Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb with a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. The herb was often prescribed as a tonic to improve energy and stamina. It is in the same plant family as a number of common foods, including tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. In general, ashwagandha appears to have stress-reducing properties.
Recently, research on ashwagandha has been establishing a number of potential applications, including:
- Improved mental health
- Better sleep
- Normalizing low-thyroid function
Ashwagandha and Mental Health
By far, the majority of the research on ashwagandha focuses on its use for mental health conditions. And data is starting to suggest significant benefits with its use. Human clinical trials on stress, anxiety, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and cognitive function have all been published.
Stress and Anxiety
Ashwagandha has been shown to help with stress, which may be relevant to its anti-anxiety benefits. In a trial of adults under high stress, ashwagandha supplementation was shown to significantly reduce anxiety. Morning stress hormone levels (cortisol) were also reduced and men’s testosterone levels improved (Lopresti 2019). A trial in patients with generalized anxiety disorder also found clinical benefits for reducing anxiety symptoms (Fuladi 2021).
Schizophrenia is often a challenging-to-treat mental health condition. Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, disordered speech and problems with normal functioning. While standard medications can sometimes help, patients often still have residual symptoms.
Two trials suggest improvement of schizophrenia with ashwagandha supplementation. In the first trial, patients received either ashwagandha extract or placebo in combination with medication for 12 weeks (Chengappa 2018). By week four, patients receiving ashwagandha had improved significantly more than patients on placebo. In addition, ashwagandha had minimal side effects.
The second study explored the treatment of anxiety and depression symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. Ashwagandha improved symptoms with a “medium effect size.” The benefits were more than double the effect size of standard antidepressant medication (Hieronymus 2021, Gannon 2019).
Another condition that can be challenging to treat, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often only improves modestly with standard medication. A small trial explored the addition of ashwagandha or placebo to standard treatment. In the trial, patients given ashwagandha almost halved their symptom scores, while patients on placebo only reduced symptoms by about 12% (Jahanbakhsh 2016).
Patients with bipolar disorder often struggle with cognitive function which can hamper their ability to lead a more normal life. A preliminary study on ashwagandha found significant improvements in aspects of memory, reaction time and social functioning with ashwagandha supplementation (Chengappa 2013).
In adults with mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, ashwagandha was also shown to provide benefits (Choudhary 2017). Supplementation improved aspects of memory, attention and processing speed. Considering the massive growing burden of dementia, more research could help us to better understand the utility of ashwagandha for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Ashwagandha and Insomnia
Insomnia is a common problem with a number of natural treatments that have been shown to help. Interestingly, ashwagandha may also be of benefit. A trial in both healthy individuals and those with insomnia found that supplementation of ashwagandha improved sleep. Subjects on ashwagandha had the largest improvements in the time it takes to fall asleep and sleep efficiency (Langade 2021).
Ashwagandha and Subclinical Hypothyroid
Subclinical hypothyroidism is a less severe, early form of hypothyroidism. The thyroid sets the pace at which the body functions. Low thyroid hormones or hypothyroidism presents with fatigue, constipation, depression, dry skin, joint or muscle pain and other symptoms. Individuals with subclinical hypothyroidism may or may not have hypothyroid traits, but are identified on laboratory testing. In general, patients with subclinical hypothyroidism often progress to hypothyroidism over time.
A study of ashwagandha for subclinical hypothyroidism found that supplementation could reverse the condition. After eight weeks of treatment, blood levels of thyroid hormone normalized in subclinical hypothyroid patients (Sharma 2018).
Ashwagandha is an interesting herb with a long history of medicinal use. The latest clinical research suggests potential for ashwagandha in treating mental health conditions, along with supporting sleep and thyroid function. Like a lot of other natural treatments, more research is needed to better understand the full potential of ashwagandha in medicine.