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June 26, 2023

Is ashwagandha a natural stress reliever? What to know about the Ayurvedic health remedy

Celebrities have touted the herb, often sold as a pill or powdered supplement, for its ability to improve sleep quality and regulate cortisol levels

Alternative Medicine Stress
Ashwagandha Benefits Aaron Levin/Pixabay

Ashawagandha, a supplement derived from a shrub used in Ayurvedic medicine, has been touted as a natural stress reliever. Research suggests it may have some benefits, but scientists say more studies are needed.

There is no shortage of supplements on the market that claim to support overall health or reduce bloating, inflammation and stress. Some people have turned to natural, ancient health remedies to improve their well-being.

Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional Indian practice that dates back 5,000 years, is gaining popularity among Americans as celebrities and social media influencers tout solutions to restore imbalances in the body created by unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices.

Celebrities have recommended tongue scrapers, food cleanses and basil supplements, but another Ayurvedic trend that has gained momentum is ashwagandha, an evergreen shrub known as "winter cherry" that is found in India, Africa and the Middle East. 

Ashwagandha is part of a class of plants called adaptogens known for their purported health benefits when ingested as teas, powders, supplements or in their raw forms. In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is touted as a multi-purpose medicine that promotes longevity, reduces inflammation, relieves constipation and lowers stress levels. 

"Ashwagandha has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine to increase energy, improve overall health and reduce inflammation, pain and anxiety," Dr. Yufang Lin, an integrative medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, said last fall. "(W)hen a threat is chronic — whether it's stress from finances or work — the stressful response also becomes chronic. Over time, long-term stress can contribute to persistent inflammation and increases the risk for developing chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and fibromyalgia." 

Research has suggested that ashwagandha helps regulate cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, which can reduce a person's stress response. A 2019 study found ashwagandha can help ease stress and anxiety, contributing to its popularity among young people looking for ways to improve their stress levels. Still, experts say more research is needed on its potential mental health benefits, VeryWell Fit reported.

Studies also have found Ashwagandha may help reduce blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, boost cognitive function in otherwise healthy adults and improve functioning in the nervous system

More recently, ashwagandha has been linked to improved sleep quality. The Sleep Foundation cites preliminary research that found ashwagandha can help people fall asleep faster, spend more time asleep and experience better sleep quality. The research suggests people with insomnia are most likely to experience sleep benefits from ashwagandha. Yet, scientists are still trying to determine how ashwagandha interacts with with the brain to promote better sleep.

There are risks with taking dietary supplements and herbal remedies, which are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Health experts recommend people consult their doctors before consuming supplements of any kind to determine their potential benefits and consider medical history, preexisting health conditions and personal health goals. 

Some people have reported experiencing emotional numbness. Dr. Pratibha Shah, CEO of My Ayurveda, told VeryWell that this could be a sign that someone is taking an impure supplement or that it is interacting with other supplements or medications. 

"It's the same story with ashwagandha as it is for many, many dietary supplements, botanicals, herbals," Dr. D. Craig Hopp, deputy division director at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, told The New York Times. "Oftentimes, people think, 'Well, it's been used for thousands of years — it must be good for something, otherwise people wouldn't keep using it.'"

Research shows that most people can safely take ashwagandha by mouth for up to three months. There is no reliable information about the safety of topical treatments or long-term use of oral supplements. Ashwagandha can increase thyroid levels, autoimmune disease symptoms and interfere with drugs like anti-diabetes medications, blood pressure medications, immunosuppressants and sedatives. 

The side effects associated with ashwagandha include stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. In rare cases, ashwagandha can cause liver problems. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and those with prostate cancer or autoimmune diseases are advised to consult a doctor before using the supplement. 

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