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Ashwagandha: What Is It and Can You Overdose?

Various parts of the ashwagandha plant laid out on a table. From left to right are its leaves, berries, then stems.

Trending anxiety “quick fixes” are always cause for skepticism. Ashwagandha is a popular herb for its stress and anxiety-relieving properties. But are there drawbacks to taking this herbal supplement? Is it toxic, and can you overdose? We are outlining the consequences and benefits of ashwagandha here.

What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a shrub that’s part of the nightshade or Solanaceae family. Other members of this family include tomatoes, potatoes, and belladonna. Although used for thousands of years in parts of Asia and Africa, internet influencers are promoting it for sleep, anxiety, and stress management, giving it a bump in popularity. 

Traditionally, the herb is used in Ayurvedic medicine. The word “ashwagandha” in Sanskrit means “smells of a horse” (referring to the plant’s roots). Other common names include winter cherry and Indian ginseng (not to be confused with Asian or Panax ginseng).

People consume the plant’s roots, leaves, and berries for health benefits. It’s sold as a dietary supplement in many grocery and health-food stores and online. You can take it as a pill or in powder form, but it also comes as elixirs and tinctures. Some people like mixing the powder with milk or tea or taking the pill along with their daily vitamins.

What Does Ashwagandha Do?

Just because something is trending online doesn’t mean it’s good for you (remember the BORG trend?). However, a few studies support some of the benefits of ashwagandha. 

Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, meaning it interacts with the body’s immune system. It potentially increases the immune system’s activity, meaning there’s reason to suspect it fights stress. The active components in the herb are called withanolides, a class of chemicals with neuroprotective properties.

In addition to the functions listed below, ashwagandha is also used to lower blood sugar and aid in heart health, and there’s evidence it may improve your oxygen consumption if combined with a fitness routine.

Stress and Anxiety Relief

In a 60-day study, subjects taking ashwagandha significantly reduced their anxiety symptoms over time. Another study found that the herb reduces cortisol levels. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone and activates during periods of change. 

In addition to the cortisol drop, the herb lowered patients’ perceived stress levels within the same trial. Scientists suspect withanolides play a role here.

Ashwagandha and Sleep

In this study, participants were found to have a significant improvement in sleep between those taking ashwagandha and those who weren’t. Sleep is a critical factor in overall health and crucial to stress and anxiety management. Getting better sleep may help with stress in general.

Memory Enhancement 

In another study, ashwagandha improved the cognitive flexibility of those taking it. The researchers considered other factors like visual memory, executive function, and reaction time. While research is still underway, the withanolides in ashwagandha are under scrutiny as a possible drug to treat Alzheimer’s

Is Ashwagandha Safe? Can You Overdose?

It is possible to take too much, causing upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting. On occasion, taking too much over a long period of time has led to liver damage. Since it’s considered a dietary supplement in the United States, it is not regulated by the FDA. 

There are a myriad of dosing ranges and blends of the herb. Some supplements contain just the roots, while others contain a mixture of the roots, leaves, and berries. Typically, doses range from 250mg to 500mg a day for 1 to 3 months.

People who are pregnant or nursing should not take ashwagandha since there’s no evidence confirming its safety during pregnancy.

Unknown Long-Term Effects

We don’t know the long-term effects of ashwagandha as no studies outline it. The longest recommended dosing duration is 3 months. Beyond that length of time, safety comes into question, especially if taking the herb at high doses.

Thyroid Issues

As an adaptogen, ashwagandha stimulates the immune system, which in turn stimulates the thyroid. If someone has an overactive thyroid, like in the case of hyperthyroidism, the herb may exacerbate symptoms. On the other hand, ashwagandha is sometimes used to treat underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism.

Liver Damage

While the cases are rare, if someone has a preexisting liver disease, taking ashwagandha may lead to liver damage. One man taking the herb at 500mg doses for over a year suffered acute liver injury. This points to more potential long-term consequences for ashwagandha. 

If you’ve been taking ashwagandha and have been experiencing jaundice or ongoing nausea, contact your healthcare provider or call the Missouri Poison Center.

Other Side Effects

Some ashwagandha users reported moodiness, feeling emotionally “cut” or stunted, and drowsiness. Users may also feel nausea even at low doses. Before taking anything to treat chronic stress and anxiety, speak with your healthcare provider.

Have a question we didn’t cover? Call the Missouri Poison Center!

The Missouri Poison Center is here to answer any questions about any drug at any time of the day. Are you considering taking ashwagandha and want to know more? Did your teenager buy supplements online after seeing their favorite creator discuss it? Give us a call at 1-800-222-1222!

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