Ashwagandha is a prized herb among millions who practice alternative systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and for those looking to enjoy its potential medicinal properties.

The name ashwagandha comes from the Sanskrit language (one of the earliest known dialects). ‘Ashva’ means horse, and ‘gandha’ means smell, which describes the plant’s horse-like odor. Similarly, ashwagandha also translates to strength of the stallion, a reference to the strength and virility of horses as the herb has been used to support male reproductive health. But ashwagandha has many other potential benefits as well. In Ayurveda it is known as a Rasayana, a name given to any herb with rejuvenating qualities.

Modern research has a different, yet very similar take on ashwagandha. Thanks to continued study and analysis, researchers have identified chemicals that occur in ashwagandha that may be responsible for its potential medicinal benefits. One of these chemicals is known as an adaptogen.

The Importance of Adaptogens

Adaptogens are chemicals that interact with receptors in the brain. Specifically, adaptogens help to regulate the hormones that are responsible for triggering physiological and psychological challenges such as stress. By ingesting an adaptogen, the user may help to ease immediate or prolonged bouts of stress. If stress continues, it can lead to fatigue, behavioral problems, feelings of depression, pain, digestive issues, and any number of negative health challenges. Researchers suggest that this is more important than ever as life today is sometimes described as overwhelming due to growing financial debt among citizens, pressure at work, longer commute times, and more complex family lives.

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha, known by its scientific name Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, and winter cherry, belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family of plants that includes tomatoes, bell and chili peppers, and tobacco; this family of plants is made up of herbs, vines, shrubs, trees, weeds, and ornamentals.(1)

Withania somnifera is a short perennial shrub that can reach 30 inches in height, with branches that extend up to 5 inches.(2) The branches produce small flowers all year. These flowers open in a bell shape and will sprout small orange-red marble-sized fruits. The leaves are described as normal, with a green-yellow color and an average shape. Ashwagandha is native to India but grows in the Middle East and Africa. As demand for ashwagandha grew, cultivators now grow it in North America. The plant is drought resistant and prefers to grow at higher altitudes but can be found at almost any elevation. The fruit and root system of ashwagandha are the parts of the plant most used in supplements.

Ayurvedic Rasayana

Ayurveda is thought of as one of the oldest systems of medicine that around 70% of the Indian population still practice.(3, 4) Ayurvedic texts date back 5,000 years and describe Ayurveda as a system of medicine that seeks to treat sickness and disease by balancing the body and mind. To achieve balance these texts suggest the use of herbs, food, meditation, aromatherapy, exercise, and body cleanses.

In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is known as a ‘rasayana,’ which is a Sanskrit word that means taste, essence, or emotion.(5) When broken down, the word ‘rasa’ means to preserve, transform, and replenish; and ‘ayana’ means to increase or circulate. Therefore, an herb that is a Rasayana might provide physical or mental clarity, which aligns with the use of ashwagandha for stress and frustration support. Other herbs and plants besides that are also said to be a Rasayana include Amalaki, bibhitaki, haritaki, shilajit, long pepper, black pepper, ginger, Guggulu, Guduchi, and Shatavari. Combining one or more of these herbs with ashwagandha may provide optimal support and feelings of rejuvenation.

Ashwagandha Benefits

Ashwagandha supports the body in several ways, including support for a healthy stress and frustration response. This easing of stress may lead to some secondary benefits that have potential positive effects on other parts of the body, including the following.

  • Mood and behavior
  • Anxiety
  • Stress and frustration
  • Inflammation
  • Immune function
  • Thyroid health
  • Hormone production
  • Joint pain and mobility
  • Male reproduction
  • DNA synthesis

Stress, Anxiety, and Mood

As already mentioned, Ashwagandha may help to normalize functions of the body. It may also help the body to resist future stress events by elevating the body’s functional performance to better handle stressful events.(6)

This is important because stress is a common disorder of the mind that occurs in two ways.(7) The first is understood by how the brain perceives pressure. The second is the body’s response. When undergoing stress the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol triggers a system known as the flight-or-flight response. In less modern times, this was an invaluable tool to prepare humans for danger; either to meet a challenge head-on or to flee from it. While a predator can trigger the fight-or-flight response, the fear of losing your job, an expensive bill, or some other change in life can have the same effect.

In nature, conquering a predator or escaping danger would cause the body to calm down due to its ability to balance itself through homeostasis. But excessive or prolonged stress that is sometimes seen in modern life can disrupt the body's ability to find balance. Example of challenges in modern life includes traffic jams, an unfulfilling job, and debt as just a few examples. These repeat events have been found to prolong the arousal of stress responses and can have a damaging effect on the brain and body.

Ashwagandha has been studied for its ability to help balance the hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal glands. When viewed together, these glands form the (HPA) axis.(8, 9, 10) The HPA axis has a direct influence on hormones, such as cortisol, DHEA, and norepinephrine. These hormones are important for helping the body move between stress and relaxation. However, sustained stress can cause an HPA axis dysfunction that leads to a negative health state.

If not treated, stress can cause or worsen headaches, stomach disorders, hives, eczema, psoriasis, allergies, and asthma.(11) Acute episodes can also cause GI tract disorders, ulcers, IBS, gas, cramping, and other digestive challenges. Emotional circumstances, anxious worriers, those in constant conflict, and frustration can all contribute to these factors.

To help assess the potential benefits of ashwagandha for “reducing stress and anxiety in adults,” researchers conducted a study with 64 subjects with a history of chronic stress.(1)2 The subjects were given a treatment of 300 mg of full spectrum ashwagandha root extract or placebo. Follow-ups occurred at 15-day intervals, with a final assessment being conducted on day 60. The study assessed “the level of stress, depression, anxiety and general well-being of an individual using three different, used sets of stress scales and serum cortisol level, a biochemical marker of stress.” The study concludes that “ashwagandha root extract improves an individual's resistance towards stress and improves self-assessed quality of life. High-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract can safely be used as an adaptogen in adults under stress.”

In another study, researchers sought to compare the use of naturopathic care (NC) and standardized psychotherapy intervention (PT) during a 12 week period.(13) The study included 81 participants with moderate to severe anxiety. Following the study, researchers note that both groups showed “significant improvements in patient's' anxiety. Group comparisons showed a significant decrease in anxiety levels in the NC group over the PT group. Significant improvements in secondary quality of life measures were also observed in the NC group as compared to PT.”


Ashwagandha may also help to regulate pro-inflammatory factors in the immune system.(14) The immune system uses inflammation as a tool to protect and heal cells from damage. However, this immune response can cause a negative outcome on health, and even result in long-term tissue damage. In a study that examined the effects of a supplement blend with ashwagandha root extract, zinc chloride, magnesium gluconate hydrate, and sodium selenate on inflammation, researchers found that these ingredients provided “significant inhibition of proinflammatory cytokines.” Researchers suggest that a combination of these ingredients may be useful in complementary or alternative treatments in various types of inflammatory disorders.


Research has suggested that ashwagandha root extract may influence a change in thyroid hormone concentrations.(15) In animal studies, ashwagandha root extract contains antioxidant factors that stimulate thyroidal activity and helps to protect hepatic tissue from oxidative damage.

Joint Pain and Mobility

To test the potential efficacy and safety of ashwagandha in rheumatoid arthritis, 86 patients with joint pain took part in a series of treatments during a 7-week pilot study. Patients received 5 grams of ashwagandha powder twice daily for 3 weeks, and Siddha (an ayurvedic mineral-based preparation) with honey for the following 4 weeks. In concluding the study, researchers write that “a significant change in post-treatment scores of tender joint counts, swollen joint counts, physician global assessment score, patient global assessment score, pain assessment score, patient self-assessed disability index score and ESR level were observed.” However, due to the small sample size, duration, and other factors, further studies may be a reason to not find this research conclusive.

Male Reproduction

Historically, practitioners of Ayurveda would recommend ashwagandha males looking for reproductive support. To assess these claims, researchers looked at the effect of ashwagandha on semen quality.(16) A focus of this study was male reproduction as it relates to stress. The study involved a total of 121 male subjects with known infertility factors between the ages of 25 and 38. Another 60 age-matched men that had started at least 1 pregnancy and had a normal semen profile were placed in a control group. The treatment of the infertile men included ashwagandha root powder at 5 grams each day for 3 months. The study measure hormones, stress, sperm count, and semen quality. The study notes that there is confirmation of previous reports outlining the antioxidant, adaptogenic, and aphrodisiac activities of ashwagandha. While all factors were found to improve in some of the male subjects, lifestyle factors such as stress, smoking, and stress are all factors that can affect male fertility. While ashwagandha can play a role in supporting male reproduction, other changes may be necessary to achieve results.

DNA Synthesis and Tissue Growth

A test tube study of ashwagandha sought to confirm its potential ability to protect brain-derived cells against oxidative stress.(17) Researchers used cultured glioblastoma and neuroblastoma cells, then introduced oxidative factors and measured the outcome. In concluding the study, researchers note that “ashwagandha leaf extracts protect against oxidative stress, DNA damage, and glutamate excitotoxicity.” The researchers suggest that some form of ashwagandha may function as a natural neurotherapeutic drug.” However, it is also noted that “further studies may help to resolve the signaling pathways and mechanisms involved in the therapeutic potential.”

Ashwagandha Dosage, Side Effects, and Warnings

There is no established safe dosage of ashwagandha.(18) Individual sensitivities, prescription drugs, over the counter medicines, and participation in medical therapies or procedures may affect how the body interacts with any herb. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid ashwagandha

Supplements are available with ashwagandha as a primary ingredient with a dosage of less than 100 mg, and up to or more than 1,000 mg. Some supplements contain herbal blends but may not disclose the exact ratio between herbs. Follow the individual manufacturer guidelines for recommended use, or consult with a primary health care professional before beginning a regimen.

Ashwagandha appears to be well tolerated by most people in higher doses. Nausea, vomiting, rashes, or increased pH may occur in some individuals. There have been concerns about lead and mercury content of herbs because of environmental pollution. Continuous use of an herb from a source with contaminants may cause damage to the liver or kidneys.

Start Taking an Ashwagandha Supplement Today

Ashwagandha can be found in several convenient forms, such as capsules, tablets, as a liquid extract, in tea bags, or as the whole herb. For those familiar with the Ayurvedic preparation of golden milk, ashwagandha is a primary ingredient. For those unfamiliar, golden milk is a drink that contains a combination of turmeric, coconut milk, black pepper, and sometimes coconut oil. Golden milk is described as a ‘wonder drink’ due to its purported medicinal benefits.

Before modern medicine, herbal ingredients and preparations were used to address the health concerns of populations all around the world. Despite recent medical innovations, herbal medicine remains popular among millions around the world, and even western countries like the United State and Europe. This may be in part due to recent research that continues to uncover how these herbs function and the body, and how they may help individuals to reach their desired level of health and wellness.

Experience ashwagandha for yourself and see if it makes a difference to your health!