QUESTION: “What do you think about ashwagandha supplements? Are they effective?”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question, listener. Your timing is so perfect.
This is because, before the end of the fall semester (which was just a couple of weeks ago), the last topic I covered in a Public Health Nutrition class I teach was all about holistic nutrition. And, as part of this topic, I discussed something called “adaptogenic herbs.” Ashwagandha is one such herb.
So, let’s jump right in and get to the heart of the question.
Ashwagandha is showing some promise when it comes reducing some of the harmful effects of stress. It’s also been shown to be helpful for reducing blood pressure and blood sugar levels in those with diabetes.
I’ll explain below.
First, I should mention that if “ashwagandha” doesn’t sound familiar, you may have also seen in it referred to as “Indian Ginseng” or, incorrectly, “Winter Cherry.”
Still doesn’t ring a bell? That’s okay!
Basically, ashwagandha is a naturally growing herb found in India and Nepal. Its root, specifically, is harvested to create ashwagandha teas and supplements.
That’s because the roots of this herb contain compounds called withanolides. Withanolides are believed to provide the health benefits I mentioned.
How Much Ashwagandha Should I Take?
But, the problem is, we don’t know exactly how much ashwagandha someone needs to consume or supplement with to know whether it will be helpful.
For example, studies that have looked at whether supplemental ashwagandha is beneficial for reducing the harmful effects of stress used doses ranging from 300 mg to 3,000 mg. Some researchers provided doses every day, others didn’t.
In fact, one well-designed study found that providing research participants with 300 mg of a concentrated dose of ashwagandha twice each day helped reduced stress hormone levels. So, we don’t quite know how much ashwagandha to recommend in order to see these health benefits.
The most promising supplement for a number of conditions, ranging from anxiety, depression, and even autoimmune conditions is turmeric (also known as curcumin).
For autoimmune conditions, 1,500-2,000 mg taken each day may help reduce the chances of flare-ups.
The Purity Problem
Unfortunately, in the U.S., we do have incidents of poor-quality supplements being sold in the marketplace.
It’s unfortunate, but supplements are not as well-regulated as our food and water supply. As a result, it’s been estimated that about 30% of supplements sold in stores and online contain illegal or banned substances.
There have been documented instances of supplements containing ash and newspaper shavings. There have been other situations where the supplement nutrient labels claim that an ingredient is present, but when its actual composition is tested, it doesn’t contain that ingredient at all. Or maybe the wrong quantity is listed.
Now, I should be clear, these incidents were not specific to ashwagandha supplements…just supplements in general. But, it tells us that we have to be careful about which products we choose to purchase.
We want to make sure that what we’re buying meets purity and quality standards.
There are a couple of ways to check for this:
1. Look at the supplement packaging.
See if you can find one or both of the following abbreviations on it: either USP or NSF. Both of these are independent organizations that check for the quality and purity of supplements. The USP logo is green and gold. The NSF is logo is blue and white.
2. Your other option? Log onto Consumer Lab.
That’s where I get most of my supplement information. Consumerlab.com does charge a small fee to search their database. But, if you’re a student, your college or university may already subscribe to their database.
So, before buying any supplement, ashwagandha or otherwise, use at least one of these resources to make sure the supplement you’re using is relatively free of impurities.
And, of course, always check with your doctor to make sure that supplementing is right for you and won’t interact with any medications you might be taking.
The Bottom Line
Ashwagandha is showing promise when it comes to reducing blood pressure, blood sugar levels in those with diabetes, and reducing some of the harmful effects of stress.
But we simply don’t know what does will lead to these benefits.
Is it potentially harmful? Probably not, but only your healthcare provider knows for sure.