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Everything You Need To Know About The Stress-Fighting Adaptogen Ashwagandha

Prized for its ability to balance the body’s reaction to stress, ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb with a seemingly endless list of uses, from anxiety buster to pain reliever. Here's what the science says about this Ayurvedic all-star.

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If someone told you that one herb could reduce stress and anxiety, increase energy, improve sleep, quell food cravings, and help you have a better workout and better sex, would it seem too good to be true? Ashwagandha, a star in India’s ancient ayurvedic system of healing, delivers all these benefits and more.

In Sanskrit, its name literally means “smell of a horse,” because of the root’s odor. But taking ashwagandha won’t make you smell bad. Its classic action is that of an adaptogen, meaning it balances the way your body reacts to stress, calming or rejuvenating as needed. And the effects can be far-reaching.

One case history, published in a British medical journal, described a woman whose hair loss was dramatically reduced after she took ashwagandha for a couple of months. It also improved a combination of her underlying health conditions, including disturbances in thyroid, cortisol, insulin, and other hormones. While the herb isn’t usually viewed as a hair-loss remedy, this lady’s experience illustrates how restoring balance can have surprising side benefits.

Did You Know?

Ashwagandha powder mixed with milk and honey is a traditional Ayurvedic remedy, taken before bedtime to enhance sleep. It also enhances the immune system. 

What Is Ashwagandha Used For?

Ashwagandha’s stress-relieving history traces back about 6,000 years. Overall, it has been viewed as a tonic that promotes a youthful physical and mental state in adults, while helping children grow strong. Through the ages, it has been used for:

  • Resilience to stress
  • Sexual health
  • Resistance to disease
  • Pain relief
  • Relief from rheumatism
  • Better sleep
  • Relief from constipation
  • Relief from goiter
  • Nervous system problems
  • Nervous breakdown
  • Colic
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Snake bites and scorpion stings
  • Skin ulcers, boils, and swellings (in a topical paste)

The Science Behind Ashwagandha

During the past 50 years, numerous scientific articles have been published about ashwagandha, including chemical analyses of its constituents, case histories, and studies of its effects on cell cultures, animals, and people. It calms the central nervous system, reduces inflammation, and has killed cancer cells in lab studies, but its anti-cancer effects have not been proven in humans.

A review of studies following a total of 400 people, by researchers at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., and the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Conn., found that various ashwagandha extracts were effective for relieving anxiety and stress, sometimes as well as anti-anxiety medications, but without harmful drug side effects. Other human trials have used patented ashwagandha extracts, most notably KSM-66 and Sensoril, which can be found as ingredients in many different brands of supplements. These studies have found numerous bonus benefits, in addition to ashwagandha’s stress-relieving prowess.

What Supplements Contain Ashwagandha?

Supplements may contain different forms of ashwagandha, including:

1. KSM-66

Human studies have found that this patented extract of ashwagandha root is effective for reducing anxiety and stress, improving sperm count and sexual health in men, improving sexual health in women, enhancing heart function and endurance during exercise, improving strength in weight training, improving memory, and helping to manage weight by reducing stress-related food cravings. Take 300 mg, twice daily.

2. Sensoril

A patented extract of ashwagandha root and leaves, Sensoril has been shown in studies to reduce stress (125 or 250 mg twice daily), relieve knee pain from osteoarthritis (125 or 250 mg, twice daily), relieve pain in general (1,000 mg, once daily), improve memory and mental function in people with bipolar disorder (250 mg, twice daily), improve reaction time, memory, and mental function in healthy people (500 mg, twice daily), reduce the negative effects of stress on the heart (500 mg, twice daily), and improve the health of blood vessels and reduce chronic inflammation in people with type 2 diabetes (250 or 500 mg, twice daily).

3. Other Extracts

Many ashwagandha extracts are “standardized,” meaning they have been formulated to contain a specific percentage of key active ingredients found in the plant, most often withanolides. Suggested doses vary, depending upon the formulation. Follow label directions.

4. Pills, Powders, and Liquids

Ashwagandha is available in pills, powders, and liquids. It should not be taken by pregnant women because of its spasmolytic activity on the uterus.