Meghan Markle and Jennifer Aniston are both converts to medicinal Indian herb ashwagandha thanks to its stress-soothing, anxiety-quelling powers, but there's some debate over whether it's actually beneficial for us to start taking it now. We spoke to experts both for and against using the herb to ease pandemic-based stress.
Far from being new, ashwagandha has been popular for over 3,000 years in ayurvedic medicine but it's coming to the forefront in the western world too thanks to its ability to relieve stress, increase energy, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration – perfect if you feel you're heading for working-from-home burnout.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means it helps the body adapt to stress making it particularly pertinent at the moment. “The number of people visiting my practice with stress and anxiety has doubled during this period,” says ayurvedic practitioner Dr Varalakshmi Yanamandra , who is working with Healthspan . “Chronic stress is linked to many health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, weakened immune system, fatigue, burn out and even autoimmune diseases. Ashwagandha protects our body by reducing stress and anxiety during these uncertain times.”
What is ashwagandha?
It grows as a small shrub with yellow flowers, native to India and North Africa. Powder from the roots and leaves is what is used in supplements.
The benefits of ashwagandha are thought to be down to chemical compounds naturally present in the root called withanolides, which improve oxygen processing and energy production in the cells’ equivalent of batteries, known as mitochondria.
As an adaptogen ashwagandha is known to calm a racing mind by regulating the release of stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline, whereas other adaptogens can increase brain power and attention span. "Adaptogens are generally classified as being primary or secondary," Shabir Daya, pharmacist for Victoria Health explains. "Primary adaptogens are the most well-known and most studied and include Siberian ginseng, schizandra and reishi. Secondary adaptogens such as ashwagandha tend to have some normalising effects but are not that well studied. Some other adaptogens include gotu kola which helps brain function and circulation."
How does ashawagandha work?
“We have around 40 neurotransmitters that circulate our bodies and can dictate our mood. The active component of ashwagandha has been shown to modulate these. Enhancing production of GABA, one of our neurotransmitters, this leads to a unique increased vitality with calmness,” says Lola Biggs, a dietitian for Together Health , who sell an ashwagandha supplement.
“Ashwagandha can assist the body’s hormone cortisol balancing act by improving resilience to typical stress triggers and has been shown to block the stress pathway,” Lola continues.
While ashwagandha is famed for lowering stress levels, neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart has her doubts over whether it's the right supplement to take at this moment in time. "Ashwagandha is a hormetic substance which builds resilience/immunity via a process called stress innoculation. It causes a small stress reaction in the body which makes us better able to deal with stress later (hence why it's helpful taking it in the run-up to a potentially stressful event, to be specific two to three months in advance).
"I took it last summer during the run-up to my US book launch which involved lots of travel, time zones and public appearances but taking it when you are already ill, stressed or recovering is not a great idea as it will actually add stress to the system. I haven't touched any products containing it this year as I’m acutely aware we are all under chronic low-grade stress and I don’t need to add to that."
Research into ashwagandha
In a study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine , researchers worked with a group of 64 people with a history of chronic stress. This group of 64 was split in half; one half got a capsule of ashwagandha while the other half got a placebo pill.
At the end of the 60-day study, researchers found that those who took ashwagandha had lower scores on stress-assessment scales when compared to people who took the placebo. Also, people who took the supplement had lower cortisol levels than those in the placebo group.
What does ashwagandha taste like?
In Sanskrit the word translates to smell of the horse, which refers to both its unique smell and ability to increase strength. Being a root, ashwagandha does have an earthy taste, but this can easily be disguised in smoothies, or in a juice. Capsules mean you could sidestep the taste altogether.
Celebrity fans of ashwagandha
As well and Megahn and Gwyneth, Glossier founder Emily Weiss and Jennifer Aniston are both said to be ashwagandha converts. Meghan Markle reportedly favours Glow Bar’s ashwagandha powder , £26.50, while Gwyneth Paltrow wrote on Goop that she adds Sun Potion’s ashwagandha powder , £43, to her smoothie every morning.
How to take ashwagandha
Ashwagandha can be taken in a variety of different ways; as capsules or in a powder added to smoothies, a'la Gwynnie, are most popular. It's also available in skincare; “Ashwagandha as a topical ingredient is beneficial for strengthening the skin, known for stimulating cell renewal, promoting collagen and elastin production and keeping the skin firm,” says Farida Irani, founder of Australian skincare brand Subtle Energies . Ashwagandha’s adaptogenic qualities are not known to translate when applied topically, however.
How much ashwagandha do we need?
Most benefits have been linked to people taking around 500mg a day, says Lola.
Does ashwagandha work straight away?
Ashwagandha works both in the short term as well as building up a tolerance to stress overtime, Lola tells us. However as Dr Tara explains it's best taken in the run up to a stressful experience rather than expecting to feel less-stressed immediately after your ashwagandha-spiked smoothie.