Ashwagandha: Overview, Health Benefits & Side Effects

Written by
The Manual Team
Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
25th May 2021

In 30 seconds…

Ashwagandha is a herbal remedy that has been in use for hundreds of years by practitioners of traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India.

Now widely available as a supplement, Ashwagandha is thought to have numerous health benefits, including as a treatment for anxiety, infertility, and rheumatoid arthritis.

More scientific research is needed to investigate the medicinal properties of Ashwagandha, but taking a low to medium dose supplement seems to be safe and well tolerated by the body.

The traditional Indian herbal remedy Ashwagandha has become increasingly popular as a health supplement in the western world in recent years. It’s said to offer a huge range of health benefits – from stress relief to diabetes management.

But what exactly is Ashwagandha and what scientific evidence is there to back up its medicinal properties? Read on for a review of the remedy, its advantages, and its potential side effects.

What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha, or to give it its scientific name, Withania somnifera, is a perennial shrub that grows mainly in India, northern Africa, and the Middle East. The root, and to a lesser extent the berry and leaves, of the plant are used as part of traditional Ayurvedic medicine in India. The name Ashwagandha comes from two Sanskrit words – “ashva” (horse) and “gandha” smell – in reference to the strong “horse-like” aroma of the root.

In Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha is used as a “Rasayana” – that is, a herbal preparation that encourages a youthful vitality in physical and mental health. Its traditional uses as a remedy are wide-ranging, being used to treat ailments as diverse as insomnia and snake bites!

What Are the Health Benefits of Taking Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is now readily available in western societies as a supplement and is used to treat a number of different health conditions. While there have been many studies carried out into the efficacy of Ashwagandha, it should be stressed that the scientific evidence is inconclusive.

To date, most studies of Ashwagandha have been small in their patient sample size or have used animal testing in place of human subjects. However, results are still promising and suggest that further, larger studies into the remedy would be justified.

According to the evidence currently available, Ashwagandha has the potential to:

Reduce Stress and Anxiety: Ashwagandha seems to alleviate chronic stress and anxiety, even proving similarly effective to an established anxiety medication in one study. It’s also thought to reduce levels of cortisol, the body’s “stress hormone”.

Increase Testosterone: Research indicates that Ashwagandha can increase testosterone levels and semen quality in infertile men and men who are undertaking strength training. However, it doesn’t seem to have an effect on the testosterone levels of otherwise “normal” men.

Improve Heart Health: There’s some evidence that Ashwagandha may improve your cardiovascular health for greater athletic endurance and lower blood pressure. It may also help to reduce levels of harmful cholesterol.

Treat Cancer: Experiments on rodents show that Ashwagandha can inhibit the cell growth of tumours, making it a potential treatment for cancer. It also helps to increase white blood cell count, suggesting that the remedy could balance out the negative effects of chemotherapy. 

Improve Memory: A review of research into Ashwagandha indicates that the root may be able to slow, stop, or even reverse the damage to the brain caused by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s Disease, and improve memory.

Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis: Perhaps because of its anti-inflammatory properties, Ashwagandha may help to ease the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Treat Diabetes: Some evidence suggests that Ashwagandha can be used to manage diabetes because it lowers blood sugar levels.

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What Is the Right Dosage of Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha supplements usually come in the form of a capsule, powder, or liquid extract. There’s no standard dosage established by clinical trials, and dosages of individual supplement products can range from 450mg to 2g. The dose will depend on the health issue you’re seeking to treat.

Do Ashwagandha Supplements Have Any Side Effects?

Although it’s not known whether there are any long-term side effects of Ashwagandha, the remedy does seem to be well tolerated by people who take small to medium amounts.

It’s important to buy supplements from a reputable source, as Ayurvedic medicines such as Ashwagandha have been found to contain harmful levels of minerals such as lead and mercury.

Potential side effects of Ashwagandha include: mild drowsiness, lower blood sugar or blood pressure, and stomach irritation. It may also cause the central nervous system to slow down and this might be increased by anaesthesia, so Ashwagandha should be avoided before undergoing surgery.

Key Takeaways…

Ashwagandha root may have great potential in treating a variety of medical conditions, but more research is needed to fully examine its health-giving properties. It’s best to seek medical advice before taking Ashwagandha to treat an existing health issue, so you can be confident that it won’t interact with any medications you’re currently being prescribed.

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While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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