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You’re probably at least vaguely aware of some of the health trends that have made an appearance over the last few years. Coconut oil was big for a while, and apple cider vinegar was supposed to cure basically everything. Gluten-free goodies became all the rage, even for people who didn’t have a gluten sensitivity. And then there’s ashwagandha, a supplement that’s become popular with Western consumers, but originates from India, where it’s been a part of Ayurvedic traditions for centuries.

The thing about health fads is that there’s often some truth behind the obsession. They may not be as magical as some people would have you believe, but if you look at the science behind the product, you realize that some of the claims could actually be solid. And in Ashwagandha’s case, that definitely turns out to be true.

Before getting into the specifics, let’s start with a quick summary:

  • “Ashwagandha” means “odor of a horse” in Sanskrit. As you may imagine, this plant doesn’t exactly smell like rose petals.
  • As an adaptogen, ashwagandha is supposed to help your body balance its stress response.
  • Studies have reported ashwagandha benefits like reduced anxiety, better sleep, and (for men) improved sexual health.
  • You can take ashwagandha in either pill or powder form.

What’s the big deal with ashwagandha?

This plant became popular with Western consumers just as something else was happening: an increase in the number of people who wanted natural alternatives to prescription drugs. Some of them just wanted a way to reduce stress without using actual medication, while others used ashwagandha together with conventional medical care. Then you had the biohackers, people who experiment with different health strategies in order to optimize their overall wellness. Not only do they use the best ashwagandha for the benefits it may give them, but they also track the results to see if any adjustments are necessary.

Ashwagandha and the scientific community

It may have a rich history within Ayurvedic traditions, but ashwagandha is a relative newcomer as far as modern Western medicine is concerned. There have been more than a few studies done, but most of them were on a small scale, and only lasted a few weeks. However, the results of these studies have been quite promising – that’s how we’ve confirmed many of the benefits that Ayurvedic medicine has been talking about all along. Ashwagandha may be starting small where scientific recognition is concerned, but it’s very likely that research will continue well into the future.

On the other side of the coin, there’s still plenty that we don’t know about ashwagandha. For instance, how will it affect a fetus during pregnancy, or milk production while a mother is breastfeeding? Which medications or supplements could ashwagandha interact with? For this reason, it’s always best to check with your doctor before adding ashwagandha to your daily regimen. If you’re pregnant or nursing, it’s advised to simply wait until you aren’t any longer before taking ashwagandha.

How ashwagandha is thought to reduce cortisol

Just like other adaptogens, ashwagandha is supposed to reduce stress by reducing cortisol, or the “stress hormone”. As it turns out, elevated cortisol is enough to cause all kinds of nasty symptoms – insomnia, anxiety, depression, unintentional weight gain, headaches, irritability, and even higher blood sugar for some people. If ashwagandha lowers your cortisol, though, your body has a chance to get rid of these symptoms as it returns to a state of normalcy. 

Let’s back up a little. Why is cortisol such a big deal, anyway? This hormone gets a lot of hate because of the problems that happen when there’s too much of it, but you’d be in just as much trouble if you didn’t have it. In fact, a few thousand years ago, cortisol was busy helping your ancestors escape from hungry predators. These days, however, your system can get revved up simply by seeing a nasty email appear in your inbox. You don’t have to run from wolves anymore, but your body still interprets danger signals as a sudden need for energy – so you get cortisol. 

This doesn’t just make you feel wired and anxious throughout the day; it also prevents your body from making melatonin (the sleep hormone) when you need it. And guess what happens when you have too much cortisol and not enough melatonin? Countless hours spent staring at the ceiling when you should be asleep. 

What is ashwagandha thought to do besides reduce cortisol?

Helping your body adapt to stress is already a big deal, but studies have revealed some additional potential benefits of ashwagandha:

  • Better brain function
  • Improved daytime energy
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Improved muscle mass
  • Possible cancer-fighting benefits

Men, in particular, may benefit from taking ashwagandha, as studies suggest that it may improve testosterone levels, increase sperm count, and boost libido.

Are there any side effects?

There are some side effects to be aware of when taking ashwagandha, but the good news is that most users only report negative experiences when taking higher doses. The most commonly reported side effects are nausea, diarrhea, migraines, and excessive sweating. If you end up experiencing any of these, you could stop taking ashwagandha, or you could simply reduce your dose. Another strategy is to split up your current amount into two or more doses, so your body will have less of the supplement to process at one time. 

How long before I can see the benefits?

Based on user accounts, you should expect to wait at least a couple of weeks before really noticing an effect. It could take up to a month, though, so if it’s been 14 days and you aren’t where you’d hoped to be, just be patient. After all, you’re taking ashwagandha so you can help your stress response learn how to function normally, so it could take a while.

There’s plenty more to know about this fascinating plant-based remedy, but this is enough to get you started. With research, a bit of expert guidance, and some common sense, you could experience the benefits of ashwagandha too!