Ashwagandha Benefits: Stress Less and Handle More

By Courtney Sperlazza, MPH
Reviewed by Theresa Greenwell for Scientific Accuracy on 07/09/2024

Ashwagandha Benefits: Stress Less and Handle More

  • Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that helps support healthy levels of cortisol, plus it can support sleep quality.
  • The root of this nightshade plant has been used in Ayurveda for millennia. Modern research supports its benefits for occasional stress relief and more.
  • Ashwagandha is a key ingredient to support occasional stress and support a positive, happy mood during life’s stressful moments. †

Ashwagandha has been used as a traditional remedy in India as far back as 6000 BC.[1] More recently, this root’s benefits for occasional stress relief have helped it gain favor in the West. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that helps support healthy levels of cortisol, plus it can improve sleep quality.

In Ayurveda, the traditional health system of India, ashwagandha is considered a rasayana,[2] an herb that supports longevity and overall wellness. Ayurvedic uses include support for the mind and healthy aging.

But beyond stress and sleep, what Ashwagandha benefits are backed by science? Furthermore, is ashwagandha (pronounced osh-wah-gone-duh) safe? Read on to learn about ashwagandha side effects, when to take ashwagandha, and one of the tastiest and easiest ways to integrate this herb into your daily routine.

What is ashwagandha?

adaptogenic herbs ashwagandha

With the botanical name Withania somnifera, ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family of plants. Its distant relatives include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. While the root is the most common plant part used, ashwagandha leaves also deliver benefits.

Its common names include Indian ginseng and winter cherry. Ayurveda reveres the herb, and its name has an interesting—and fragrant—back story. The name “ashwagandha” comes from two Sanskrit words. Ashwa means horse, and gandha means fragrance. This name acknowledges the fresh root’s pungent and unique scent. It also honors the traditional use for stamina, or “powers similar to a horse.”[3]

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens “help the body maintain ideal homeostasis under adverse or stressful conditions.”[4] A Soviet scientist, Nikolai Lazarev, coined the term back in 1940, to describe plants like schisandra, holy basil and, later, ashwagandha. To be an adaptogen, a plant must meet these criteria:

  • People must tolerate it well, even with long-term use.
  • It must maintain homeostasis and impact the body’s physical or emotional stress response.
  • It must impart other benefits (with no harm to normal bodily functions and processes).

Ahwagandha Benefits

Stressed man in yellow sweater at home
Here’s what science has confirmed regarding ashwagandha benefits:

Ashwagandha and stress

Most of the research examines the impact of ashwagandha on the stress response. In your body, the HPA axis[5] is in charge of managing this response. The name comes from the trio of the hypothalamus in the brain and the pituitary and adrenal glands. The adrenals regulate stress by releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline as needed. They also manage the circadian rhythm that regulates sleep and waking. The hypothalamus links the nervous and endocrine systems, via the pituitary gland, which also regulates and releases hormones.

In a 60-day, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study,[6] researchers gave participants either ashwagandha extract or a placebo. Subjects self-reported their mood and stress levels. Their cortisol and other hormone levels were also tested. Compared with the placebo group, those who took ashwagandha reported less occasional stress and a better mood. The findings link the benefits of ashwagandha to its impact on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, but researchers cautioned that more research is needed.

A similar study of 60 healthy but stressed adults found comparable results, with ashwagandha reducing occasional stress and occasional uneasiness (and improving sleep) versus a placebo.[7]

Sleep Quality

In addition to the study on ashwagandha for uneasiness and occasional stress, other research supports its use for healthy sleep. In fact, the species name for ashwagandha, somnifera, is Latin for “inducing sleep.”

A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis published in PLoS One found that the herb showed “a small but significant effect on overall sleep.”[8] No one reported serious ashwagandha side effects, and it improved daytime alertness.

And in 2020, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study gave adults ages 65 to 80 either ashwagandha or a placebo daily for 12 weeks (about 3 months).[9] The ashwagandha group reported they slept better and were more alert during the day.

Related: 9 Supplements to Reduce Stress

Are There Any Ashwagandha Side Effects?

Woman relaxing while listening to cat

The studies included above didn’t report any significant ashwagandha side effects. However, talk to your health-care provider before taking any supplements, including ashwagandha. It should not be taken during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. It may also interact with certain medications.

When to Take Ashwagandha

In clinical studies, ashwagandha’s benefits were measured after several weeks or longer. This is common with adaptogens and other herbs. While the herb supports sleep quality, it can safely be taken in the morning or at night. Talk to your health-care provider to determine the best timing for you.

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This article has been updated with new content.