ashwagandha

Ashwagandha – What you should know before taking it

Quick Facts about Ashwagandha

  • Ashwagandha, (also known as winter cherry and Indian ginseng) is a medicinal herb used in some traditional medicine practices.
  • Some studies suggest ashwagandha may be able to reduce anxiety and chronic stress in some users.
  • Other uses (help with rheumatoid arthritis, increase brain function, and generally help the nervous system), lack clinical trials needed to support these claims.
  • Ashwagandha can be safe if taken for 30 days – 90 days, but the long term effects of ashwagandha are not known.
  • Side effects of Ashwagandha could be harmful to those who are pregnant or breast-feeding, diabetic, have high or low blood pressure, stomach ulcers, auto-immune disorders, and those about to undergo surgery.
  • Before taking supplements like Ashwagandha you should understand your genetic predispositions. Click here to learn more about our Whole Genome Sequencing!

Introduction

Ashwagandha, or “ashwagandha withania somnifera”, is a nightshade plant used in traditional medicine practices (like Ayurveda). The plant is found in India, China, Nepal, and Yemen. It is a short, leafy shrub with a strong-smelling root that is dried, powdered, and ingested for its medicinal qualities. In fact, the root has such a strong, distinctive smell that its name, ashwagandha, roughly translates to “horse smell” from Sanskrit. 

Ashwagandha supplements come from the dried, powdered root of the fruit-bearing Ashwagandha plant.
Ashwagandha supplements come from the dried, powdered root of the fruit-bearing Ashwagandha plant. By Wowbobwow12 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60520795

Health benefits from ashwagandha are often attributed to its high concentration of withanolides (naturally occurring steroids), which may be useful in fighting inflammation and tumor growth. Additionally, it is suggested that ashwagandha contains significant “adaptogens” that help with maintaining bodily homeostasis and fighting stress. Currently, “adaptogens” are not recognized as a scientific concept by the European Union.  A recent report has described the concept as requiring more clinical and pre-clinical study to be elevated beyond pseudo-science.

Ashwagandha is most commonly found in capsule form, and most products recommend taking around 200-300 mg once or twice daily. However, many medicinal herbs and supplements including ashwagandha are unregulated by the FDA. Recommended dosages may vary from product to product. 

There are very few high-quality human studies or animal studies that show the effectiveness of ashwagandha. Still, the effects of ashwagandha may interact with some prescription drugs and could be unsafe for some. Those who are pregnant or breast-feeding, diabetic, have high or low blood pressure, stomach ulcers, auto-immune disorders, and those about to undergo surgery should not take ashwagandha. 

Before taking supplements like Ashwagandha you should understand your genetic predispositions. Nebula Genomics offers affordable Whole Genome Sequencing that decodes 100% of your DNA. Click here to learn more!

The Claims about Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years, and over that time has been used to help with a wide range of symptoms and increase performance. These include:

Stress, agining, anxiety, athletic performance, bipolar disorder, tiredness, diabetes, high cholesterol, underactive thyroid, male infertility, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, sexual satisfaction in women, hypothalamic amenorrhea, rheumatoid arthritis, immune system function, swelling, tumors, cancer, and many others. 

The Science: Assessing the Evidence

With many unregulated, natural supplements, the claims surrounding their use can outpace the scientific evidence supporting these claims. Of all these uses described above, the one with the strongest evidence supporting its efficacy is for treating stress. 

In a randomized, double blind placebo controlled study in humans showed that there was a statistically significant reduction of stress in subjects given a 300 mg high-concentration, full-spectrum ashwagandha supplement, twice daily for 60 days compared to subjects taking a placebo. The study was performed on 64 volunteers, and suggests that further clinical studies could be useful.

Below is a summary of some claimed usages and a short summary of the current clinical evidence supporting each usage. You can find more specific information about these supporting studies at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s website.

Reduce stress and anxietyLikely – demonstrated in some human studiesSeveral studies suggest ashwagandha may be helpful in treating stress and anxiety
Treat diabetesPossible – no human evidenceSome non-human studies suggest ashwagandha may help with type 2 diabetes 
Reduce fatiguePossible – one small study in cancer patientsAn initial study showed some benefit – additional studies needed to confirm
Reduce painPossible Some human studies showed a reduction in knee and joint pain. Some subjects reported nausea and stomach irritation
Treat rheumatoid arthritisMinimal evidenceA clinical study on a compound of herbs and minerals (including ashwagandha) showed some positive results. This could have been due to the other ingredients
As a sedativeLikely – demonstrated in animal studiesSome animal studies showed ashwagandha was effective as a tranquilizer. Users should be cautious if taking other sedatives like barbiturates and anti-convulsants 

Active Ingredients in Ashwagandha and Alternative Sources

Exactly how ashwagandha works is still somewhat of a mystery, though several classes of active compounds have been identified. Some of the more important active compounds are listed below, along with their function and some alternative sources of the compounds.

Active CompoundFunctionWhere you can find them
Withanolides and steroidal lactonesA group of naturally occuring steroids. May help with inflammation.Various nightshade plants like potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants
SaponinsA class of compounds that may play a role in interacting  with cell membranes and nutrient absorption, though little clinical evidence supports their usefulness in humansA wide range of plants including ginsings, oats, spinach, etc. 
AlkaloidsA class of naturally occurring compounds with a wide range of pharmacological activities. Some included in ashwagandha are Withanine and somniferine.Similar alkaloids are found in ginseng, which has led to ashwagandha sometimes being called “Indian Ginseng”.

Alternative Solutions: Finding the Root Cause

You may find ashwagandha an effective treatment for some symptoms, however, it is still unclear if and how ashwagandha treats the root causes of many symptoms. Additionally, the long-term effects of ashwagandha are unknown, so taking a long-term course of ashwagandha supplements is not recommended. At that point, it is possible your symptoms could come back. 

An alternative option to supplements is to assess the root cause of your symptoms and seek professional advice before undertaking a treatment plan. One tool that could be useful in assessing your health is investigating your genetic predisposition to certain illnesses. Nebula Genomics can help with this. 

Our affordable, whole-genome sequencing service that can help you and your health care provider better understand your body’s genetic blueprint. While some companies currently provide health and wellness recommendations based on your data (we review some of them here and here), a lot is still unknown about matching genetic information to supplements. However, Nebula Genomics provides you with weekly updates based on the latest scientific discoveries so you are always up to date.

Warnings and Side Effects of Ashwagandha

Consumers may find ashwagandha useful in their daily health routine, but they should be aware that there is very little clinical evidence supporting its effectiveness in treating anything at all. Ashwagandha does, however, have the potential to cause side effects in some people, and interact with their existing medication. It also has the potential to be harmful to women pregnant or breastfeeding. It is highly encouraged that you consult a doctor or medical professional before taking ashwagandha.

Dried root from the Ashwagandha plant. Ashwagandha may be a “natural” supplement, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. Always consult a medical professional before starting any treatment plan that involves supplements
Dried root from the Ashwagandha plant. Ashwagandha may be a “natural” supplement, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. Always consult a medical professional before starting any treatment plan that involves supplements. By Maša Sinreih in Valentina Vivod – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17815733

In particular, common side effects may include, “mild to moderate, short duration drowsiness, upper GI discomfort, and loose stools. Less common effects reported include giddiness, drowsiness, hallucinogenic, vertigo, nasal congestion (rhinitis), cough, cold, decreased appetite, nausea, constipation, dry mouth, hyperactivity, nocturnal cramps, blurring of vision, hyperacidity, skin rash and weight gain.” (source)

Where to find Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha can be found in most health and wellness stores, pharmacies, in the health supplements section, and from a variety of online retailers like walmart.com , amazon.com , and many others.

Since there is such wide availability, prices are generally low. However, potential customers should be aware of how much ashwagandha is contained in a single dose, and how many doses a specific product contains.

Concentration and dosages

Since ashwagandha is not FDA-regulated, there are no definitive dosage guidelines, so potential users should be cautious when starting to use ashwagandha. 

Many products available to consumers seem to recommend between 200 mg and 300 mg of ashwagandha, taken once or twice daily. Many products come in capsules containing the recommended dosages.

Other products may appear to advertise much higher doses per capsule, like 1200 mg or more. Consumers should be careful that the contents of the capsules they are comparing are similar.  Some products also contain other compounds, meaning the actual ashwagandha contained in the capsule can be far less than you think. 

Nebula Genomics

If you are interested in health supplements, you may be interested in the personalized health and wellness advice that can be found through genetic testing. There are now many companies that offer health and wellness advice based on your DNA, but very few companies offer a 30x Whole Genome Sequencing service that sequences 100% of your DNA. 

Our 30x Whole Genome Sequencing sample collection is safe, simple, and can provide you with complete DNA sequencing at an affordable price. The results are processed in CLIA/CAP-accredited laboratories, and all of your data remains secure and yours. 

Nebula Genomics also helps customers make sense of all their data. We provide customers with a large, constantly updated research library that will help you make sense of your genetic code, as well as a host of DNA exploration tools and ancestry discovery. 

If you are interested in obtaining medical advice, you need access to your own data. With our service, it’s easy to bring your test results including your raw data to your physician or genetic counselors who can use your data to give you medical advice. We include several industry-standard file types (FASTQ, BAM, VCF) that will allow you to get the most out of your test. As always, individuals who believe they are at risk for a genetic disorder should consult a healthcare provider before getting tested.

For more information on genetic sequencing technology, check out our Intro to DNA Testing Methods and other articles on our blog.

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