Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of interest in what some believe is a shrub with magical properties. Native to India, the Middle East and Northern Africa, ashwagandha — scientific name Withania somnifera — has been used to make capsules, gummies and patches and is a major ingredient to various other supplements, with multiple proponents calling it the “miracle herb.”
But what exactly does the now-TikTok-famous ashwagandha do to the human body? And more importantly, what are the risks involved in taking it?
Ashwagandha, also known as “Indian winter cherry” and “Indian ginseng,” has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine for a myriad of reported health benefits, according to researchers.
The herb, they say, is a rasayana — a tonic that promotes a youthful state of physical and mental wellness. It is reportedly considered to be the most prominent of all such herbs. Traditionally, it was given to emaciated children and those with various ailments — including fever, constipation, insomnia, rheumatism and swellings, to name a few — but also those debilitated by old age, leading to some branding it as the “elixir of life” and even selling T-shirts that say this.
Today, ashwagandha is best known for its adaptogenic, or stress-relieving, properties. For one, a 2019 double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled study that involved 58 participants found that an eight-week supplementation of starch ashwagandha root extract resulted in a “significant reduction of stress levels” and “improved the overall quality of life.” Sleep, in particular, was found to significantly improve. Another study that focused on its effect on anxiety based on five published human trials also found a significant improvement.
While ashwagandha has been used and lauded for millennia, it is important to point out that the science behind its purported benefits remains murky. Studies published around it often have a small number of participants, and virtually every single one of them recommends further research.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also warns of side effects, such as drowsiness, stomach upset, diarrhea, vomiting and, in rare cases, liver injury. Meanwhile, those who are pregnant and/or breastfeeding, those about to undergo surgery, those with autoimmune and thyroid disorders and those taking medications for various medical conditions are advised to avoid it.
It must also be noted that ashwagandha is sold as a dietary supplement — not a drug — in the U.S. For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved it for safety and effectiveness before it is sold. Supplements, of course, are not intended to treat or cure illnesses, and even if they are tested by a third party, a prospective consumer must still check with their healthcare provider to see if it is safe for them to take.
In April, Denmark made headlines after banning ashwagandha over safety concerns on dosage. The decision reportedly stemmed from a 2020 study by the Danish Technical University, which suggested that the herb may have a harmful effect on thyroid and sex hormones and may even induce abortions. Still, the hormone cases cited by the researchers appeared to be rare, and there was no reported clinical evidence of the herb actually causing abortion. Prioritizing safety, Denmark decided to ban ashwagandha altogether, and other Nordic countries have since considered following suit.