that one animal study and a single case study of an herbal blend cannot be considered strong evidence. We need additional studies before making any definitive claims about Ashwagandha’s effect on the digestive system.
15) May Regulate Adrenal Function
Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) is an inborn dysfunction of enzymes that control hormone production in the adrenal gland. It results in a deficiency of cortisol and aldosterone and an excess of male hormones. Symptoms include excess facial hair, acne, hair loss, menstrual irregularity, and infertility.
Controlled trials should confirm this benefit.
16) Reduces Oxidative Stress
Withanolides, the Ashwagandha active compounds, are potent antioxidants. In a study on human cells, Ashwagandha improved markers of age-related oxidative stress (FOXO3A and SIRT3), suggesting it may prevent premature aging .
In rat studies, Ashwagandha boosted the body’s antioxidants, including superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione. It also prevented kidney injury due to dehydration and oxidative damage due to chemotherapy [94, 95, 96].
17) May Protect the Brain
Ashwagandha can reduce oxidative damage from drugs and protect against excess glutamate. It helped control epileptic seizures in mice and treat dyskinesia (involuntary movement) in rats [102, 103, 104, 105, 106].
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia caused by deposits of beta-amyloid proteins and loss of brain cells. Ashwagandha improved cognitive function and reduced beta-amyloid deposits in mouse models of Alzheimer’s [107, 108].
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease involving progressive loss of dopamine neurons. In a mouse model of Parkinson’s, Ashwagandha normalized dopamine levels and reduced free radical damage to brain cells [109, 110].
Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that causes oxidative damage and a progressive breakdown of brain cells .
18) May Support Cancer Treatment
Ashwagandha improved fatigue and quality of life in a trial of 100 cancer patients receiving chemotherapy .
In cell and animal studies, Ashwagandha has slowed or reversed the growth of several cancers, including:
- Brain [120, 121]
- Breast [122, 123, 124]
- Cervical [125, 125]
- Colon [126, 121]
- Kidney 
- Lung [1, 128]
- Lymphoma 
- Ovarian 
- Pancreatic 
- Prostate [121, 131]
- Skin [132, 133, 134, 1]
- Stomach 
19) May Promote Bone Health
Bone health issues often arise after menopause, when low levels of estrogen disrupt bone structure. In mice with estrogen deficiency, Ashwagandha prevented bone loss and stimulated new bone formation [136, 137].
20) May Prevent Kidney Damage
In rat studies, Ashwagandha protected the kidneys against toxicity of several chemicals, including:
- Bromobenzene (toxic chemical) 
- Carbendazim (antifungal) 
- Gentamicin (antibiotic) [146, 147]
- Lead (heavy metal) 
- Streptozotocin (chemotherapy) 
It also protected against kidney damage caused by dehydration .
21) May Protect the Liver
22) May Support Respiratory Health
In baby rats, withaferin A also protected the lungs against inflammation and oxidative stress caused by toxic bacterial lipopolysaccharides (LPS). Future trials will clarify whether Ashwagandha or its compounds may be helpful against respiratory infections .
23) May Combat Autoimmune Diseases
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that involves high levels of inflammation. In a mouse study, Ashwagandha reduced inflammatory markers that tend to be high in lupus and other autoimmune diseases, including IL-6 and TNF-alpha [156, 157].
24) Venom Antidot
25) May Reduce Morphine Dependence
Ashwagandha may help prevent people from developing a dependence on morphine, and it may help people who are already dependent wean themselves off of morphine without severe withdrawal symptoms .
In a rat study, Ashwagandha extract reduced withdrawal symptoms and prevented morphine dependence. In neurons exposed directly to morphine, Ashwagandha extract prevented the downregulation of opioid receptor activity. Thus, Ashwagandha may be useful to prevent dependence when opioid painkillers are necessary [161, 162, 160].
26) Corrects Mild Hypothyroidism
Mild hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormones, occurs in 3-8% of people and is especially common in women over 55. Treatment with levothyroxine, a synthetic form of the thyroid hormone T4, often comes with more risks than benefits; thus, many people with mild hypothyroidism go untreated .
How to Use Ashwagandha
Root extract: most clinical studies have used 120-1000 mg daily, with the most common dose being 300 mg twice daily.
Whole root: clinical doses range between 2-10 g of powdered root daily, with an average of 5 g per day.
Safety & Side Effects
Ashwagandha is generally safe when taken in recommended dosages. Large doses of Ashwagandha can cause abdominal discomfort and diarrhea. Because Ashwagandha is mildly sedative, be careful about taking other sedatives with it.
Ashwagandha is available in many forms, such as powder, capsules, pills, or essential oil. It can also be made into a tea or ointment using honey or ghee. Commercial Ashwagandha is often combined with black pepper extract, another strong antioxidant.
In Ayurveda, the fresh roots are sometimes boiled in milk prior to drying to leach out undesirable components .
Taste & Smell
Ashwagandha is a famously pungent herb. Its name means “smell of horse”, and some users say it can be overwhelming. If you are concerned about the smell and taste of Ashwagandha but still want to try it, look for capsules of dry extracts [2, 1].
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Ashwagandha is a powerful and versatile traditional herb known for its ability to relieve anxiety and stress. Its active components have been investigated for cognitive and emotional benefits; they may also help manage neurological conditions from Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia.
The antioxidant properties of ashwagandha prevent tissue damage in the liver, lungs, brain, and kidneys. It also prevents hormonal imbalances and improves sexual function in both men and women. Ashwagandha is safe and effective at daily doses of up to 1000 mg of root extract or 10 g of powdered root.
For the best results, start with low doses and work your way up, take a high-quality standardized supplement, and do your best to reduce stress. Ashwagandha should not be taken with other sedatives or by people with high thyroid hormones.