Whether you keep up on the latest wellness trends or you frequent the vitamin and supplement aisles in Whole Foods, you’ve probably heard of or seen ashwagandha. Here’s everything you should know about the superfood herb that’s caught the attention of many thanks to its versatility and plethora of benefits.
What is ashwagandha?
Commonly referred to as Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is a yellow-flowered plant that is frequently used in Ayurveda (a widely practiced system of natural healing that originated in India) to help a variety of health concerns and optimize well-being. “Ashwagandha, while gaining new steam as the ‘it’ herb of the moment, has actually been around for thousands of years as a darling of Ayurveda,” says board-certified master herbalist Charlotte Trass, director of education for New Chapter. “This little shrub has velvety leaves, bright reddish-orange berries and roots that smell earthy. In fact, ashwagandha means ‘smell of the horse’ in Sanskrit. The plant belongs to the Solanaceae family, which means it technically classifies as a nightshade.”
Dr. Jennifer Martin-Biggers, registered dietician for HUM Nutrition, adds that the entire plant—roots, leaves—can be consumed in teas or mixtures, as well as extracts that contain higher and standardized amounts of its bioactive, called Withanolides. “It is also considered an adaptogen due to its ability to help the body manage stress.”
What is an adaptogen?
When used properly, Danielle Ryan Broida, RH (AHG), holistic nutritionist, instructor of mycology and national educator at Four Sigmatic, says ashwagandha has many benefits, primarily for stress and mood. “It also has a deep history of use for longevity and brain support. It’s a wonderful herb to take for support the nervous system, but is an adaptogen, meaning it has a non-specific, nontoxic and normalizing effect on the body. Adaptogens essentially adapt to your body’s needs, with the overall goal of bringing more balance and vitality into your system.”
“Adaptogens not only increase your body’s resistance to the negative effects of long-term stress, but also help relax and energize you while also being tonic, meaning they stimulate your immune system and increase your sense of peace,” explains Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of Moon Juice.
How is ashwagandha beneficial in a daily diet or regular routine?
“I’m so glad you asked this!” Trass says. “It DOES belong as a part of a regular routine. Some herbs you can incorporate once to support stress as it happens, but the beauty of ashwagandha lies in taking in consistently as a part of your daily regimen. It’s what I like to call a ‘building’ herb, which means the effects are better after taking it for several weeks in a row. Because it’s an adaptogen, it helps your body adapt to stress! We all have stress, and sometimes good stress, like exercise or the excitement of a first date, but ashwagandha doesn’t dull you, it invigorates you! Ashwagandha also has research that shows it supports a better night’s sleep. What can’t this herb do?”
Dr. Martin-Biggers says daily, regular consumption of ashwagandha has been shown in numerous clinical studies to have benefits for managing and reducing stress, improving focus and concentration, as well as sleep. “It is amazing how it has a wide range of benefits.”
Broida adds, “By supporting the nervous system as ashwagandha does, it has a more immediate benefit of supporting deeper rest—its Latin name, somnifera, translates to ‘sleep-inducing’—but like many root-based, holistic approaches, after using for a few days to a few weeks, you may notice an increase in energy. Just like a good night of rest allows you to show up with more energy and vigor the next day, so, too, will ashwagandha. It may be particularly of interest to people who want natural solutions to stress and anxiety, which leads to enhanced energy levels and increased mental clarity. Win, win, win.”
What forms do ashwagandha supplements come in?
The herb typically comes in capsule, tincture or powder form (there are also gummies now), so you have options that fit best into your routine. “You can also find the whole cut or dried root,” adds Broida. Look to health food stores like Whole Foods and online retailers such as gaiaherbs.com and vitaminshoppe.com, and because you can take it as a daily supplement, buying it in bulk is probably your best (and least expensive) option. For more restful sleep, try mixing the powder form into warm milk and honey before bed.
“Look for organic ashwagandha, because ashwagandha is a drought-tolerant plant, so it’s really revitalized Indian farming communities that have struggled with recent weather patterns,” says Trass. “Organic farming methods contribute to healthy soil that can hold more water, uses less energy and releases fewer carbon emissions, so supporting organic sourcing means good things for you and for the planet!” Broida says that “organic” is also important to avoid the possibility of pesticides and other contamination.
“When it comes to different formats, remember that there is always synergy that happens when you combine herbs with other ingredients, so make sure you are sourcing from a high-quality supplier that offers an extracted root at an effective dose—200 to 500 milligrams is a great starting dose—and formulated properly,” explains Broida. “It’s often taken with fats—think ghee or coconut oil—or warming, digestive supportive herbs to avoid a tummy ache. Look out for ‘gas station’ type products that claim to contain ashwagandha, but actually have a very low dose, or are not organic.”
Is there anyone who shouldn’t consume it?
According to Amy Upchurch, founder of Pink Stork, while ashwagandha is widely regarded as safe for most people, there are certain people who should avoid it, such as those with autoimmune diseases, as it can affect blood sugar and hormone levels. “Pregnant women should avoid it, too, as it may cause miscarriage. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before adding a new supplement to your routine.”
How long does it take to feel results?
“When used in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, ashwagandha can begin to positively impact the body within a few days to a few weeks,” says Broida. “It’s important to keep in mind bio individuality when using natural, whole-food ingredients like this. This means that based on the state of your body—how stressed, sleep-deprived, deficient, or overstimulated and anxious you are), the root will work with your body in a unique way to suit your needs. This is the classic adaptogenic action. If using a high-quality organic root that has been extracted and is taken at an effective dose, you should start to notice subtle benefits in a few days. It may take up to two weeks to fully notice and experience the difference and shift in your body with the support of ashwagandha. Always listen to your body and adjust dose as needed based on how you feel. Your body is always your best teacher!”
Products to Try
“I am obsessed with magnesium right now because so many people are deficient in it and it can really throw your body out of whack, so I love the pair of Magnesium + Ashwagandha from New Chapter ($17 for 30-day supply),” says Trass. “If you just want to experience this herb on its own, you could also check out the newly released Ashwagandha Force ($24 for one-month supply), featuring organic ashwagandha in a clinically studied dose.”
Hers just entered the supplement world with a new gluten-free, vegetarian Mood Mental Health Probiotic ($25 for 30-day supply) that supports gut health and subsequently brain health because the two are closely linked. According to the brand, it works to foster a healthy digestive system and balance mood through the use of ashwagandha, L-theanine (often called natural Xanax), spinach leaf extract and a blend of probiotics.
On the skin-care front, Goop just launched a vegan multivitamin—GOOPGLOW Everyday Glow Multivitamin ($60 for 30-day supply)—that features 100 milligrams of ashwagandha, as well as 16 other key vitamins, minerals and nutrients, to minimize the effects of stress, which can also impact skin quality.
Four Sigmatic’s new organic Chill Super Powder ($25 for a one-month supply) has a blueberry-lavender flavor that makes for a tasty pre-bedtime ritual. Just mix one scoop in cold water—it also works well in seltzer if you’re a fizzy drink fan—before it’s time to doze and enjoy the chill-inducing benefits from ashwagandha, magnesium, chamomile, lavender and tremella mushroom. The flavor comes from real fruit powders, which are also the source of the 2 grams of sugar per serving (none of the artificial stuff here).
Moon Juice Ashwagandha Root Powder Extract ($38 for 72 servings) is Chantal Bacon’s creation, which is “a potent 15:1 full-spectrum root extract that is clinically shown to help reduce stress and regulate cortisol levels, enhance focus and mental stamina, and reduce irritability and stress-related cravings.”
Dr. Martin-Biggers loves HUM Nutrition’s Calm Sweet Calm Stress Relief Gummies ($30 for one-month supply), which contain a patented extract blend of ashwagandha leaves and roots that has been studied in 12 human clinical studies called Sensoril(R). “It is standardized to the highest level of Withanolide glycosides compared to other forms of ashwagandha,” she explains. “It has consistently been shown in robust research in the amount we use in Calm Sweet Calm to have a beneficial effect on managing the body’s reactions to stress. They have a delicious natural sour cherry flavor and are vegan, non-gmo and gluten-free. Simply take two gummies a day, at any time of day. I personally love to take them mid-morning, but some people find taking them in the afternoon or evening works better for them.”
Upchurch created berry-flavored Pink Stork Ashwagandha Gummies ($18.75 for one-month supply) to give people a delicious and easy way to get a daily dose of the adaptogenic herb. “They’ve vegan-friendly and made without gelatin, GMOs, or artificial flavors or preservatives,” she says.