Ashwagandha: Health Benefits, Risks, And Adverse Effects

Reviewed By Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Julie Freeman, MA, RDN, LDN, RYT
by Swathi Handoo

The use of Ayurveda can be traced back to 6000 BC. For most of these 6000 years, ashwagandha has been a critical component. Even today, it is used as a general tonic to relieve stress, fatigue, pain, and inflammation (1).

Ashwagandha has a unique phytochemical composition that is responsible for these benefits. Having it in optimal quantity may also combat cancer. Know more about this Indian revitalizing aphrodisiac in this informative read.

What Is Ashwagandha?


Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an Ayurvedic herb. It is endemic to India, Pakistan, Spain, Africa, parts of the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The leaves, fruits, seeds, shoots, and roots of this plant have all been used in traditional medicine (1), (2).

It is often referred to as ‘Indian ginseng’ because of its anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. As many as 35 different phytochemicals have been identified in ashwagandha extracts (2).

The plant parts have alkaloids, saponins, steroidal lactones (withanolides), polyphenols, phytosterols, fatty acids, etc. in varying proportions (2).

Hence, ashwagandha is used as a general tonic to boost energy and reduce fatigue. It is also known to possess anti-aging effects. There is enough evidence to prove these benefits and safety of the herb.

Check out the following sections for a detailed account on ashwagandha.

What Does Ashwagandha Do To Your Body?

This ancient herb is a broad-spectrum medicine. From arthritis to Alzheimer’s disease, ashwagandha extracts may relieve almost every chronic disorder. It can promote immunity and also revitalize your body (3).

1. May Control Thyroid Imbalance

Ashwagandha may subtly increase thyroxine levels. Hence, this herb may be used to control clinical hypothyroidism (low levels of thyroid hormones). A dose of 600 mg (per day) of ashwagandha root extract was given to 50 subjects with a thyroid imbalance. Almost all the subjects showed significant improvement in thyroid profiles (4), (5).

It contains phytochemicals like alkaloids, saponins, and steroids that assist in hormone synthesis. They boost the T4 hormone levels. T4 to T3 hormone transformation is also triggered (6).

Moreover, not many toxicity reports have been found for this herb. Hence, ashwagandha might be a safe herbal remedy to control thyroid imbalance (5), (6).

2. Manages Mental Health


Aging is accompanied by memory loss, low-stress tolerance, and mental health issues. These might lead to underperformance, low self-esteem, and weakened immunity. Using alternative medicine in individuals battling these conditions showed positive results (7).

Ashwagandha roots reduced stress and improved the quality of life in the elderly. They decrease the levels of cortisol, a neurotransmitter that elevates stress. Also, traditional medicine used this herb to manage psychiatric conditions (8).

Small-scale clinical trials demonstrate the effect of this Ayurvedic remedy on schizophrenia and depression. While its mechanism needs further investigation, ashwagandha is a promising solution for stress, schizophrenia, and other age-related brain diseases (9).

3. Effective Against Inflammatory Disorders

Ayurveda uses this herb to treat several inflammatory disorders. Ashwagandha proved to be effective against gastric ulcers, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s (neurodegenerative) disorders (10).

Several studies prove that this herb slows, stops, reverses, or even removes neuritic atrophy (nerve-borne pain) and loss of synapses in your brain. Ashwagandha can, therefore, relieve chronic pain (analgesic property) (10).

Also, it suppresses the production of pro-inflammatory chemical messengers in your body. This is one reason its extracts have been used to treat arthritis, skin diseases, swelling, constipation, goiter, boils, pimples, colic, and piles (10), (11).

4. Combats Anxiety And Depression

Recent research and traditional use of ashwagandha confirm its anxiolytic properties. It brings down the levels of anxiety and depression by acting directly on your nervous system (12).

Panic attacks cause the brain to release fair amounts of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This could lead to headaches, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, and ultimately, nerve damage/death (13).

Herbs like ashwagandha protect the neurons from this damage. It is, hence, used as a mild tranquilizer/antidepressant (13).

5. Helps Treat Diabetes

According to animal studies, the leaf and root extracts of ashwagandha possess antidiabetic effects. The flavonoids in these tissues improve insulin sensitivity in individuals with diabetes (14), (15).

These extracts brought down the levels of several markers of diabetes. Urine sugar, blood glucose, glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c), and liver enzyme levels were all restored in treated subjects (14).

Ashwagandha also controls lipid metabolism in those with diabetes. It may prevent inflammation induced by hyperlipidemia (high lipid levels) and the resultant organ damage (14).

6. May Enhance Sex Hormone Levels

Traditional medicine describes ashwagandha as an aphrodisiac. It is employed to treat male sexual dysfunction and infertility. Accordingly, clinical trials report a rise in serum testosterone and progesterone levels in subjects treated with ashwagandha (16).

The hormone-boosting effects of this herb are more pronounced in males. Several experiments and papers show increased libido because of enhanced testosterone levels in males. Ashwagandha lowers the levels of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone) while boosting testosterone (17), (18).

Using optimal amounts of ashwagandha may increase sperm concentration, semen volume, and sperm motility in oligospermic males. It also exerts anxiolytic, anti-inflammatory, and stress-reducing effects, which may contribute to better sexual behavior (17), (18).

Trivia Time!

  • Ashwagandha has been used to manage acne, hair loss (alopecia), and body weight gain. These symptoms also arise as a part of complex conditions like congenital adrenal hyperplasia and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) (19).
  • It also helps in coping and preventing withdrawal symptoms from morphine and other opiate drugs. Traditional Indian and Chinese herbs like ashwagandha possess anti-addiction effects and have been used to treat opiate-induced fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, etc. (20), (21).
  • This herb protects your kidneys (nephroprotective) from chemical stress. It has been employed to treat various kidney diseases/injuries/failure (3).
  • The root of this herb smells like horse (“ashwa”). That is why it is called Ashwagandha. Upon consumption, it supposedly gives you the power of a horse!

7. Increases Muscle Mass And Strength


Ashwagandha is an adaptogen. Adaptogens are herbs that shield/condition your body to adapt to extreme conditions, including high physical, mental, or chemical stress. Such herbs, especially ashwagandha, work well as an ergogenic aid (22).

Exercise is also a form of stress, and this herb extract helps your body endure it. The root extract boosts testosterone and exerts anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. This improves focus/concentration and endurance and ultimately increases muscle mass (22).

Studies show faster recovery from a muscle injury in subjects that took ashwagandha. This could be because of its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. This traditional herbal supplement can, therefore, aid bodybuilding and core-building activities (22).

However, more research is warranted to understand the implications of the long-term usage of ashwagandha.

8. May Prevent Cancer

Ashwagandha, like several Ayurvedic supplements, exhibits anti-cancer/anti-tumor properties. Traditional preparations with this herb are employed to prevent and manage carcinogenesis (23).

Its leaf and root extracts have phytochemicals, like withanolides. They induce cell death and block the blood supply to growing tumors (angiogenesis). Studies on prostate, breast, lung, cervical, colon, skin, and liver cancers showed retarded tumor growth and progression following treatment with ashwagandha (23).

Ashwagandha also improves the quality of life in those undergoing chemotherapy (23).

All the above benefits (and other unexplored ones) are brought about by the active constituents of this herb. Read the following section to get to know them in detail.

Active Ingredients Of Ashwagandha

Alkaloids, steroidal lactones, tannins, and saponins are the primary molecules in ashwagandha that help battle cancer, stress, aging effects, fertility, and inflammation. The identified alkaloids in ashwagandha roots include nicotine, somniferine, somniferinine, choline, hygrine, tropine, somnine, withamine, visamine, withanmine, and withanaminine (10), (24).

Most of the therapeutic properties are ascribed to the bioactive steroidal lactones (called withanolides) in ashwagandha. They are majorly present in the roots, aerial parts, and berries of ashwagandha. Withaferin A, D, E, withanone, trienolide, withanolide, etc. have been identified so far (24).

How To Take Ashwagandha? What About The Dosage?

Ashwagandha is an herb that can be taken in multiple ways. Brewed root tea, milk-based tea, dried root, and leaf extracts, leaf paste, etc. are the preferred ways to ingest ashwagandha.

You can buy the root powder extract here. It is also available in the form of (vegan) capsules, which you can buy here.

About 1000 mg/kg of oral doses have shown promising pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects as per lab trials (10).

However, there is insufficient information to establish a safe dosage limit for this adaptogenic herb. The dosage might be dependent on age, sex, and medical history. It is, hence, best to consult your healthcare provider.

Also, because ashwagandha is an herbal remedy, there are fair chances of herb-drug interactions. Read more about this below.

What Are The Drug Interactions With Ashwagandha?

Reports have shown pharmaceutical drug interactions with this herb. Such cases commonly arise when you take ashwagandha with (25):

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines (sedative/sleeping pills)
  • Immunosuppressants
  • Blood pressure/blood-thinning medication, etc.

Ashwagandha may interact with these drugs and increase sedation, resulting in coma. It may also cause sudden fluctuations in levels of blood pressure and blood sugar.

Does Ashwagandha Have Any Side Effects?

It may be safe to have ashwagandha orally for a short-term. Almost no reports of toxicity with ashwagandha have been reported (3).

But long-term use or large doses of ashwagandha may cause diarrhea, upset stomach, and nausea. Also, there isn’t enough data to prove its safety in extended usage.

It is not clear if this herb should be used during pregnancy and lactation. The components of ashwagandha may not be transferred via breast milk to the fetus.

You might want to avoid using such herbal remedies on newborns and infants too.

In any case, follow the instructions given by your doctor or the manufacturer if you wish to use ashwagandha (26).

In Summary

Ashwagandha is one of the prime ingredients in Ayurvedic preparations. It improves mental and reproductive health and boosts resilience and longevity if taken in the right amounts. Ashwagandha is an effective adaptogen and can enhance your immunity.

But because it might interact with specific drugs, we urge you to discuss taking ashwagandha with your physician. Taking it in prescribed doses will ensure an active and healthy life ahead!

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Swathi Handoo

Swathi holds a Master’s degree in Biotechnology and has worked in places where actual science and research happen. Blending her love for writing with science, Swathi writes for Health and Wellness and simplifies complex topics for readers from all walks of life.And on the days she doesn’t write, she learns and performs Kathak, sings Carnatic music compositions, makes plans to travel, and obsesses over cleanliness.