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Supplements 101: What is Ashwagandha?

Coping with stress, fatigue, or anxiety? Unable to function with harsh stimulant medications? Ashwagandha is an herb used for anxiety and stress-related conditions. Traditionally, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is used in Ayurvedic medicine for a wide variety of ailments, from muscle weakness and fatigue to rheumatism to senility. This plant-based medicine is classified as an adaptogen, meaning it provides the body with support to adapt to physical and psychological stressors.

Ashwagandha is native to Africa, India, and the Mediterranean region, and has a long history of use in traditional medicine wherever it is found. In order to provide empirical evidence for this herb’s long-treasured healing properties, the health benefits of ashwagandha have been investigated in a number of clinical trials.

Ashwagandha shows promise as a supplement to support:

  • Antioxidant and tumor-inhibiting activity
  • Stress and anxiety reduction
  • Anti-inflammatory effects
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Insomnia

The primary active compounds in Ashwagandha are known collectively as withanolides. Out of the 35 that have been isolated and studied, some have shown potent therapeutic effects. Withanolide A, found exclusively in the roots of the plant, has been shown to have an effect on the nervous system, promoting the regrowth of synapses. This property makes ashwagandha potentially helpful for a wide range of neurological ailments.

A study of mice given ashwagandha root extract for twenty days showed a significant increase in T4 hormone, indicating that ashwagandha has a stimulatory effect on the thyroid gland. This along with the antioxidant activity makes ashwagandha a potentially useful tool in the natural treatment of hypothyroidism.

Suggested Use for Stress Support

A typical dose of ashwagandha is about 300-500 mg of standardized root extract per day. Consider taking 1 capsule of ashwagandha thirty minutes before sleep. This amount has been clinically shown to improve sleep. For those with more serious insomnia, stress or anxiety, consider taking 2 capsules three times a day. Start low and work up in the dose of Ashwagandha. Do not exceed 6 capsules a day.


Given that Ashwagandha is a tonic herb, you have to take it daily to obtain the desired effect. Ashwagandha is not a strong stimulant nor is it a strong depressant. It appears to act as a tonifying balancer of the nervous system. This ability allows you to function more optimally in our stressed-out, fast-paced society.


Larger doses may cause gastrointestinal upset, and may interact with barbiturate medications. Alcohol and other sedatives should be avoided while taking ashwagandha. Large doses may also cause miscarriage, so ashwagandha should not be taken by pregnant women. Consult your healthcare professional to discuss whether Ashwagandha is right for you.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods

Kelly Harrington, MS, RD


1.    Kataria, Hardeep et al. “Water Extract of Ashwagandha Leaves Limits Proliferation and Migration, and Induces Differentiation in Glioma Cells,” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, published online http://ecam.oxfordjournals.org: Dec. 2009.

2.    Silvia D. Stan, Yan Zeng, and Shivendra V. Singh. “Ayurvedic Medicine Constituent Withaferin A Causes G2 and M Phase Cell Cycle Arrest in Human Breast Cancer Cells,” Nutrition and Cancer, vol. 60: 2008.

3.    Mahdi, Abbas Ali et al. “Withania somnifera Improves Semen Quality in Stress-Related Male Fertility,” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, published online http://ecam.oxfordjournals.org: Sep. 2009.

4.    Sangwan, Rajender Singh et al. “Withanolide A Biogeneration in in Vitro Shoot Cultures of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera DUNAL), a Main Medicinal Plant in Ayurveda,” Chemical and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, vol. 55: 2007.

5.    N/A.  “Monograph: Withania somnifera,” Alternative Medicine Review, vol. 9 (2): Jun. 2004

6.    Cooley K, Szczurko O, Perri D, Mills EJ, Bernhardt B, et al. “Naturopathic Care for Anxiety: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” PLoS ONE vol. 4(8): 2009.

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