Featured: What Is Ashwagandha Root, the Chill-Out Adaptogen in Everyone's Supplement Stash?

Ashwagandha adaptogens Healthyish Rachelle Robinett

"It’s our job to track wellness trends, hunting for the truth about activated charcoal or the healing potential of under-the-radar cannabis terpenes. But sometimes interest is so obvious, it would be impossible not to notice it. This is the case with adaptogenic herbs, and most notably with ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha root is undeniably the most prolific adaptogen, thought to strengthen the body’s ability to cope with stress. Who wouldn’t want that? Unsurprisingly, our shelves overfloweth with ashwagandha products. Still, all-time interest doesn’t always translate into knowledge. What exactly does ashwagandha do, and how do we ensure we’re taking it right? Read on and chill out.

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are often called “ancient herbs,” but the idea of an "adaptogen" is fairly modern. Adaptogenic plants like ashwagandha and rodhiola have been used for hundreds of years around the world, but the term itself was coined by Soviet toxicologist N. V. Lazarev in 1947. He aimed to describe substances with “non-specific” resistance to adverse influences like stress—in other words, plants that keep us calm. For more information on adaptogens, check out our primer here.

Okay, what is ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that’s a member of the nightshade family, and thus a distant cousin to tomatoes and eggplants. It also goes by Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, and winter cherry. Herbal medicine commonly uses gnarled ashwagandha root, which is turned into powders, tinctures, and even added to moon milk for an added dose of doze.

what does ashwagandha do

How should I take it?

If you do decide to try ashwagandha, start out by looking for a good product. Tinctures and capsules make it easy to ensure you take the right dose regularly, but Robinett recommends using powdered ashwagandha root if you can. “I like to stay as close to the whole form as possible,” she says. “When taking pills we start to lose the relationship with the plant—we don’t know what it tastes like, we don’t know what color it is, or what it smells like.” Ashwagandha products can be found online, at herbal medicine stores, and even at some farmers' markets. (For New Yorkers, Robinett recommends buying from herbalist Grace Galanti of Furnace Creek Farms at various greenmarkets.)

Robinett recommends taking half a teaspoon of powdered ashwagandha root daily, but it’s important to check any product’s packaging as concentrations can vary. Like multivitamins or CBD, it’s important to take measured doses of ashwagandha regularly for long periods of time. “When you take it in a tea here and there, it’s not doing the things you think it’s doing. That’s more for fun,” says Dr. Amy Shah, MD. “I think that if you really want to have noticeable benefit you would take it every day for about three months.”

Over time, you should expect to feel changes like an increase in calm, extra energy, or bolstered endurance. Effects can vary, and increase over time. “[Ashwagandha] isn't meant to be used as a spot treatment, it’s meant to be used consistently and regularly,” says Robinett. “Give it a long runway. People don’t notice change until something drastic happens in their life or day they realize they responded it a more tranquil manner than they might have otherwise.”

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Truth About Adaptogens | Rachelle for The Thirlby

Truth About Adaptogens | Rachelle for The Thirlby

I am so glad to spend time clarifying outlandish marketing claims, debunking health myths, and taking apart wellness trends. (See, my story on wellness as a luxury good.) Not that the popularity isn’t great; it’s introducing more people to better wellbeing after all. But, when it comes to our health, trends can be dangerous, distracting, or detrimental to the cause. So it’s especially important to understand why we’re following them.

As for adaptogens, I see them popularly consumed but with a limited understanding of why or how to properly do so, aside from the notion that these herbs help our bodies adapt to stress. And that is only partially true. Regularly, I see folks spending more money on these supplements than on vegetables and consuming higher doses. (Btw, I always recommend vegetables before herbs.)