Ashwagandha: Does it really lower stress and benefit health?

From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to the Wednesday Dance, social media is known for starting trends that take on a life of their own. However, it is important to remember that not everything you read or hear on social media is true, especially when it comes to health trends. One recent health trend on social platforms is ashwagandha, with users reporting immense stress relief, boosted confidence, and increased libido. But are these claims true? And are there potential risks to using ashwagandha?

There is no denying the fact that stress can have a profound effect on a person’s overall health. According to the State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report, about 44% of workers around the globe say they experience a lot of stress.

Previous research shows that ongoing stress can lead to high blood pressure and an increase in cardiovascular events. It can also negatively impact the immune system, affect metabolic health, and impact sleep quality.

Because stress can be so damaging to our bodies, it is no wonder why people look for different ways to alleviate it.

One method many people on social media platforms are using and promoting is taking supplements of the herb ashwagandha.

Called “glizzy pills,” influencers using the hashtag #ashwagandha are reporting benefits including boosted testosterone, increased libido, improved brain function, and feeling so happy, confident, and stress-free that they can better deal with unhappy events like a break-up or removing toxic people from their lives.

Could these claims be true or are they misleading? Are there potential risks of taking ashwagandha that people need to know about? And are there other ways people can relieve stress without taking a supplement?

Medical News Today spoke with seven medical experts to get the answers to these questions and find out the truth behind social media’s ashwagandha claims.

What is ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a small evergreen shrub native to parts of India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It is also known by the names “winter cherry” and “Indian ginseng.”

Ashwagandha is a Sanskrit word meaning “smell of the horse,” which refers to the smell of the root of the plant. The root of the shrub is the main part used for therapeutic practices.

Withania somnifera has been used as a medicinal plant in Ayurvedic and indigenous medicine for more than 3,000 years.

Why is ashwagandha so popular on social media? 

One of the main reasons ashwagandha is so popular on social sites right now is because of its supposed stress-relieving benefits.

According to Dr. David C. Leopold, network medical director of Integrative Health & Medicine at Hackensack Meridian Health & Jersey Shore University Medical Center, and assistant professor of medicine at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, ashwagandha contains substances called withanolides, which are believed to be the cause of its effects.

“[Ashwagandha is] part of a class of natural medicines often referred to as ‘adaptogens’ due to their effects on the immune system and support to mental and physical states during times of stress,” he explained. “As a result of the reduction of stress, ashwagandha may help reduce […] fatigue and other stress-related conditions.”

Some social media users also report that ashwagandha is a must for anyone looking to bulk up at the gym and increase their physical endurance.

Accessibility is also a factor as ashwagandha supplements can easily be found online or at most drug or big retail stores.

How does ashwagandha affect the brain? 

Dr. Amala Soumyanath, professor of neurology in the School of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, and director of the National Institutes of Health-funded Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center (BENFRA), which is currently studying ashwagandha, said that most of what we know about this plant’s neurological effects comes from laboratory studies rather than clinical studies involving humans.

“These laboratory studies show that ashwagandha extracts can act on neurotransmitter pathways including those involving serotonin and gamma amino butyric acid (GABA), and also affect systems like the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) axis,” she noted.

Dr. Leopold said that ashwagandha likely reduces cortisol levels for its potential stress-reducing effects.

“Cortisol is a primary driver of our stress response,” he explained. “By reducing cortisol levels, ashwagandha may help the body return to a state of relaxation [including] increased parasympathetic — rest, digest, mend, and tend — nervous system activity and decreased sympathetic — fight or flight — nervous system activity.”

Ashwagandha is even being researched as a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Muraleedharan G. Nair, professor in the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University first reported the possible neuroprotective effects of the herb in a 2014 study through the development of compounds called “withanamides” found in the plant’s fruit seeds.

“Withanamides are potent antioxidants with the ability to neutralize the beta-amyloid protein which causes Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Nair explained.

“In general, beta-amyloid causes oxidative stress on the neuronal membrane of the nerve cells in the brain. Withanamide class of compounds in ashwagandha fruits can bind to the active motif of beta-amyloid protein and prevent beta-amyloid from causing the biochemical reactions leading to neuronal cell death in the brain, the cause of Alzheimer’s disease,” he claimed.

Will ashwagandha help lower my stress? 

Dr. Leopold told MNT that people generally take ashwagandha to help with stress, fatigue, and sleep.

“For these conditions, ashwagandha does have some evidence it can be effective,” he admitted. “Since many conditions are worsened by high stress, poor sleep, and fatigue, ashwagandha may indirectly help with some of these issues.”

A study published in September 2019 found that ashwagandha use was associated with a decrease in stress and anxiety levels.

And research published in December 2019 found participants who took ashwagandha had a significant reduction in perceived stress, lower cortisol levels, and improved sleep quality.

Although ashwagandha can be a beneficial add-on for someone who needs support with sleep, stress or anxiety, it should never be a substitute or long-term solution for a deeper physical, psychological, or physiological issue, Monique Richard, a registered dietitian nutritionist, owner of Nutrition-In-Sight, and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics cautioned.

“Just as a multivitamin can not be a replacement for a balanced, varied, adequate and quality diet and lifestyle, but rather may be a ‘compliment to’ or ‘in addition to’ a specific need. We must meet the foundational needs of our bodies first and foremost as well as address our mental health and other individual needs. Functional foods and adaptogens can be very beneficial but they do need to be implemented in a proper way, looking at the individuals needs and goals in totality to what they are currently consuming, facing or hoping to address.”

– Monique Richard

Does ashwagandha increase libido and help build strength? 

In addition to helping with stress, some influencers on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram claim that taking ashwagandha boosts testosterone, increases libido, and is a must-have for those looking to build muscle in the gym.

“These claims feel incredibly misleading,” said Brittany Craig, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Mount Sinai Hospital Cancer Center, and board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition.

“Yes, ashwagandha may improve testosterone levels, which can affect libido and strength, and it has been proven to assist with stress and anxiety, but the benefits proven are mild to moderate effect,” she noted.

Dr. Heather Hausenblas, professor of exercise science at Jacksonville University, CEO and founder of Wellness Discovery Labs, and lead author of a study looking at how ashwagandha affects an adult’s cognition and mood, said there is research supporting the potential positive effects of the herb on strength.

She cited a study from March 2021, which found that ashwagandha supplementation helped improve physical performance in healthy men and women. And research published in April 2020 improved V02max levels, which she said is a measure of fitness.

Dr. Amy Sapola, director of pharmacy at The Chef’s Garden and a certified wellness coach with a degree in nutrition, told MNT there are studies that have found ashwagandha may improve sperm volume and motility, as well as increase testosterone by about 14% in overweight men (ages 40-70 years) who took the supplement for 8 weeks.

“However, they did not find that it increased sexual wellbeing, vigor, fatigue, levels of estradiol, or cortisol,” she cautioned. “It is important to note [that] […] these have been small studies in select populations with limited duration — [of under] 12 weeks. Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings.”

Does ashwagandha have any health risks?

While research findings do seem to support some of the claimed benefits of ashwagandha supplementation, it is important to remember that this supplement is not for everyone.

“It may exacerbate autoimmune diseases by stimulating immune activity,” Craig warned. “It also may stimulate the thyroid hormone, which can exacerbate hyperthyroidism, and may affect medication used for hypothyroidism.”

“Also, since ashwagandha may increase testosterone levels, it should be avoided with those who have hormone-sensitive prostate cancer,” she continued. “Lastly, it is not recommended during pregnancy as high doses of ashwagandha have been found to induce abortion.”

There are also some potential side effects from taking ashwagandha that could affect anyone opting for this supplement.

“Some side effects that have been reported include gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting,” Richard said.

“As with any supplement or drug, the higher the dose and longer the time of exposure the more the chance of experiencing side effects,” Dr. Soumyanath added.

“Gastrointestinal discomfort and drowsiness may occur, particularly with higher doses. There have also been a few reported cases of reversible liver toxicity. Individuals should always inform their health care provider if they are using ashwagandha — or any dietary supplement — as we don’t yet know how ashwagandha may interact with other drugs being taken at the same time.”

– Dr. Amala Soumyanath

What are some alternate stress relief options? 

Whether or not you decide to try ashwagandha, the good news is there are lots of alternate ways of relieving stress and anxiety without the need of a supplement. The first way is by changing your diet.

“Emerging research showing how what we eat affects our mood and psychological health,” Dr. Hausenblas explained. “People should eat organic [if possible] whole foods — lots of vegetables and fruits, […] healthy fats, nuts/seeds, healthy grass-fed meat, [and] stay away from ultra-processed foods.”

“Support the gut microbiome,” Dr. Sapola advised. “Eat a variety of whole colorful foods that are rich in fiber and grown in healthy soil. The gut-brain connection is incredibly important to mental health including stress and anxiety.”

“Diets that include omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish as well as flaxseeds, chia, and hemp seeds, have been found to have anti-anxiety properties,” Craig suggested.

Outside of diet, Richard said that cultivating ways to cope with stress and anxiety are important skills to possess as well as being open to exploring what may work best for you specifically.

“Mind-body practices such as meditation, deep-breathing, gentle movement such as yoga, pilates, tai chi, and qigong can be powerful ways to relieve stress and anxiety,” she detailed.

“Inviting our senses to guide us through a more calm space can also be very effective such as taking a bath with your favorite candles or diffused oils scenting the air, getting outside in nature, decreasing distractions with soothing music or a quiet room, watching a program that makes you laugh, journaling or being in the presence of someone who understands and loves you, simply sharing space together can be beneficial,” Richard suggested.

To help naturally relieve stress, Dr. Nair suggested “brain activities such as games, puzzles, reading [and] get[ting] enough sleep daily.”

“Disconnect from electronics and get creative — turn off electronics and spend time being creative,” Dr. Sapola suggested. “This could be painting, drawing, writing, cooking, etc. Creativity can increase your sense of purpose and reduce stress, depression, and loneliness.”

And Dr. Leopold also advised finding someone to talk to:

“I am a huge advocate for mental health counselors. Everyone needs someone to talk to and we are fortunate to live in a nation with psychological services widely available. It is more courageous to do something about chronic stress, anxiety, and depression than to do nothing. Doing nothing never works out to the benefit of the individual.“

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