Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha

Common Names

  • Ashwagandha
  • Indian ginseng
  • Winter cherry

For Patients & Caregivers

A few preliminary studies suggest ashwagandha may help reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue, but larger studies are needed.

Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is a popular Ayurvedic herb and considered a tonic with multiple properties. In the lab, ashwagandha has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and relax the central nervous system in animals. Other experiments suggest it can enhance immune cells and impair or kill cancer cells, but more studies are needed to determine whether these effects can occur in humans. Clinical trials suggest ashwagandha may help reduce anxiety, stress, and fatigue, but larger studies are needed.

Ashwagandha may affect certain lab tests that measure thyroid functioning and digoxin levels.
Hemolytic anemia and abdominal pain were reported following ingestion of contaminated ashwagandha/mucuna pills.

  • To reduce stress and anxiety
    A few studies suggest ashwagandha may be helpful for anxiety and stress.
  • To reduce fatigue
    Results from a small study in patients with cancer-related fatigue suggest benefit. Additional studies are needed to confirm this.
  • As a sedative
    In animal studies, ashwagandha has a tranquilizing effect.
  • To reduce pain
    A clinical trial suggests that a standardized extract may help patients with knee joint pain. Mild side effects like nausea and stomach irritation were observed in a few patients.
  • To treat rheumatoid arthritis
    A clinical trial showed that a compound of herbs and minerals containing ashwagandha reduced rheumatoid arthritis pain. Because the formula contained multiple herbs and minerals, whether ashwagandha played a role in observed benefits is unclear.
  • To treat diabetes
    Lab studies suggest that ashwagandha may improve type 2 diabetes. Human studies are needed.
  • You are taking triazolam: In mice, ashwagandha increased sedative effects when taken with triazolam. However, clinical significance in humans is not known.
  • You are pregnant: Ashwagandha may induce abortion, so pregnant women should not use it.

Mild to moderate and of short duration: drowsiness, upper GI discomfort, loose stools

Case reports

  • Nausea, headache, and stomach irritation: Occurred in one study and managed with standard therapies.
  • Overactive thyroid: In a 32-year-old woman following ingestion of ashwagandha capsules for chronic fatigue. Symptoms resolved after discontinuing ashwagandha.
  • Burning, itching, and discoloration of skin/mucous membrane: In a 28-year-old man after taking ashwagandha for decreased libido. Symptoms improved with conventional treatment.
  • Irregular heartbeat, dizziness: 2 cases were possibly associated with the use of herbomineral preparations that contained ashwagandha.
  • Elevation of liver enzymes, skin rash, fatigue, fever, edema, and diarrhea: In patients with advanced stage high-grade osteosarcoma, following use of Withaferin-A.
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For Healthcare Professionals

Withania somnifera

A popular Ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha is often used in formulations prescribed for stress, strain, fatigue, pain, skin diseases, diabetes, gastrointestinal disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and epilepsy (1). It is also used as a general tonic, to improve energy levels, health, and longevity (2), and topically as an analgesic (3). Active constituents include alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, and withanolides.

In vitro studies suggest that ashwagandha has neuroprotective (26) (37) and anti-inflammatory properties which may protect against cartilage damage in osteoarthritis (4). In addition, improvements in hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, and insulin sensitivity have been detected in an animal model of type 2 diabetes (5). Other studies indicate cytotoxic, chemopreventative, immunomodulating (8), and radiosensitizing effects (1) (9) (10), and enhancement in chromosomal stability (11). Ashwagandha is also rich in iron (2).

Small-scale human studies suggest that it may promote growth in children and improve hemoglobin level and red blood cell count (2). In adults, it may improve sexual performance (2) and male infertility (27). An herbal tea containing ashwagandha was shown to increase natural killer cell activity in healthy volunteers with recurrent coughs and colds (22).

Data also indicate that ashwagandha may be helpful for anxiety (23). In patients with schizophrenia, adjunctive treatment with ashwagandha significantly improved symptoms and stress (43), and affected markers of metabolic syndrome (34). Ashwagandha also improved cognitive function in patients with bipolar disorder (35), and is currently being evaluated to assess its effects on nonrestorative sleep (44).

Preliminary data suggest that ashwagandha may help to improve balance in patients with progressive degenerative cerebral ataxias (24). An herbo-mineral formula containing ashwagandha was shown to benefit osteoarthritis (13). In a double-blind RCT, a standardized extract produced analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and chondroprotective effects in patients with knee joint pain (41).

In laboratory studies, ashwagandha reduced growth of breast, central nervous system, colon, and lung cancer cells (6) without affecting normal cells (7), but was not effective against drug-resistant cancer stem cells (36). The compound Withaferin A enhanced oxaliplatin effects in human pancreatic cancer cells (38). Ashwagandha was also shown to prevent chemotherapy-induced neutropenia in mice (12).

In a small study of breast cancer patients, ashwagandha alleviated chemotherapy-induced fatigue and improved quality of life (31). Larger trials are needed to confirm these observations. 

  • Anxiety
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive disorders
  • Epilepsy
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sleep
  • Stress

Alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, and withanolides are considered the biologically active components of ashwagandha. Anti-arthritic effects are attributed to cyclooxygenase (COX) inhibition.

In animal studies, anti-inflammatory activity by ashwagandha was comparable to hydrocortisone (15). Brain antioxidant effects and CNS tranquilizing effects may be due to influences on GABA receptor function (2) (17). Withanolides in the roots and leaves are considered similar to steroids in their biological activities (41). Triethylene glycol, a compound isolated from the leaves, was identified as an active sleep-inducing component in a murine model, and may potentially be used to relieve insomnia (42).

Microarray analysis revealed that ashwagandha represses proinflammatory gene expression, including IL-6, IL-1β, IL-8, Hsp70, and STAT-2, and induces p38/MAPK expression in a prostate cancer cell line (16). Ashwagandha may inhibit tumor growth (1) (21) and increased cytotoxic T lymphocyte production (8). In vitro studies show that root extracts have cytotoxic properties against lung, colon, CNS, and breast cancer cell lines (6). Withaferin A induced reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation and disruption of mitochondrial function in a human leukemia cell line, thereby inducing apoptosis (18). In estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) and negative (ER-) breast cancer cells, withaferin A induced apoptosis and decreased tumor size (19). Apoptosis of cancer cells by withanone is mediated through p53 (7). Withianone also exerts anticancer activity by binding to the TPX2-Aurora A Complex (29). Other studies show ashwagandha cytotoxicity is related to its structure. It enhances ATPase and inhibits succinate dehydrogenase activities, impairing oxidative phosphorylation.

In animal studies, ashwagandha enhanced radiation therapy effects (20) by reducing tumor GSH levels (10), and reversed paclitaxel-induced neutropenia in mice (12).

No significant interactions have been reported between ashwagandha and either CYP3A4 or CYP2D6 enzymes in human liver microsomes (40).

Hemolytic anemia and abdominal pain were reported following ingestion of contaminated ashwagandha/mucuna pills (32).

Pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha as it may induce abortion (14) (46).

Mild to moderate and transient: drowsiness, upper GI discomfort, loose stools (43)

Case reports

  • Nausea, headache, and gastritis: Occurred in one study and managed with standard therapies (41)
  • Thyrotoxicosis: In a 32-year-old woman following ingestion of ashwagandha capsules for chronic fatigue. Symptoms resolved after discontinuing ashwagandha (25).
  • Burning, itching, and discoloration of skin/mucous membrane: In a 28-year-old man after taking ashwagandha for decreased libido. Symptoms abated with conventional treatment (33).
  • Ventricular tachycardia: 2 cases were possibly associated with the use of herbomineral preparations that contained ashwagandha (45).
  • Elevation of liver enzymes, skin rash, fatigue, fever, edema, and diarrhea: In patients with advanced stage high-grade osteosarcoma, following administration of Withaferin-A (47).
  • Triazolam: In a murine model, ashwagandha potentiated the sedative effects of triazolam (30). Clinical significance is not known.
  • May cause false elevation in digoxin immunoassay (28).
  • May increase thyroxine levels (39).

  1. Mishra LC, Singh BB, Dagenais S. Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review. Altern Med Rev. 2000;5(4):334-346.

  2. Dafni A, Yaniv Z. Solanaceae as medicinal plants in Israel. J Ethnopharmacol. 1994;44(1):11-18.

  3. Anwer T, Sharma M, Pillai KK, et al. Effect of Withania somnifera on insulin sensitivity in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus rats. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2008;102(6):498-503.

  4. Jayaprakasam B, Zhang Y, Seeram NP, et al. Growth inhibition of human tumor cell lines by withanolides from Withania somnifera leaves. Life Sci. 2003;74(1):125-132.

  5. Davis L, Kuttan G. Effect of Withania somnifera on CTL activity. J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2002;21(1):115-118.

  6. Derogatis LR, Morrow GR, Fetting J, et al. The prevalence of psychiatric disorders among cancer patients. JAMA. 1983;249(6):751-757.

  7. Panjamurthy K, Manoharan S, Menon VP, et al. Protective role of withaferin-A on 7,12-dimethylbenz(a)anthracene-induced genotoxicity in bone marrow of Syrian golden hamsters. J Biochem Mol Toxicol. 2008;22(4):251-258.

  8. Gupta YK, Sharma SS, Rai K, et al. Reversal of paclitaxel induced neutropenia by Withania somnifera in mice. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. Apr 2001;45(2):253-257.

  9. Kulkarni RR, Patki PS, Jog VP, et al. Treatment of osteoarthritis with a herbomineral formulation: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study. J Ethnopharmacol. 1991;33(1-2):91-95.

  10. Brinker F. Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions. 3rd ed. Sandy (OR): Eclectic Medical Publications; 2001.

  11. al-Hindawi MK, al-Khafaji SH, Abdul-Nabi MH. Anti-granuloma activity of Iraqi Withania somnifera. J Ethnopharmacol. 1992;37(2):113-116.

  12. Devi PU, Sharada AC, Solomon FE. In vivo growth inhibitory and radiosensitizing effects of withaferin A on mouse Ehrlich ascites carcinoma. Cancer Lett. 1995;95(1-2):189-193.

  13. Bhat J, Damle A, Vaishnav PP, et al. In vivo enhancement of natural killer cell activity through tea fortified with Ayurvedic herbs. Phytother Res. 24(1):129-35.

  14. Cooley K, Szczurko O, Perri D, et al. Naturopathic care for anxiety: a randomized controlled trial ISRCTN78958974. PLoS One. 2009;4(8):e6628.

  15. Sriranjini SJ, Pal PK, Devidas KV, Ganpathy S. Improvement of balance in progressive degenerative cerebellar ataxias after Ayurvedic therapy: A preliminary report. Neurol India. 2009;57(2):166-71.

  16. van der Hooft CS, Hoekstra A, Winter A, et al. [Thyrotoxicosis following the use of ashwagandha]. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2005;149(47):2637-8.

  17. Kumar S, Harris RJ, Seal CJ, Okello EJ. An aqueous extract of Withania somnifera root inhibits amyloid β fibril formation in vitro. Phytother Res. 2012;26(1):113-7.

  18. Kumar A, Kulkarni SK. Effect of herbals on sleep and their interactions with hypnotic drugs. Indian J Pharm Sci. 2005;67(3):391-393.

  19. Biswal BM, Sulaiman SA, Ismail HC, Zakaria H, Musa KI. Effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on the development of chemotherapy-induced fatigue and quality of life in breast cancer patients. Integr Cancer Ther. 2013;12(4):312-22.

  20. Toniolo M, Ceschi A, Meli M, Lohri A, Favre G. Haemolytic anaemia and abdominal pain—a cause not to be missed. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2011;72(1):168-9.

  21. Sehgal VN, Verma P, Bhattacharya SN. Fixed-drug eruption caused by ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): a widely used Ayurvedic drug. Skinmed. 2012;10(1):48-9.

  22. Agnihotri AP, Sontakke SD, Thawani VR, Saoji A, Goswami VS. Effects of Withania somnifera in patients of schizophrenia: A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled pilot trial study. Indian J Pharmacol. 2013;45:417-418.

  23. Chengappa KN, Bowie CR, Schlicht PJ, Fleet D, Brar JS, Jindal R. Randomized placebo-controlled adjunctive study of an extract of Withania somnifera for cognitive dysfunction in bipolar disorder. J Clin Psychiatry. 2013;74:1076-1083.

  24. Maliyakkal N, Appadath Beeran A, Balaji SA, Udupa N, Ranganath Pai S, Rangarajan A. Effects of Withania somnifera and Tinospora cordifolia extracts on the side population phenotype of human epithelial cancer cells: Toward targeting multidrug resistance in cancer. Integr Cancer Ther. 2015;14:156-171.

  25. Ramakanth GS, Uday Kumar C, Kishan PV, et al. A randomized, double blind placebo controlled study of efficacy and tolerability of Withaina somnifera extracts in knee joint pain. J Ayurveda Integr Med. Jul - Sep 2016;7(3):151-157.

  26. Kaushik MK, Kaul SC, Wadhwa R, Yanagisawa M, Urade Y. Triethylene glycol, an active component of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) leaves, is responsible for sleep induction. PLoS One. 2017 Feb 16;12(2):e0172508.

  27. Dwivedi S, Aggarwal A, Sharma V. Cardiotoxicity from ’safe’ herbomineral formulations. Trop Doct. Apr 2011;41(2):113-115.

  28. Nadkarni AK, Nadkarni KM. India Materia Medica with Ayruvedic, Unani-Tibbi, Siddha, Allopathic, Homeopathic, Naturopathic & Home Remedies, Volume 1, 3rd edition. Bombay (India): Popular Book Depot; 1954

  29. Pires N, Gota V, Gulia A, et al. Safety and Pharmacokinetics of Withaferin-A in advanced stage high grade Osteosarcoma: A phase I trial. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2019 Mar 20. pii: S0975-9476(18)30789-7.

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