The Essential Guide to Ashwagandha: Overview, Benefits, & Side Effects

Published on April 15, 2022

By Gaia Herbs

Gaia Herbs

Ashwagandha burst onto the scene in recent years as a popular supplement. It has received a lot of attention for its health benefits when used as an herbal supplement: Ashwagandha promotes stress reduction and can help bring your body into balance.*

But this popular herb is far from a newcomer. Ashwagandha has been used for centuries to help manage stress and promote relaxation. As a powerful adaptogen, Indian Ginseng (as it’s also known) has earned quite the reputation for its ability to boost energy too.

In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about this helpful herb—from its origins and history to its benefits and uses—so you can decide if the benefits and positive effects of ashwagandha are right for you.

What is Ashwagandha?

The ashwagandha plant (scientific name Withania somnifera), also known as Winter Cherry, is a small evergreen shrub that is short and squat with velvety leaves and bell flowers that contain orange berries similar in appearance to small tomatoes.

Ashwagandha root extracts have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for at least 1,500 years. In Sanskrit, the word "ashwa" means "horse," while "gandha" means "smell."

In other words, “Ashwagandha” translates roughly to "the smell and strength of a horse," alluding to its traditional use to support vitality and a healthy libido.* Once ground, the herb was said to smell like a horse and was thought to impart the power of one, too.

Its species name, somnifera, means "sleep-inducing" in Latin. Somnifera indicates its traditional Ayurvedic use for supporting somnolence, or sleepiness.* Ashwagandha's Hindi name is "asgandh," another nod to its potent odor reminiscent of horse sweat.REF#1202REF#1210

Where Did Ashwagandha Originate?

Ashwagandha is native to the Indian subcontinent, specifically the drier areas of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It also grows in parts of Africa and can grow in temperate climates.

For over 3,000 years, this medicinal plant has been a staple in traditional herbal medicine. Throughout the years, this Ayurvedic herb has been used to support the nervous system and encourage feelings of relaxation.

Aside from supporting mental health, healthy adults have also used this powerful herb for years for its soothing antioxidant properties, making it a formidable foe against free radicals and oxidative stress.

We use the root of the plant in our herbal products. Also, we harvest ashwagandha root in the fall when the plants’ beneficial phytochemicals are at their peak.

Ashwagandha as an Adaptogen

Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen, meaning it promotes balance in many different systems of the body.*REF#1212

Adaptogens are herbs that meet three specific criteria developed by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarez (who is best known for discovering other adaptogens such as Eleuthero and teaching renowned adaptogen research scientist Israel Brekhman).

According to Lazarez, adaptogens have to:

  • Be nontoxic
  • Reduce and regulate stress by helping the body adapt*
  • Benefit overall well-being*

Ashwagandha meets all of these criteria.

The History of Ashwagandha in Ayurveda

In Ayurveda—the traditional medicine system of India—ashwagandha is a rasayana, or a plant that promotes longevity, vitality, and happiness.*REF#1206REF#1210REF#1212

Rasayanas are traditionally given to small children and older adults as tonics to support overall well-being.* The root is often dried and ground, then given as a powder mixed with ghee, honey, and milk, as ashwagandha can often have a bitter taste. This warm beverage is often consumed before bedtime.REF#1210

Ashwagandha is included in Gaia Herbs Golden Milk to help support a feeling of relaxation.* Our Golden Milk is an Ayurvedic cup of calm to help support both your body and mind as you sip your way into serenity.*

The formula is based on the traditional recipe used for centuries and contains a delicious blend of turmeric, ashwagandha, dates, cardamom, and vanilla. This powder can be mixed into any warm beverage—dairy milk, non-dairy milk, or even your cup of morning joe.

Ashwagandha is one of the most commonly used herbs for the Vata constitution, associated with air and space.

This herb is also used traditionally as a tonic to support memory, vitality, and healthy hormonal function, which supports balanced Vata energy.*REF#1212 It is also used to support sleep quality.*REF#1210

It should be noted that ashwagandha impacts the Ayurvedic mind-body type called Sadhaka Pitta, which has an effect on body and emotions.*

According to Divya Alter, chef and owner of Ayurvedic restaurant Divya’s Kitchen, “If you are of high Pitta (fiery) constitution… taking ashwagandha alone in tablet or powder form will be too heating; you may feel hot flashes and irritation in your stomach or liver.”*REF#1213

Ayurvedic practitioners recommend combining ashwagandha with cooling herbs, such as Licorice, or mixing ashwagandha with cooling foods, such as ghee, raw sugar, milk, or rice.REF#1214

How Does Ashwagandha Work?

This potent herb works by helping to support the body's natural stress response system. In short, ashwagandha contains compounds known as withanolides, which are naturally-occurring plant steroids. These have been shown to help promote healthy cortisol levels.REF#1220

By reducing these stress hormone levels, some clinical trials have shown that ashwagandha can actually help soothe feelings of stress and anxiety. Of course, this can in turn help promote relaxation and support a balanced mood — but we’ll get more into that below.

For example, one clinical study tested the anxiolytic effects of ashwagandha root extract.REF#1219 This placebo-controlled study included 64 participants that reported a history of chronic stress. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo or an ashwagandha extract for 60 days. 

Participants who received the ashwagandha extract reported more feelings of relaxation compared to those who received the placebo. The ashwagandha also supported overall quality of life and feelings of happiness.

So how does all this work? Ashwagandha is believed to work by helping to balance important neurotransmitter levels in the brain. These include important neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin.REF#1220 Both of these are involved in mood regulation. 

Ashwagandha Uses & Traditional Health Benefits

Ashwagandha has been extensively studied over its millennia of use.

This herb offers support similar to the adaptogens Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Ginseng (both Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius) for a healthy stress response.* Because of this, it is sometimes known as “Indian Ginseng," although unrelated to the Ginseng species.

As we’ve mentioned, ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that can help your body in many ways, including:

  • Adapting to stressful conditions*REF#1212
  • Supporting the nervous system and the endocrine system*
  • Supporting cardiovascular and immune health*REF#1201REF#1202REF#1206REF#1212

Let’s take a look at its traditional health benefits in more detail.

1) Stress and Anxiousness

Cortisol is a stress hormone released from the adrenals. It has evolutionarily helped the body to mobilize a "fight or flight" response to a perceived imminent danger, freeing up resources for a vigorous fight against an intruder or flight from danger.

Cortisol naturally follows a daily rhythm, rising in the morning to help mobilize the body's forces for daily needs and lowering in the evening to allow the body to sleep and perform restorative processes.REF#1201

Between constant deadlines, financial pressures, and a steady stream of negative news, the stress of modern human culture regularly activates the cortisol stress response, which can impact nervous system function.REF#1201REF#1202

Ashwagandha has been shown to promote healthy levels of cortisol and smooth out the body’s stress response cycle.REF#1220

Because stress is an everyday occurrence, helping the body better adapt benefits every bodily system, including the immune, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, as well as the brain, muscles, and joints.*

Healthy cortisol output also supports the adrenal glands, allowing the body to focus on reproductive health naturally.REF#1205

Due to Ashwagandha’s ability to help the body cope with stress in a healthy way, we’ve created an herbal supplement that contains only ashwagandha.*

Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Root is a customer favorite to help those dealing with ongoing stress find balance and embrace tranquility.* All you have to do is take one liquid capsule twice a day.*

And you can rest assured that our products are 100% vegetarian and tested to be free of heavy metals, pesticides, and microbes. Our Liquid Phyto-CapsⓇ offer a concentrated liquid in the convenience of a capsule.

Another way to use ashwagandha for stress support is to take Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health® Daily Support, which is crafted with a synergistic blend of adaptogenic and nervine herbs like ashwagandha, rhodiola, Holy Basil, and schisandra.*

This formula helps sustain healthy energy and stress levels, support adrenal function, and maintain well-being.* It’s perfect for times when you feel stressed, overworked, and overwhelmed.*

2) Nervous System

The nervous system impacts every breath, feeling, decision, and experience. It is vital for our overall health and well-being.

Ashwagandha has been shown to support the structure and function of the nervous system, and it is also considered to be a neurosupportive and nootropic herb.* Nootropic herbs are those that promote healthy cognitive function.*12 

Ashwagandha supports healthy nervous system function by providing antioxidant support and naturally supporting the pathways in the brain for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that's responsible for sustaining calmness and maintaining muscle tone.*REF#1200REF#1205REF#1206

Ashwagandha also supports a calm and stable mood because it helps regulate natural cortisol rhythm, so it has traditionally been used as a supplement for people coping with adrenal fatigue or dysfunction.*

3) Reproductive Health

In the endocrine system, the adrenals play a "starring" role; their functions are necessary for our survival while reproduction is not.

As such, the HPA axis and the stress response are naturally connected to sperm production and fertility in men and hormonal balance and fertility in women.

The body produces cortisol from the same precursors used to make reproductive hormones, and, under stress, the body will preferably produce cortisol instead of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.REF#1205REF#1212

Ashwagandha can assist by helping to maintain already healthy cortisol levels, so the body can free up those resources to be used for reproductive hormones.*

4) Men’s Health

In untrained healthy men performing resistance training for eight weeks, consuming Ashwagandha root showed that it supported healthy muscle strength and recovery.*REF#1211

This may be because ashwagandha promotes healthy levels of creatinine kinase, which reduces the natural muscle damage that happens from exercise and supports muscle recovery.*REF#1211

In men, ashwagandha has also been shown to support a healthy stress response, healthy sperm levels, and normal testosterone levels, as well as sexual function.*REF#1205REF#1211

5) Fitness

Metabolically, ashwagandha seems to have an overall anabolic action, supporting weight gain during the natural growth phase.*

Ashwagandha-fortified milk given to children has been shown to support a healthy weight, as well as healthy total plasma proteins and hemoglobin levels.*REF#1206 It has also been shown to support normal lean body weight and fat-to-muscle ratios.*REF#1208REF#1211

Ashwagandha may also support healthy fat oxidation and support healthy blood glucose and blood lipid levels within already normal, healthy ranges.*REF#1201REF#1208

6) Joint Health

Ashwagandha root has been studied for its support of joint health.* It has been shown in some studies to support occasional joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and discomfort in healthy men and women due to normal wear and tear.*REF#1206REF#1207

This may be because, as shown in human studies, it seems to naturally mitigate levels of C-reactive protein.*REF#1201

If you’re looking for another herb to help you stay active and reduce occasional inflammation due to normal daily wear and tear, turn to Turmeric.* 

7) Sleep

A good night's sleep is a key part of living a healthy life. Known for its grounding and recuperative properties, several studies have shown that ashwagandha supports healthy sleep.REF#1200REF#1201REF#1202REF#1205REF#1208

This is why ashwagandha is included in some of our most popular supplements to support sleep, including Gaia Herbs SleepThru® and Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health® Nightly Restore.*

Sleep Thru promotes restful sleep for occasional sleeplessness with soothing Jujube, Magnolia, and Passionflower.* It also contains ashwagandha to provide adaptogenic support for a healthy stress response.* After all, when you’re stressed, sleep may not come easily.

With even more adaptogens, including Reishi and Cordyceps mushrooms, Adrenal Health® Nightly Restore also nourishes the adrenal glands, which influence the body's sleep patterns, stress response, and more.* Simply take two of our Sleep Thru supplements, and let the drowsiness come to you.

8) Immune Health

Ayurvedic practitioners have long believed that ashwagandha is one of the most powerful herbs for immune system support for young and old alike.*

One animal study found that ashwagandha strengthened the immune systems of mice by promoting an increase in white blood cells.*REF#1218

While more studies are needed to substantiate ashwagandha’s role in immune support in humans, an increase in white blood cells of this type could, theoretically, help humans maintain their health longer.*

9) Heart Health

Heart health is one of the most-asked-about wellness concerns of the 21st century, and many people are looking for natural ways to support their heart.

While more studies are needed to substantiate ashwagandha's benefits for heart health, preliminary research suggests it may offer antioxidant support and other benefits for the heart.* Not to mention, helping the body cope with stress in a healthy way also helps the heart.*

How to Take Ashwagandha

As you can see, ashwagandha is a powerful herb with many potential benefits. The only problem is that it’s not particularly tasty. Unlike delicious culinary herbs like Rosemary or Ginger, which are also used in supplements, ashwagandha isn’t a plant you’ll want to cook with.

Instead, we recommend that you turn to potent herbal supplements.

Supplements With Ashwagandha

The easiest way to take ashwagandha is through a supplement. We’ve mentioned several Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha products throughout this article, including:

Here are some other Gaia Herbs formulas that contain this revered herb.


Thyroid Support

Our Thyroid Support contains a synergistic blend of herbs—including ashwagandha and Schisandra—traditionally known to support healthy metabolic balance.* Available in Liquid Phyto-Caps, Thyroid Support offers a convenient way to help you stay feeling your best.*

Adaptogen Performance Mushrooms & Herbs

If you’re an athlete or a weekend warrior, try Gaia Herbs Adaptogen Performance Mushrooms & Herbs as a way to support healthy energy levels.*

This unique formula contains ashwagandha and Cordyceps to help combat the typical go-go-go lifestyle that makes it easy to become tired and rundown.* As with Thyroid Support, the Liquid Phyto-Caps make it easy to get the ashwagandha you need to keep going.*

Everyday Adaptogen™ Mushrooms & Herbs Powder

If you want to add ashwagandha powder to your balanced diet without taking a capsule, try Gaia Herbs Everyday Adaptogen. The easy-to-mix powder can be added to a smoothie, dairy or non-dairy milk, or any other beverage of your choice.

This combination of six adaptogens, including mushrooms and an energizing blend of herbs, supports the health of physically active individuals and is a simple way to help you maintain peak performance.*

Ashwagandha and the Synergistic Approach

You can take ashwagandha by itself, but most Ayurvedic practitioners recommend using a synergistic approach.

“Synergistic” refers to the interaction or cooperation of two or more substances to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate parts.

So, while you might experience benefits from ashwagandha alone, the synergistic approach offers even more benefits when you take several herbs together.

That’s why most of our ashwagandha products contain complementary herbs such as Cordyceps, Rhodiola, Holy Basil, and Schisandra.

We recommend consulting a certified Ayurvedic practitioner or an herbalist for more details and personal recommendations.

Does Ashwagandha Work Immediately?

How long does ashwagandha take to work? The truth is, this will vary from person to person. For some, the effects may take some time to become noticeable. 

On the other hand, some folks may experience an immediate sense of relaxation or calmness after taking this powerful herb. 

Regardless, the full therapeutic effects of ashwagandha typically require consistent use. It takes time to support the body's stress response system, and it will also take time for your body to adapt and respond to the herb's effects. 

So a little patience and consistency can go a long way, especially if you’re looking to take full advantage of all of ashwagandha’s many benefits. 

Can You Take Too Much Ashwagandha?

For most, ashwagandha is generally considered safe and well-tolerated for healthy adults. But, taking too much of this potent herb can lead to some potential side effects for some. For example, some have experienced gastrointestinal discomforts (e.g., nausea) when taking too much. 

Also, higher doses of ashwagandha may cause headaches or dizziness for some people. In very rare cases, it may interact with certain medications. That is why it is important to consult your healthcare professional for medical advice if you're considering taking ashwagandha. 

Who Should Not Take Ashwagandha?

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid taking ashwagandha. It may also interact with certain medications, so again, it's important to consult your healthcare professional.

Talk to Your Doctor About Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha can interact with other medications you may be taking, so it’s important to talk to your doctor before adding ashwagandha to your diet.*

Additionally, ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family. If you are allergic to other members of the nightshade family—tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, or potatoes—you may potentially be allergic to ashwagandha.

That said, because most ashwagandha supplements are made from the root of the plant rather than the berries, you may be able to tolerate it better.*

Again, be sure to talk to your doctor before adding ashwagandha to your daily wellness routine.

Ashwagandha for Health and Wellness*

As we’ve explored in this article, ashwagandha offers all sorts of potential health benefits like brain and cognitive support, stress support, energy support, immune support, and sleep support.*

You can consume with herbal supplements like Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Root, Adrenal Health® Daily Support, or Golden Milk.

With all that ashwagandha can do for your body, it’s a well-loved herb for health and wellness, and we think you’ll love it, too.* Support your health with the help of Gaia Herbs.


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