The root and berry of the ashwagandha plant have far-reaching medicinal qualities. In Sanskrit, “ashwagandha” means “horse smell,” and for good reason: the root has a distinct, equine aroma. It’s considered an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body ward off the destructive effects of stress, and it’s popular for cancer patients and otherwise-healthy people who could use a little pep alike.
Ashwagandha has a ton of different uses, and as with most herbal treatments, none of them have the research backing of, say, a pharmaceutical. Integrative doctors will recommend the plant for arthritis, anxiety, insomnia, asthma, fibromyalgia, menstrual problems, stress, fatigue, anxiety, immune function, inflammation, and more. “I use it most often for its adaptogenic properties—helping with stress," says Bronwyn Fitz, M.D., an OB-GYN at the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York. “It’s great for those who feel ‘wired but tired.’” One prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled (read: high-quality) trial found that in people with chronic stress, ashwagandha lowered heart rate and blood pressure and decreased levels of glucose, cholesterol, the stress hormone cortisol, and c-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation. Importantly, patients also felt better and saw their stress-related symptoms improve.
Fans also point to ashwagandha’s seeming anticancer properties, and the fact that it seems to make radiation therapy more effective while simultaneously combating unwanted side effects during chemotherapy. While the research is promising, much of it has been done on animals.
How to Use It
A typical dose is 125 to 250 mg twice a day. It’s a member of the nightshade family (along with potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers), and Dr. Fitz notes that for some people, the supplement bothers their joints. “Because of its ability to lower blood glucose levels, people with diabetes need to be careful when taking it,” she says. Plus, “there are some people who feel more agitated when taking ashwagandha, so be aware of that and stop it if you feel worse.” The herb is not recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing, since its safety hasn’t been established, and in fact it may lead to miscarriage. But outside of pregnancy, ashwagandha is typically very well tolerated, with few side effects.