Ashwagandha use is skyrocketing. Just a few years ago you would have struggled to find this stuff anywhere in the West. A few specialty food stores might have stocked it; perhaps the odd health food shop in your nearest big city. But generally speaking, this stuff was not on most peoples’ radar.
The situation has changed dramatically over the last 5 years or so. Now, ashwagandha is sold in practically every vitamin, supplement and health food shop in Europe. It is being added to more and more supplement stacks around the world. Articles on ashwagandha and its amazing benefits are being published by the dozen week-in, week-out.
So, it’s high time we took a good look at this simple plant to see if the claims about its medicinal properties hold any water.
There are lots of claims made about Ashwagandha. Some say it increases fertility, others that it induces sleep. In this article though, we’re going to focus exclusively on the most common claim made about ashwagandha: that it reduces stress and anxiety.
What Is It?
Ashwagandha is variously known as Withania somnifera, Indian Ginseng, Winter Cherry, and poison gooseberry. A perennial shrub of the nightshade family, it produces small, green, bell-shaped flowers which provide bright orange, red and yellow fruit similar in appearance to peppercorns.
It has a long history of use as a medicine. Ashwagandha is a very important plant in traditional Ayurverdic medicine; its primary uses are as an anxiolytic (anxiety-suppressant), a fertility booster, and a sleep aid.
It was also used by the Romans for the same purposes; Somnifera means “sleep-inducing” in Latin.
When we talk about supplementing with Ashwagandha, we typically mean a concentrated extract taken from the root. If a supplement states that it provides leaf extract, or simple whole plant powder, then you’re probably being ripped-off!
Does It Reduce Anxiety? – A Look At The Evidence
That’s enough of a preamble. Let’s just get straight into it and look at what the scientific literature has to say about ashwagandha as an anxiolytic.
In a very interesting paper published in 2012, researchers found that ashwagandha supplementation led to a significant decrease in both subjective stress levels and actual cortisol levels: “The treatment group that was given the high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract exhibited a significant reduction (P<0.0001) in scores on all the stress-assessment scales on Day 60, relative to the placebo group. The serum cortisol levels were substantially reduced (P=0.0006) in the Ashwagandha group, relative to the placebo group. The adverse effects were mild in nature and were comparable in both the groups. No serious adverse events were reported.”
This is not the only study to note a change in stress hormone concentrations from ashwagandha supplementation.
In this study, researchers gave rats an ashwagandha supplement and measured their cortisol levels, along with other parameters. Their results mirror those reported above: “The drug prevented increase in adrenal weight and decrease in ascorbic acid and Cortisol content of adrenals during stress. It appears to induce a state of non-specifically increased resistance (SNIR) during stress.”
Other studies have ignored actual hormonal parameters, instead focusing on subjective participant reporting on stress, anxiety, etc. In these cases, the evidence is almost always just as positive as the studies cited above.
If you read this paper, you’ll see that ashwagandha supplementation was able to significantly improve a wide range of psychological parameters: “Seventy-five participants (93%) were followed for 8 or more weeks on the trial. Final BAI scores decreased by 56.5% (p<0.0001) in the NC group and 30.5% (p<0.0001) in the PT group. BAI group scores were significantly decreased in the NC group compared to PT group (p = 0.003). Significant differences between groups were also observed in mental health, concentration, fatigue, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life with the NC group exhibiting greater clinical benefit. No serious adverse reactions were observed in either group.”
Amazingly, in that trial, ashwagandha seemed to perform better than standard psychotherapy interventions for lowering anxiety, improving vitality, and reducing fatigue: “Both NC and PT led to significant improvements in patients’ anxiety. Group comparison demonstrated a significant decrease in anxiety levels in the NC group over the PT group. Significant improvements in secondary quality of life measures were also observed in the NC group as compared to PT.”
It is important to note that, in all of these instances, good doses of a potent, full-spectrum ashwagandha extract was used. This means that participants were given an extract containing high concentrations of active ingredients present in the plant – they weren’t given whole leaf powder or anything like that.
Much to our surprise, counter-evidence seems to be pretty thin on the ground here.
We have thus far struggled to find any studies showing a lack of positive response for ashwagandha supplementation (in sufficient doses and under medical supervision).
That said, there are some things we need to point out.
In most of the studies looking at ashwagandha, researchers have stopped well short of suggesting tat it is as effective as standard psychotherapy for treating anxiety long-term. The study cited above which compared the two simply found ashwagandha more effective for improving specific parameters over the course of the study.
In most studies, the participants have had some kind of existing, diagnosed anxiety disorder (which varied in severity between studies of course).
With these caveats in mind, it seems like the evidence for ashwagandha as an anxiolytic is weighted heavily on one side.
We didn’t expect to be concluding this article like this, but it seems to us that ashwagandha might actually be an effective, natural, complimentary treatment for mild anxiety and stress symptoms.
Anxiety is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. It has lots of causes; they are not usually physical in nature. Ashwagandha is no cure for anxiety. But it does seem to address the heart of the problem by lowering cortisol levels, which will in turn reduce the main physical symptoms of anxiety.