A doctor’s opinion on the viral health trend.
Liquid chlorophyll, parasite cleansing and sea moss — it’s been a weird time for wellness trends in 2023. The latest among these is ashwagandha, an ancient herb that’s recently been given props on TikTok (with the hashtag #ashwagandha having gained over one billion views on the app) thanks to its apparent stress and anxiety busting benefits.
What is the herb, you might wonder? And in a world where anyone can share medicinal advice at the touch of a button — sometimes with little or no medical background — is it really safe? Below, two GP’s weigh in on the trend.
Should people be sharing supplement suggestions on TikTok?
Social media platforms, including the likes of TikTok, have become hubs for supplement recommendations and other health trends. Here, one user suggests a scoop of magnesium powder is all you need to battle period pain and acne — but is supplementing really that simple? Have we been overlooking a simple hack that could seemingly eliminate our anxiety without the need of prescribed medicines?
“While it’s great that people are showing interest in their health, and that platforms like TikTok have raised awareness about what may be possible, it’s crucial to approach supplement suggestions with caution,” says Dr Patel. “Not all advice is backed by science, and blindly following trends can be risky. Verifying information and consulting professionals are key steps to ensuring safety.”
There’s certainly no science to suggest magnesium cures acne — which is best treated by a dermatologist or doctor — but for those with a magnesium deficiency, there is some research to suggest it can help due to its anti-inflammatory and hormone-balance properties. So, what about ashwagandha and anxiety? Should supplements, in general, be more of a priority in our health routines?
What is ashwagandha?
According to GP, sleep and longevity expert Dr Patel, ashwagandha (also known as withania somnifera or Indian ginseng) is an ancient herb. This evergreen shrub can be found growing in India, the Middle East and Africa. “In Sanskrit, ashva means ‘horse’ and gandha means ‘smell’,” says Dr Patel, “It’s said to confer the strength and virility of a horse.
“Various parts of the plant are used, but the most common supplemental form is an extract of its roots. Some believe it’s an adaptogen , meaning it enhances the body’s adaptability to stress.”
What are the main benefits of ashwagandha?
“Ashwagandha is incredibly versatile,” explains Dr Patel. “Its main uses revolve around stress reduction, improving mood and enhancing overall wellbeing. Scientific studies suggest it lowers cortisol levels (the stress hormone), but its effects on hormones are not limited to cortisol.
“Preliminary evidence suggests ashwagandha root extract increases testosterone levels in men when taken over three to six months. Improvements in oestrogen, luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone are also optimised with better sexual function and improved fertility. It also helps promote better sleep, with increased total sleep time and sleep quality.”
@_doctorz Still much to learn about its use. Data is promising though! Speak with your doctor before starting any supplements 🤓. #medicine #doctor #ashwagandha #supplements ♬ original sound – Doctor Z
Is ashwagandha safe for people to take?
“Ashwaganda is generally considered to be safe and people have been taking it for several thousands of years. If you have a medical condition, are taking regular medications or are pregnant or breastfeeding, however, it’s best to seek advice from your GP before taking this – or any supplement in fact,” says Claire Merrifield, GP and Medical Director at Selph.
How about people taking it for low mood or anxiety?
“Taking ashwagandha because they say all of your emotions and stress will go away,” one user writes on TikTok. And while that sounds too be good to be true, the supplement can indeed have a positive effect on low mood and anxiety, explains Dr Patel — but it certainly isn’t a cure.
“Ashwagandha has shown promise in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and improving mood. Research indicates it may act as a natural anxiolytic [anxiety reducing drug], aiding in stress management and potentially reducing symptoms of depression,” she explains.
Will ashwagandha turn my emotions off completely?
Among the TikTok videos on ashwagandha, you’ll find some creators sharing negative experiences with the supplement, stating that it has made them feel numb or ‘like their emotions have been shut off’ — a similar side effect which has been reported by those taking certain prescribed antidepressants.
“Of the studies that have looked at the effects of ashwagandha, I’m not aware of any that have reported feeling disconnection as a side effect. Some people may feel drowsy after taking it, and it’s possible that this feeling is similar to a sense of disconnection,” explains Dr Merrifield.
“It’s important to remember that everyone reacts differently to different medications and supplements. What might work well for one individual, can have a different effect completely on someone else.” Dr Merrifield goes on to explain that if someone is having unwanted symptoms following the use of ashwagandha, it’s always best to discontinue use and seek advice from a GP.
What dosage should be taken?
As with any supplement, finding the balance between the benefits and the risks when taking a supplement is essential. According to Dr Patel, in most people, the potential benefits of taking ashwagandha, particularly for managing stress, anxiety and overall health, may outweigh the risks, especially when used under professional guidance and in appropriate doses.
“Studies on ashwagandha have used daily dosages ranging from 120-5,000mg of a root extract. The most common dosing protocol is 600mg daily, divided into two doses, with one taken in the morning with breakfast and the other in the evening. In human trials, reduced anxiety has been observed with doses starting at just 300mg. For general stress reduction that hasn’t reached the point of anxiety, 300-600 mg daily appears to be sufficient,” says Dr Patel, before adding: “Research suggests that 600mg daily is superior to lower doses for improving sleep.”
However, Dr Patel tells me there’s still a lot we don’t know about it. “It’s unknown if ashwagandha loses its potency with daily long-term usage. It’s also unknown if taking breaks from ashwagandha or taking it every other day prolongs [or reduces] its effect.
“With my clients, I like to test individual cortisol levels through the day and tailor the timing of ashwagandha to levels of cortisol with intermittent use for stress and more regular use for anxiety.”