Stress can boost blood pressure, make pain worse, interfere with cognitive processing and limit the amount of sleep a person is able to get. In addition, a person under stress has more difficulty regulating blood sugar and many other important physiological functions. No wonder some doctors consider stress among the most significant health risk factors of the 21st century. One reader discovered that an ancient Indian herb, ashwagandha, was a big help.
Using Ashwagandha for Insomnia and Anxiety:
Q. After I started using ashwagandha for my own stress and lack of restful sleep, I recommended that friends try it. They not only are using it now but have come off their antidepressants at the same time!
It’s important to taper down gradually on any drugs for anxiety or insomnia. My husband was taking sertraline for anxiety. When he no longer needed it, his doctor told him to take the medication every other day for a week, then every third day for a week, every fourth day for a week and then eventually quit.
What Is Ashwagandha?
A. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is part of the Indian Ayurvedic healing tradition that stretches back thousands of years. People have used it for many purposes, including easing anxiety and insomnia and reducing inflammation.
Using mice as study subjects, investigators in Japan identified the water-soluble compound in the plant’s leaves that induces sleep (PLoS One, Feb. 16, 2017). Moreover, a pilot study suggests that this herb can improve attention, decision making and memory in people experiencing mild cognitive impairment (Journal of Dietary Supplements, Nov. 2, 2017).
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One reader related a very positive experience using the herb to control joint pain.
“I have severe osteoarthritis in my knees. I cannot take ibuprofen due to having a lap band procedure. Tylenol is ineffective for my knee pain.
“The arthritis is quite debilitating and painful, and over time my flexibility and mobility have drastically declined. I lost quite a few pounds after the bariatric surgery, but I am still overweight. That aggravates the pain in my knees.
“I have tried various remedies without much success. Recently I read of a study showing that Ashwagandha might help. I ordered one of the brands tested and approved by ConsumerLab.com.
“On the second day of taking the pill once a day (500 mg Withania somnifera extract standardized to contain 2.5% withanolides), I awakened to find the pain had decreased dramatically. I’ve been taking it now for a week, and the pain is almost completely gone. There is still some stiffness.
“I’ve never had anything make such a difference so fast. What should I know about cautionary information-drug interactions, side effects, etc.?”
What Are the Downsides of Ashwagandha?
Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a lot of research on side effects and interactions. However, ashwagandha may affect thyroid function (Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, Oct-Dec. 2014). Some people have reported digestive distress, including nausea and diarrhea. Other side effects include drowsiness or headache. In addition, one visitor to our website reported an alarming drop in blood pressure. There is also a published case report of a cardiovascular reaction (Journal of Dietary Supplements, July 4, 2018).
It also might interact with MAO inhibitors such as selegiline, phenelzine or tranylcypromine. It should not be taken with such drugs, as it might reduce their effect (Phytomedicine, Dec. 2000).
To learn more about the pros and cons of ashwagandha and many other nondrug approaches to alleviating anxiety and insomnia as well as arthritis, you may wish to read our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. Share your own experience with this fascinating herbal medicine in the comment section below.
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. Read Terry's Full Bio.
Favorite Home Remedies
A collection of some of our favorite bits of kitchen table wisdom and home remedies in an easy to use digital health guide.
Gupta M & Kaur G, "Withania somnifera as a potential anxiolytic and anti-inflammatory candidate against systemic lipopolysaccharide-induced neuroinflammation." Neuromolecular Medicine, Sep. 2018. DOI: 10.1007/s12017-018-8497-7
Pratte MA et al, "An alternative treatment for anxiety: a systematic review of human trial results reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)." Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Dec. 2014. PMID: 25405876 PMCID: PMC4270108
Kaushik MK et al, "Triethylene glycol, an active component of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) leaves, is responsible for sleep induction." PLoS One, Feb. 16, 2017. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172508
Choudhary D et al, "Efficacy and safety of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal) root extract in improving memory and cognitive functions." Journal of Dietary Supplements, Nov. 2, 2017. DOI: 10.1080/19390211.2017.1284970
Hsu JH et al, "Identification of Withaferin A as a potential candidate for anti-cancer therapy in non-small cell lung cancer." Cancers, July 17, 2019. DOI: 10.3390/cancers11071003
Dar NJ et al, "Pharmacologic overview of Withania somnifera, the Indian ginseng." Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, Dec. 2015. doi: 10.1007/s00018-015-2012-1.
Gannon JM et al, "Subtle changes in thyroid indices during a placebo-controlled study of an extract of Withania somnifera in persons with bipolar disorder." Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, Oct-Dec. 2014. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.146566
Brown AC, "Heart toxicity related to herbs and dietary supplements: Online table of case reports. Part 4 of 5." Journal of Dietary Supplements, July 4, 2018. doi: 10.1080/19390211.2017.1356418
Bhattacharya SK et al, "Anxiolytic-antidepressant activity of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides: an experimental study." Phytomedicine, Dec. 2000. DOI: 10.1016/S0944-7113(00)80030-6
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