What is ashwagandha as a dietary supplement?
Ashwagandha is sometimes called Indian ginseng, not because it is related botanically (it is closer to potatoes and tomatoes) but because its traditional uses were similar. Like ginseng, ashwagandha was thought to be a tonic herb that could strengthen the body. On this basis it had been used in hopes of prolonging life, improving overall health, enhancing mental function, increasing fertility and libido, augmenting physical energy, and preventing infections.
In addition, as its species name somniferum suggests, ashwagandha had been used traditionally for inducing sleep.
Modern herbalists classify ashwagandha as an adaptogen, a substance said to increase the body’s ability to withstand stress of all types. However, the evidence for an adaptogenic effect is limited to test tube and animal studies.
Other proposed uses of ashwagandha, which are based on even weaker evidence, include preventing cancer, improving immunity, enhancing mental function, and combating anxiety and depression.
Some traditional uses of ashwagandha are also invoked today, such as enhancing sexual function in men, increasing fertility in men and women, aiding sleep, and enhancing sports performance. However, there is no supporting scientific evidence for these uses.
A typical traditional dosage of ashwagandha is 1 to 2 grams of the root (boiled in milk or water for fifteen to twenty minutes) taken three times daily.
Ashwagandha is believed to be safe; however, formal safety studies have not been reported. Therefore, it should not be used by pregnant or nursing women, young children, or those with severe kidney or liver disease.
According to one study in animals, ashwagandha may raise thyroid hormone levels. For this reason, it should not be used by people with hyperthyroidism. In addition, based on traditional beliefs that ashwagandha has sedative effects, interactions with sedative drugs are a potential concern.
Persons who are taking sedative drugs should not take ashwagandha at the same time except under a doctor’s supervision.
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Singh, B., et al. “Adaptogenic Activity of a Novel, Withanolide-Free Aqueous Fraction from the Roots of Withania somnifera Dun. (Part I).” Phytotherapy Research 15 (2001): 311-318.
Singh, B., B. K. Chandan, and D. K. Gupta. “Adaptogenic Activity of a Novel, Withanolide-Free Aqueous Fraction from the Roots of Withania somnifera Dun. (Part II).” Phytotherapy Research 17 (2003): 531-536.