Ashwagandha (reportedly) helps Jennifer and Gwyneth cope with stress. But does it work, and should you try it?

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Medicinal Indian herb ashwagandha isn’t only the most fashionable supplement around (Jennifer Aniston, Meghan Markle and, who else, Gwyneth Paltrow, are said to be fans), it’s also readily championed by doctors such as functional medicine specialists  Dr Sohere Roked. That’s because it tackles those all-pervasive modern ills, stress and anxiety, and is backed by a strong Ayurvedic tradition as well as a decent number of clinical studies.

Far from being new, ashwagandha has been used for more than 5000 years in Ayurvedic medicine. An adaptogen (something that helps you adapt to stress better), it helps the body balance hormones and adjust to stressors. Apart from allowing you to feel calm under strain, it ashwagandha helps increase energy and concentration when you need to be alert. “See it as a protectant: by reducing levels of chronic stress, it can help ward off related health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, a weakened immune system, fatigue, burnout and even autoimmune diseases,” says Ayurvedic practitioner Dr Varalakshmi Yanamandra.

But like every herbal supplement, ashwagandha is not a regulated medicine, which makes it inflated claims and inferior products a distinct possibility. On top of that, it won’t work for everyone and despite a good safety record, some people should not be taking it. So before you start downing ashwagandha smoothies and popping ashwagandha gummies with abandon, let’s look at the facts with the help of those in the know.

What is ashwagandha?

Native to India and North Africa, ashwagandha (which translates as ‘strength of the stallion’) grows as a small shrub with yellow flowers, with the roots and leaves used in supplements. “It’s a type of Indian ginseng, also known as Withania somnifera,” says Vanessa Tucker, nutritionist at Wild Nutrition. “But it's quite gentle when you compare it to Siberian and Korean ginseng. Ashwagandha is a lot less stimulating and has more of a nurturing, nourishing effect on the adrenal glands and the nervous system.”

The benefits of ashwagandha are thought to be mainly down to certain flavonoids called withanolides, abundant in the plant’s roots. They’re thought to limit oxidative stress in our cells  'batteries', the mitochondria, improving cell function overall. They’re also anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, mildly sedative, and immune-boosting, among other things.

How does ashwagandha work?

“We have around 40 neurotransmitters (call them chemical messengers, or signalling molecules) that circulate our bodies and can dictate our mood,” says Lola Biggs, a dietitian for Together Health. “The active component of ashwagandha has been shown to modulate these.” 

Among other things, it enhances the production of GABA and other calming neurotransmitters whose job it is to settle an over-active nervous system, which, says Biggs “leads to a sense of calm but, uniquely, a feeling of vitality at the same time.”

Additionally, like any adaptogen, “ashwagandha changes how you perceive a stressful situation,” says Tucker. “It means you’re less likely to shoot into that panicky fight-or-flight mode that produces a lot of adrenaline and cortisol.”

Adrenaline is an extremely useful hormone in the short term to get us out of sticky situations, but when the body perceives it’s under stress too often and for too long (which in today’s world is the case for many of us), cortisol takes over and that can be very draining on the body. Because the brain’s response to raised cortisol is to create more cortisol, you end up in a perpetual loop of anxiety - medics call this “chronic over-activation of the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenals) axis - that can be hard to snap out of. It increases inflammation and the chances of weight gain around the middle, sleep issues, depression, mood swings and adrenal fatigue.

“Ashwagandha alters this conversation between your brain and your hormones, helping you to switch off the stress loop by improving your resilience to typical physical and emotional stress triggers,” says Tucker. It might, say, allow you to have a calm rummage for your keys rather than instantly send your mind into paroxysms of despair about being locked out of your flat. “And that is going to absolutely have a beneficial effect on long-term health,” says Tucker.

What are the benefits of ashwagandha?

By regulating the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in this way, ashwagandha can calm a racing mind. “It's like having a deep sigh - it helps to reset the system and allows the body to go back to a state of balance and homeostasis,” says Tucker. This can help improve sleep, mood and concentration. By extension, increased cognitive function, libido, muscle strength, heart health and reduced blood glucose levels have also been reported.

Is ashwagandha supported by clinical research?

It is, but you’d do well to look for the right kind of ashwagandha. “KSM-66 Ashwagandha Extract is the one that has shown all the clinically proven benefits, says Tucker. “It took 12 years to develop and was subjected to 11 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies.” 

One such study, published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, found that among 64 subjects with chronic stress, those who took ashwagandha over 60 days had lower scores on stress-assessment scales and lower cortisol levels when compared to a placebo group.

KSM-66 is a high-strength, standardised extract purely from the root of the ashwagandha plant (which contains the majority of the beneficial withanolides), distilled following a specific extraction process. Some supplements use ashwagandha powder, which can be cut with the less potent leaves of the plant and has no standardised level of actives. 

Alternative ashwagandha or withania somnifera extracts are also used, but they may be less refined and do not have the clinical backing. To be on the safest side, look for KSM-66 extract specifically, or for a ‘high concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha roots’, as it is described in the Indian study.

How long does ashwagandha take to kick in?

This is a topic of some debate. According to Tucker, it works “quite quickly… it's like a tonic for the body.”  Biggs is more circumspect: “Ashwagandha works both in the short term as well as building up a tolerance to stress over time,” she says.

However, neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart has her doubts as to whether it's the right supplement to take if you need to still your anxious mind, fast. "Ashwagandha is a hormetic substance, meaning it builds resilience and immunity via a process called ‘stress inoculation’, she says, “It causes a small stress reaction in the body which makes us better able to deal with stress later.” It means, Swart says, that it ought to be taken in the run-up to a potentially stressful event, and specifically two to three months in advance. “Taking it when you are already ill, stressed or recovering is not a great idea as it will actually add stress to the system,” she says.

The solution is not straightforward, but the most recent research on how best to take ashwagandha suggests that maximum benefits for stress, anxiety relief and sleep may take more than ten weeks to properly manifest. Mood improvements may apparently be seen in just two to four weeks.

There are no set directions for when in the day to take it, but one suggestion is to supplement in the morning when you’re taking ashwagandha for its immune-boosting properties, and in the evening for its sleep-enhancing benefits. Tucker advises taking half a dose in the morning and half a dose at night, to allow for the different rates at which we all break down hormones.

It is also advised that you at least take a break every few months, so as not get too reliant on it and to determine if you get any side effects.

Does ashwagandha have side effects?

Ashwagandha is generally thought to be safe, with few side effects that mostly comprise stomach upsets, diarrhoea and headaches. Nonetheless, you might want to talk to a nutritionist or herbalist before you try it: according to registered nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green, some studies have shown it can increase testosterone levels. That can be a problem if you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or another condition where testosterone levels are already elevated.

“Some women with PCOS find actually fare brilliantly on ashwagandha due to its adaptogenic properties,” admits Faure Green. “But the fact with adaptogens is that it’s not a given how you will react, so caution is always advised.”

Tucker flags that pregnant and lactating women should not be taken it just because there’s not enough research to prove it’s safe for the baby, while those with medical conditions should check with their GP. “Extreme adrenal fatigue is another contraindication,” she says. “This is because this condition is typified by very low levels of cortisol, so you don’t need a supplement that lowers them even further.”

Does ashwagandha provide relief for menopause symptoms?

It can, says Tucker. “Once you get to the menopause and perimenopause, the decrease in oestrogen and progesterone makes you more susceptible and less resistant to stress, meaning anxiety increases. So as a woman, you want to support your nervous systems, particularly because the more stress there is, the more the body will steal progesterone to make cortisol instead,” she says. It’s the last thing you need, as progesterone is an anti-inflammatory hormone that reduces stress and anxiety and supports sleep. Ashwagandha can help prevent this downward spiral as it “reduces anxiety”, says Tucker, “by quite a bit - I think it's around 70 per cent in people with acute stress.”

What is the right ashwagandha dose?

“Most benefits have been linked to people taking around 500mg a day”, says Biggs. This is also what doctors such as Roked prescribe. The most common dosage protocol in the clinical trials was 600mg, divided over two 300mg doses per day. Again, the research mostly pertains to the superior full-spectrum root extract and the KSM-66 extract in particular.

How do I know whether my ashwagandha is working?

After a few weeks, you should be feeling calmer and more relaxed, and your sleep may start to improve. An increase in energy levels and an overall heightened sense of well-being are also good signs. If none of this is happening for you, you may want to check out an alternative natural stress remedy that chimes better with your own personal chemistry.

Ashwagandha supplements to buy now

The food-grown one: Wild Nutrition KSM-66 Ashwagandha Plus, £22.50 for 30 days

Delivers 500mg of the superior KSM-66 in two daily capsules alongside magnesium, another nutrient essential for a calm nervous system and solid sleep, in a food-grown formula that is highly absorbable and kind to your digestion.

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The travel-friendly one: Together Health Ashwagandha, £10.99 for 30 days

Has 500mg of KSM-66 per capsule in a handy resealable and compostable pouch

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The sleep blend: Motion Nutrition Unplug, £27.99 for 30 days

Apart from ashwagandha (100mg ‘root’, but not KSM-66), this has a host of other remedies said to support calm and sleep, such as Montmorency cherry, magnesium, Rhodiola extract, Amla, iodine and more.

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The focus blend: Beauty Pie For Jugglers, £60 (£22 for members) for 40 days

Three caps a day give you 450mg of KSM-66 alongside Siberian and American ginseng, Vitamin C and B5, cordyceps and Rhodiola: together, they should keep you sharp and in control. Good for (peri)menopausal support as well.

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The fun one: Starpowa Ashwagandha, £39.99 for 30 days

Two daily star-stamped vegan gummies get you your 500mg of ashwagandha extract a day – although it’s not KSM-66. In addition, there’s iodine and B vitamins to support the nervous system – B1 and B5 in this case. The sweet flavour sadly cannot hide that ashwagandha is quite a bitter herb.

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The fancy one: Lyma, £199 for 30 days

Super glam health-boosting supplement Lyma includes only heavily researched nutrients in proven doses, which means a 600mg dose of KSM-66 alongside, among other things, vitamin D3 and antioxidants lycopene and curcumin.

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The budget one: Healthspan Ayurvedic Ashwagandha, £14.45 for 60 days

500mg KSM-66 per capsule, plus vitamin B6 and B12 for a dose of energy and immune support.

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The moon dust: Dr David Jack Relax, £76 for 30 days

Valerian, chamomile, hops, oats, licorice, reishi, GABA, tryptophan, and ashwagandha (although the type is not specified), among other soothing and serotonin-boosting nutrients - surely every calming plant compound known to man is in this salted caramel-flavoured powder ‘for a calm body and mind’. Mix with 200ml of warm milk to unwind before bed.

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The pure one: Viridian Organic Ashwagandha Extract, £17.76 for 30 days

There are no filler ingredients in this one, just what is described as ‘high-potency, full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root’ (we take that to be KSM-66) in a base of organic alfalfa. Two caps a day would get you the clinically proven dose of 600mg. The supplement is organic and vegan as well, but so are many others.

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The anti-anxiety cocktail: Earths Secret Calm, £35 for 30 days

Another 600mg daily dose of KSM-66, spiked with clinically proven doses of calming extracts of Rhodiola, holy basil leaf and the anxiety-busting amino acid l-theanine.

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