General

Ashwagandha Benefits, Risks, and Recipe Ideas

Ashwagandha Benefits, Risks, and Recipe Ideas

If you have your finger on the pulse of the wellness world, you’ve likely heard about ashwagandha root, an adaptogenic herb. The powdered form has become especially popular, often appearing in drinks and desserts alike. Of course, you might be interested in finding out what the herb has to offer before giving it a try. Ahead, get the lowdown on several ashwagandha benefits and find out how to use it at home.



What Is Ashwagandha?

Also known as Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is a small shrub that grows in Southeast Asia and India. It’s part of the nightshade family, which includes produce such as potatoes and tomatoes. According to Prajakta Apte, R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Right Nutrition Works, ashwagandha — specifically, its roots and orange-red fruit — has been used as a supplement for hundreds of years, most notably in Ayurveda, the ancient medicine system in India. Traditionally, ashwagandha root is dried and crushed into a powder, which can be added to foods or consumed as a supplement.



Ashwagandha Nutrition

In case you missed it above, ashwagandha is considered to be an adaptogen. An adaptogen is a substance (in this case, an herb) that helps your body respond and adapt to stressors (think: fatigue and illness), according to Maddie Pasquariello, M.S., R.D.N. When it comes to ashwagandha, the adaptogenic properties are associated with its high content of antioxidants, including flavonoids and phenolics, according to an article in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences. In fact, its main chemical compound — called withanolide — also has antioxidant properties, and is associated with the many health benefits of ashwagandha.


Here’s the nutritional profile for one teaspoon (about 3 grams) of ashwagandha powder, according to the United States Department of Agriculture:


  • 12 calories
  • 0 grams protein
  • <1 gram fat
  • 2 grams carbohydrate
  • < 1 gram fiber
  • 0 grams sugar



Health Benefits of Ashwagandha

As noted, ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. But currently, there isn’t a lot of scientific research on ashwagandha root and ashwagandha supplement benefits in humans, and the available data is somewhat inconclusive, says Pasquariello. Experts are still learning about the herb’s effects on the body, but here’s what they’ve determined about ashwagandha benefits so far.


May Lower Risk of Chronic Disease

As mentioned, ashwagandha root is particularly high in antioxidants such as withanolides, flavonoids, and phenolics. This is noteworthy because antioxidants fight free radicals, aka molecules that can damage your cells if they build up in your body, says Apte. This damage can lead to oxidative stress and increase your risk of chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, notes Apte. However, antioxidants — like the withanolides in ashwagandha — can neutralize these free radicals, ultimately rendering them harmless and protecting your cells.


Manages Stress Levels

As it turns out, lavender and chamomile aren’t the only stress-relieving plants. Ashwagandha is thought to decrease levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”), therefore soothing the stress response of the body, says Pasquariello. It may work by regulating the activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, or the series of interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, adrenal gland that controls our stress response, according to a 2019 article in the journal Medicine. Another stress-related mechanism is believed to involve ashwagandholine, a compound in ashwagandha, which has a calming effect on the central nervous system, says Pasquariello.


Promotes High-Quality Sleep

If you’re looking for an all-natural way to get a better night’s sleep you’ll want in on the ashwagandha root benefits. Ashwagandha can improve your body’s ability to cope with stress, potentially making it easier to snooze, as Apte explains. Case in point: ashwagandha root extract can help improve sleep quality and quantity (i.e., the number of hours spent sleeping) in folks with insomnia, according to a scientific review published in the journal Plos One. Ashwagandha root extract can also decrease sleep onset latency, or the time it takes to fall asleep after lying down and shutting off the light, according to a study published in the journal Cureus.


Supports Immune Function

Another ashwagandha benefit involves your immune system, says Pasquariello. “Ashwagandha is also thought to enhance the activity of bone marrow, potentially stimulating the production of white blood cells,” explains Pasquariello. (ICYDK, white blood cells are immune system cells that attack disease-causing germs, like bacteria and viruses.) The herb may also enhance the action of cytokines, which are proteins that control immune responses, she adds.


Promotes Athletic Performance

Calling all athletes! The adaptogenic properties of ashwagandha may bolster your physical performance too. The herb is thought to increase VO2 max, aka your maximum possible oxygen uptake, making it easier for your body to deliver more oxygen (i.e., fuel) to your muscles, according to Pasquariello. VO2 max is often regarded as a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness. These effects may be related to ashwagandha’s antioxidant and adaptogenic properties, which work by enhancing your physiological adaptation to training, according to Pasquariello. “Finally, ashwagandha taken over longer periods of time is thought to help improve one’s sleep, which could promote better muscle regeneration and help [you] feel more restored and energized,” she adds. (Related: What Are Adaptogens and Can They Help Power Up Your Workouts?)



Potential Risks of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is considered to be “generally safe,” meaning it doesn’t commonly spark side effects, and if they do occur, they’re usually associated with large doses, and involve gastrointestinal issues, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, and/or nausea, according to LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury. That being said, when taking ashwagandha in any form, it’s important to follow the directions on the packaging. It’s also a good idea to chat with your doc or dietitian before consuming new supplements of any kind. They can confirm if there’s a risk for adverse side effects between ashwagandha and other supplements or medications you’re taking, says Pasquariell.



How to Buy and Use Ashwagandha

Since ashwagandha is mainly used as a supplement, you’ll often find it as capsules, tablets, liquid extracts, dried roots, or powders, which are designed to be mixed into beverages, according to Pasquariello. As for fresh ashwagandha root? It’s rare in the U.S., though it’s not impossible to find, explains Richard LaMarita, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. You might be able to buy it at specialty health shops, Indian or Southeast Asian grocery stores, or farmer’s markets, depending on your region.


Ashwagandha capsules, tablets, and liquid extracts are treated like any other supplement. In other words, they’re consumed in addition to meals, not as a main ingredient (like, say, vegetables or grains). The ideal dosage also varies from person to person, though the general recommendation is 500 to 600 milligrams per day, says Apte. When in doubt, follow the directions on the packaging, and again, talk to your health care provider. Meanwhile, the powdered form can be easily incorporated into various drinks, including smoothies, coffee, tea, juice, or even just hot water, explains Pasquariello. Another option is to mix powdered ashwagandha root with ghee, honey, and warm water or milk, which is the traditional preparation, says Apte. You also find ashwagandha in prepared products, such as drinks. (Related: Adaptogen Drinks to Sip On for More Energy and Less Stress)


Regardless of the form you choose, be sure to pick a product from a reputable retailer and company, just as you would with any other supplement or food. It’s possible for herbal products to be mislabeled or adulterated, potentially increasing the risk of serious side effects and liver problems.



How to Use Dried or Powdered Ashwagandha

If taking pills or extracts isn’t your thing, you can reap the various ashwagandha health benefits by adding the powder to your recipes. But take note: Ashwagandha has a potent and pungent odor, so it might take some getting used to, says LaMarita. It also has a bitter and earthy flavor, so it’s ideal for balancing out sweet dishes and spicy notes, says Apte. Here are a few simple ways to add dried or powdered ashwagandha to your rotation:


In desserts. Try mixing powdered ashwagandha into your favorite sweet desserts, recommends Apte. About one tablespoon of ashwagandha root powder will do the trick, as suggested in recipes such as these adaptogenic chocolate truffles from Nourished with Tish.


In smoothies. Powdered ashwagandha can be blended into smoothies, as Pasquariello mentioned. The earthy flavor works especially well with warming ingredients, such as turmeric or chocolate, but you can also keep it simple by adding 1/2 to 1 teaspoon to a banana smoothie.


On salads and soups. Another way to use ashwagandha powder is to sprinkle it on salads and soups. Again, try pairing it with recipes with spicy, earthy, or comforting preparations, such as a red lentil soup.


As a tea. If you’re able to find dried ashwagandha root, you can use it to make an earthy tea. “Boil one teaspoon of dried root in one cup of water or milk [of your choice], then simmer for 20 to 35 minutes,” explains LaMarita. For even more flavor, try adding cinnamon, ginger, ghee, honey, and/or date sugar, he suggests. “You can also try it simmered with chaga or reishi mushroom powder for a more savory drink,” adds LaMarita.