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What if we told you there’s something that can instantly improve your life? Unfortunately, you can’t buy it in a store. It’s a good night’s sleep.
While no one has bottled deep sleep yet, countless supplements promise improved sleep quality. This Ayurvedic herb is one of them, but does ashwagandha for sleep really work?
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, has a long history of use in several practices, from Ayurveda to Indian and African traditional medicine. This herb is an adaptogen, a plant that may help your body cope with chronic stress, whether it’s mental stress from a demanding boss or physical stress from a grueling workout. Traditional practices like Ayurveda use the ashwagandha plant—also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng—to treat a wide range of health conditions. Modern research is finding evidence to support some of these uses.
Can ashwagandha help me sleep?
This plant has traditionally been used in Ayurveda to help with sleep, and it may work for this in two ways: by influencing sleep directly and by lowering stress, which indirectly benefits sleep (Kaushik, 2017). However, there’s still more research needed on this adaptogenic herb to confirm preliminary findings.
Sleep is important for maintaining your overall health and well-being, both physically and mentally. Data shows that trouble sleeping can contribute to increased stress, mood swings, cardiovascular disease, weight problems, and type 2 diabetes (Medic, 2017).
Sleep quality and anxiety
In a recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study, participants given full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract twice daily for ten weeks saw significant improvements in several sleep markers compared to those in the placebo group (Langade, 2019).
The researchers used a combination of actigraphy, a sensor worn that tracks activity and rest, and sleep logs filled out by the participants to track their sleep patterns (including total sleep time, total time in bed, and more). Although sleep onset latency (how long it takes you to go from awake to fully asleep) and sleep efficiency improved in both groups, those given 600 mg of ashwagandha daily benefitted the most (Langade, 2019).
There were other areas in which the supplement had an even more significant advantage. In this clinical study, sleep quality, anxiety, and mental alertness upon waking significantly improved in the ashwagandha group compared to placebo (Langade, 2019).
Ashwagandha for anxiety: is it proven to help?
Help falling asleep (in mice, at least)
Another study focused on triethylene glycol, an active component of ashwagandha found in the plant’s leaves. Traditionally, the root or whole plant was used in India to help counter insomnia.
But animal studies found that parts of the plant with high withanolide content didn’t help induce sleep. Withanolides are active compounds believed to be responsible for many of ashwagandha’s other potential health benefits. The leaves have comparably low levels of withanolides, but higher triethylene glycol content. The use of ashwagandha extract made from more of the leaves was associated with sleep improvement in mice (Kaushik, 2017).
The researchers are hopeful their findings show that ashwagandha may be sleep-inducing in humans (without the side effects of other sleep aids), but it’s still too early to tell. Since the findings of helping animals fall asleep may not directly translate to treating insomnia in humans, more research is needed.
Ashwagandha and stress
The effects of ashwagandha on stress and perceived well-being have more research behind them. Clinical research suggests that ashwagandha root extract may decrease stress and improve overall mental health and quality of life. It may also lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels (Chandrasekhar, 2012).
Since high perceived stress is associated with shorter sleep duration, lowering stress may improve the quality of sleep by increasing total sleep time (Choi, 2018).
Is ashwagandha tea effective?
Other potential benefits of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha root is considered a drug of “Rasayana,” a Sanskrit word that translates to “path of essence”—a practice of Ayurvedic medicine that refers to the science of lengthening lifespan. Research on ashwagandha paces behind traditional medicine, but we are learning more about the potential uses for this adaptogen all the time. There’s still more research to be done, but current studies suggest that ashwagandha supplements, such as powders and extracts, may offer the following health benefits (Mandlik Ingawale, 2021):
- Boosting testosterone levels
- Improving male fertility by increasing sperm count
- Reducing blood sugar levels
- Lowering cortisol levels
- Decreasing anxiety and depression
- Reducing inflammation
- Increasing muscle mass and muscle strength
- Lowering cholesterol
The potential benefits of this plant are thought to come from beneficial compounds, including withanolides (the most well-known of which is withaferin A), glycowithanolides (which boast antioxidant properties), and alkaloids. Withanolides get the most attention, though, for their anxiolytic properties, meaning their ability to decrease anxiety and stress (Mandlik Ingawale, 2021).
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha has meager rates of side effects across various clinical trials, but they do happen. Generally, studies have found that the most common side effects of ashwagandha are mild and include nasal congestion (rhinitis), constipation, cough and cold, sleepiness, and decreased appetite (Chandrasekhar, 2012).
But there are groups of people who shouldn’t take it, especially not without first talking to their healthcare provider.
8 Ashwagandha benefits proven by research
People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid ashwagandha. People with an autoimmune disease—such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, or systemic lupus erythematosus—need to consult with a medical professional before starting a supplement regimen (MedlinePlus, 2020).
Also, talk to a healthcare provider if you’re on medication for thyroid function or blood pressure. Ashwagandha is also part of the nightshade family, so those following a diet that eliminates this group of plants (including tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) should avoid taking this supplement.
Things to consider when purchasing ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is considered a supplement, which means it’s only loosely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Although ashwagandha powder, extract, and capsules are readily available at health stores and online, it’s important to buy from a trusted company to ensure that you are getting a quality product.
- Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255. doi: 10.4103/0253-7176.106022. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23439798/
- Choi, D., Chun, S., Lee, S., Han, K., & Park, E. (2018). Association between sleep duration and perceived stress: salaried worker in circumstances of high workload. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(4), 796. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15040796. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29671770/
- Kaushik, M. K., Kaul, S. C., Wadhwa, R., Yanagisawa, M., & Urade, Y. (2017). Triethylene glycol, an active component of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) leaves, is responsible for sleep induction. Plos One, 12(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172508. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28207892/
- Langade, D., Kanchi, S., Salve, J., Debnath, K., & Ambegaokar, D. (2019). Efficacy and safety of ashwagandha (withania somnifera) root extract in insomnia and anxiety: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Cureus, 11(9), E5797. doi: 10.7759/cureus.5797. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31728244/
- Mandlik Ingawale, D. S. & Namdeo, A. G. (2021). Pharmacological evaluation of Ashwagandha highlighting its healthcare claims, safety, and toxicity aspects. Journal of Dietary Supplements, 18(2), 183–226. doi: 10.1080/19390211.2020.1741484. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32242751/
- Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. E. (2017). Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep, 9, 151–161. doi: 10.2147/NSS.S134864. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/
- Medline Plus. (2020). Ashwagandha. Retrieved Aug 25, 2021 from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/953.html
- Raut, A., Rege, N., Shirolkar, S., Pandey, S., Tadvi, F., Solanki, P., et al. (2012). Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 3(3), 111–114. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.100168. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23125505/
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.