Does Ashwagandha Actually Help Relieve Stress? What the Popular Supplement Can — and Can’t — Do
Ashwagandha’s role in stress relief is still not fully understood despite its ever-increasing popularity.
When confronted with ads selling products that promote health and longevity, it's always important to remember that the wellness industry’s primary goal is to make money.
Take ashwagandha, an herb whose use in Ayurvedic medicine dates back for millennia but is currently being marketed as a silver bullet for stress. Market research shows that the global market for this extract was valued at $864.3 million in 2021 and is projected to hit $2.5 billion by 2031. In 2021, spending on ashwagandha increased more than 225 percent compared to 2020.
But ashwagandha’s role as a solution for all the stress in our lives is still not completely understood, despite its ever-increasing popularity.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb found in India, Africa, and the Middle East that’s classified as an adaptogen, an all-encompassing term given to a plant or mushroom that purportedly helps lower stress in the body. It also contains a group of bioactive compounds known as withanolides, which are associated with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Ashwagandha extract is typically sold in the form of a supplement.
The term adaptogen, Mullur says, isn’t used in medical literature. Rather, it’s a descriptor of any extract or food that mitigates stress in the body. While it doesn’t have a formal medical definition, it can be a convenient layperson label. Still, Mullur says it doesn’t shed any light on the biological mechanisms at work.
Does Ashwagandha work?
Mullur says that we believe ashwagandha helps relieve stress by binding to the same receptors as the stress hormone cortisol, though researchers are still not sure of all the mechanisms at play.
When studying various types of stress, researchers often designate cortisol as a proxy for stress levels. But Mullur says it's not a linear relationship. The hormone is indeed a key player in the body’s stress response, but its mere presence doesn’t indicate stressful conditions. She says human cortisol levels exhibit a diurnal pattern, meaning they ebb and flow over the course of a day. For the average unstressed person, Mullur says, cortisol peaks in the morning, drops, peaks mid-afternoon, and drops again. On the other hand, those living with chronic stress “lose that pattern of cortisol secretion” and simply flatline, consistently producing the hormone all day.
Clinical trials for ashwagandha are also all over the place, Mullur says. They vary in size, dose, and disorders treated. “There are no absolute levels.” This means studies of it aren’t standardized, and results can be misleading. Since all these studies vary, even promising ones can’t provide useful, applicable information for Mullur. “I can’t take that data and generalize it to an average person experiencing stress,” she says.
Moreover, supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means they may be full of “adulterating factors” and compounds you didn’t plan on ingesting or may contain varying amounts of the actual extract.
Should I take Ashwagandha?
Mullur cautions against buying supplements from self-proclaimed holistic vendors and influencers. “When it comes to the supplement industry, I think it's all bad,” she says. Rather, using ashwagandha under the supervision of an integrative or traditional provider may potentially help with stress, though again, the studies are not yet established.
She says ashwagandha and other similar herbal supplements are safest and most effective in small doses for short periods of time. In fact, Mullur says that there have been a few cases of jaundice-induced liver failure from taking too much ashwagandha for too long.
If you’re interested in exploring this herb, Mullur advises that you stay away from social media and stick to integrative and traditional medical practitioners.