The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can Ashwagandha Help You with Stress and Sleep?

Readers have found that an Indian Ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha, can help ease anxiety, overcome insomnia and relieve joint pain.

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.

Lowering Anxiety:

Indian scientists studying rats have confirmed that as it reduces inflammation in the nervous system, the animals’ anxiety-like behavior diminishes (Neuromolecular Medicine, Sep. 2018). Previously, an analysis of five studies in humans indicated that those taking ashwagandha experienced reduced anxiety and perceived stress (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Dec. 2014).   

Overcoming Insomnia:

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). 

Fighting Cancer:

Scientists have even identified some compounds in ashwagandha that may be able to help fight cancer (Cancers, July 17, 2019). It acts synergistically with some cancer chemotherapy agents. Beyond that, a protein from the herb can stop triple negative breast cancer cells using several different pathways (International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, Aug. 15, 2019).

Alleviating Arthritis Pain:

Withania somnifera does have anti-inflammatory properties and is able to suppress many inflammatory compounds that could be contributing to arthritis pain (Dar et al, Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, Dec. 2015).

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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).

Learn More:

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.

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About the Author
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. .
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Citations
  • 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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My husband tried this supplement for his anxiety and for better sleep and was sick as a dog for 24 hrs after taking one capsule. He had horrible cramps and diarrhea and obviously didn’t sleep well. Never again.

Ashwagandha is a nightshade. Nightshades contribute to inflammation and arthritis in some people. I am quite sensitive to them.

Ashwagandha has been used and studied in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Consult an herbalist or practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine for downsides.

I’m happy to see this article. I’ve been telling people for a couple years now about my unbelievable success in COMPLETELY ELIMINATING MY INSOMNIA WITH ASHWAGANDHA! I’ve been an insomniac all my life. Manic tendencies, and of course all those intrusive thoughts and worries, consistently kept me from sleeping well.

Well, I started taking Ashwagandha (and yes, another adaptogen, Rhodiola) on a daily basis 4-5 years ago. Gradually I started sleeping better and better. I’d been taking an assortment of sleep meds: herbal, homeopathic, sometimes even harder stuff like Ambien, with little relief. But gradually I started sleeping better and better; and now I take absolutely NOTHING to help me sleep, and yet I sleep like a baby. The only hard part is getting up in the morning. I could easily sleep 8 hours or longer! I tell you, for me that Ashwagandha is pure gold when it comes to combating insomnia.

Furthermore, I’ve tested it out: If I DON’T take Ashwaganda, I almost immediately revert to poorer sleep again.

How much do we take?

Would like to know a good starting dose. Would it it be the 500mgs listed in the article?

I love ashwagandha for anxiety and waking up before I’m rested; however, it makes my face break out. The first time was after 3-4 days. Now, it’s after one day, so I’m not willing to take it anymore.

I rarely ever over react to any drug or vitamin, but Ashwagandha had me and my doctor in a tailspin. I started having diarrhea violently in the mornings(I would take a pill of Ash. at night) and the even started vomiting about 2:30 at night. My doctor had me go through every kind of test known to man, when finally, through trial and error, I realized it had to be something I was taking at night…behold,I stopped the Ashwagandha and my symptoms totally stopped. It is amazing an herb could cause such horrible discomfort, cost, and debilitation. I am very leery of any herbal medicine now.

I read that people with autoimmune disorders should not take Ashwagandha. Is it true that it overstimulates the immune system? I have Mixed Connective Tissue Disease.

This research shows that Ashwagandha combined with Maitake mushroom extract can increase the activity of immune system cells. It’s not clear whether this is a problem for you.

I’ve been taking one tablet of ashwaghanda complex every morning for about 1 1/2 years after 2 severe wrist fractures that both required internal correction with plates/screws. After the second fracture, I developed gastritis which I attributed to taking ibuprofen daily for pain and emotional trauma due to the injury. I began meditating daily and this helped immensely, but I continued to have problems staying asleep at night and was still anxious overall.

I have always relied on herbs to address minor medical issues, and I take supplements/vitamins regularly so I started researching and found ashwaghanda. It has made a world of difference for me. It has an excellent mood balancing/calming effect, and my anxiety disappeared within days. Not sure if it’s helping my arthritis or insomnia, but it has certainly alleviated the anxiety!

The side effect I have with Ashwagandha is bruising. It’s a red, broken blood vessel type of bruising. I get it on my rear-end if I sit on a hard chair and on my elbows from leaning on the arms of my office chair while typing.

1. Ashwaganda is a nightshade, related to peanuts and soy. If you have an allergy to nightshade foods, you are probably allergic to it.
2. Ashwaganda is in a class of herbals, called adaptogens. They are herbs that stimulate a reaction in the body, which causes the body to do the necessary work. There are many plants in this class, including ashwaganda, rhodiola rosea, and holy basil. Each does something slightly different, but more importantly, everyone’s body reacts to each plant differently. For example, I cannot tolerate ashwaganda or holy basil, but rhodiola has saved my life. My friend can only do holy basil, and most people really like ashwaganda.
3. Do not just take an adaptogen indiscriminantly without researching it and knowing exactly what it is doing in your body. Also, more is not always better. Know the proper dose.

Long time user & it’s the best thing ever happen. It’s safe & effective herbal & it has been used in India since 1900.

Isn’t ashwaganda from the nightshade family? I was taking it and felt some improvement in mood but stopped after I learned it was a nightshade.

Aswaganda is a nightshade. I have been prescribed this in thyroid supplements by very knowledgable doctors who do not know this – being nightshade-sensitive (it makes me break out in facial hives as the first sign and who knows what else!) and had to find out on my own that the ashwagandha is a known nightshade.

I was told by my doctor to take 2 ashwagandha pills a day. After just one I developed the most awful vomiting and diarrhea I’ve ever experienced. It reached the point where all I could do was lie on the bathroom floor within easy reach of the john. I wound up in an ambulance with a blood pressure of 60/30. My kidney function was severely compromised and has never fully recovered. I’m convinced that had 911 not been called by my daughter, I’d have died on the bathroom floor. Ashwagandha is not a supplement to be taken lightly!

What is ashwagandha’s impact on the thyroid? I am on levothyroxine, 137 mcg. I am interested in trying it for sleep and inflammation, and I also have had triple negative breast cancer.

Ashwagandha may increase thyroxine levels:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296437/
You’d need to ask your doctor to monitor your TSH and free T4.

I took ashawagandha for about 7yrs for what they now call PCOS. 10 to 7 days before my menstrual cycle I would take 2 tablets (470m) in the morning. Once my cycle started I would stop taking it.

Ashawagandha made a HUGE positive change. Even my husband would remind me to take it.
I didn’t experience any side effects & have recommended it to others.

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