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People will go to great lengths to drop a few pounds. Swallow a tapeworm? It’s been done. Consume only water for three days? It’s called water fasting. What about not taking medications or supplements out of fear they’ll cause the scale to go up? Many of us are guilty of taking extreme measures like these (none of which are a good idea, by the way).
What about ashwagandha? Some people take this herb for all sorts of reasons, but can it make you gain or lose weight? And should you take it?
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is an adaptogenic herb used for ages in Indian and African traditional medicine. Adaptogens supposedly help your body cope with (or adapt to) all kinds of stress, from mental to physical. Traditional practices like Ayurveda used the root and berries of ashwagandha—also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng—to treat many health conditions.
Modern research is finding evidence to support some of these uses, and the supplement has made its way to the Western world—but some people may be waiting to try it out of concern that ashwagandha may make you gain weight.
Can ashwagandha make you gain weight?
Ashwagandha is unlikely to make you gain weight. There’s some chance it could help you lose weight, but weight loss is a complicated formula. It’s not clear if or how ashwagandha might play a role, but if it does, it likely has something to do with your metabolism.
While your metabolism includes all the chemical processes required to sustain life, we mostly use the word to describe how many calories you burn in a day. Most of your metabolism is determined by your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body burns on basic functions, like breathing and pumping your heart.
The key to weight loss is supporting your BMR or making sure you use up as much energy (or more) as you consume.
This energy expenditure is largely controlled by your thyroid hormones (Liu, 2017). The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland that sits at the front of your throat, produces several different hormones. Here, we are focusing on triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). Triiodothyronine, or T3, is the more active of the thyroid hormones. In most people with hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid hormone), the thyroid gland doesn’t produce or convert these hormones at normal levels, and weight gain is a common, though not universal, side effect of the condition.
Does ashwagandha support thyroid hormone levels?
If you have low thyroid function, ashwagandha may help and, in turn, potentially prevent weight gain. A small study looking at the effects of ashwagandha supplements on people with bipolar disorder noted that those who took the supplement had an increase in thyroid hormone levels (Gannon, 2014).
Another trial found that taking 600 mg of ashwagandha supplements daily for eight weeks improved blood levels of thyroid hormones T3 and T4 in patients with lower thyroid function (Sharma, 2018).
While both of these studies suggest that ashwagandha may affect thyroid hormone levels, which can, in turn, affect weight gain or loss, neither study proves that this supplement will affect how much you weigh.
Weight management in times of stress
It’s no secret that stress can be unkind to the waistline. Psychological stress has been connected to weight gain and obesity (Tomiyama, 2019). It may seem like a wonder that we don’t gain more weight in times of stress, considering how the cards are stacked against us.
Stress may change our eating behaviors, causing us to eat more and reach for sweeter foods in response to food cravings. On top of the increased intake, stress may also make us exercise less. High perceived stress is also associated with shorter sleep duration, which has been shown to increase hunger by reducing satiety hormones and increasing hunger hormones (Tomiyama, 2019).
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Ashwagandha and stress
In the face of all that, where does ashwagandha come in? It’s possible, though far from proven, that ashwagandha’s ability to help with psychological stress may also affect your waistline.
Research suggests that ashwagandha may improve stress and decrease serum cortisol (stress hormone) levels (Lopresti, 2019). Lower stress may, in turn, affect the things mentioned above. You may sleep better, have more balanced hunger and fullness cues, and experience less emotional eating. But the direct connection between ashwagandha and weight isn’t entirely clear yet.
In one small double-blind study, researchers looked at how ashwagandha supplements affected adults (and their waistlines) while experiencing chronic stress. The group given ashwagandha had significantly lower levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol than the placebo group. By the end of the study, the group supplementing with ashwagandha showed an average reduction in weight of about 3%, double that of the control group. Even better, those given the supplement showed a significant improvement in emotional eating and uncontrolled eating scores than those not given the Ayurvedic herb (Choudhary, 2017).
Ultimately, more research is needed to show whether ashwagandha can help with weight loss. It’s better to focus on proven strategies such as diet and exercise if weight loss is your goal. But if you’re taking ashwagandha for another purpose, such as lowering anxiety, there isn’t much evidence that ashwagandha will make you gain weight as a side effect.
What else is ashwagandha used for?
Ashwagandha root is considered a drug of “Rasayana,” a Sanskrit word that translates to “path of essence,” and a practice of Ayurvedic medicine that refers to the science of lengthening lifespan.
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Research on ashwagandha paces behind traditional medicine, but we are learning more about the potential uses for this adaptogen all the time. In fact, research suggests that potential health benefits of ashwagandha may include (Mandlik Ingawale, 2021):
- Boosting testosterone levels
- Boosting male fertility by increasing sperm count
- Reducing blood sugar levels
- Reducing cortisol levels
- Reducing anxiety and depression
- Decreasing inflammation
- Increasing muscle mass and muscle strength
- Lowering cholesterol
- Improving sleep
The potential health 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 (Mandlik Ingawale, 2021). Withanolides get the most attention, though, for their anxiolytic properties (their ability to lower the effects of chronic stress) (Lopresti, 2019).
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
Clinical studies on the effects of this adaptogenic herb in humans show remarkably low rates of side effects, but they do happen. One participant in a study on Withania somnifera dropped out after experiencing increased appetite and libido as well as vertigo (Raut, 2012).
Although everyone should speak to a healthcare provider before taking a new supplement, there are certain people for whom this is even more important. If you’re taking medication for high blood pressure, blood sugar, or thyroid function, be sure to seek medical advice from your healthcare provider before starting ashwagandha.
6 possible ashwagandha side effects
There is limited data on how ashwagandha affects pregnant and breastfeeding people, so these groups should avoid ashwagandha. People with an autoimmune disease—such as Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus—should consult with a healthcare provider before starting this or any supplement regimen (MedlinePlus, 2020).
People who follow diets that eliminate the Solanaceae or nightshade family—a group of plants that include tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants—should also avoid ashwagandha, a lesser-known member of this family.
Things to consider when purchasing ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is considered a supplement, a class of products only loosely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So, although you can easily get products like ashwagandha powders, extracts, and capsules at health stores and online, it’s essential to buy from a company you trust.
- Choudhary, D., Bhattacharyya, S., & Joshi, K. (2017). Body weight management in adults under chronic stress through treatment with ashwagandha root extract. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 22(1), 96-106. doi: 10.1177/2156587216641830. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5871210/
- Gannon, J. M., Forrest, P. E., & Chengappa, K. R. (2014). 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, 5(4), 241. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.146566. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4296437/
- Liu, G., Liang, L., Bray, G. A., Qi, L., Hu, F. B., Rood, J., et al. (2017). Thyroid hormones and changes in body weight and metabolic parameters in response to weight loss diets: the POUNDS LOST trial. International Journal of Obesity, 41(6), 878-886. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2017.28. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5461198/
- Lopresti, A. L., Smith, S. J., Malvi, H., & Kodgule, R. (2019). An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine, 98(37), e17186. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000017186. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31517876/
- 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/
- MedlinePlus. (2020). Ashwagandha. Retrieved on 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/
- Tomiyama, A. J. (2019). Stress and obesity. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 703–718. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102936. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29927688/
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.