Sleep is imperative for good health, yet over 30% of adults report sleeping less than the recommended seven hours per night.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 36% of adults in the U.S. use some type of alternative medicine to assist or treat various ailments, including sleep disorders. One natural remedy used to treat sleep problems is ashwagandha, a plant that is believed to have sleep-inducing properties.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry, is a common herbal medicine used in traditional Ayurveda health practices. It is made from a small evergreen shrub called Withania somnifera that is native to India and Southeast Asia. Ashwagandha is used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to treat a wide variety of conditions, though more evidence is needed to confirm if it is effective and safe.
Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen, a term that describes a group of herbs that are said to protect the body. Though there is limited research available about its effects and mechanisms, preliminary research does suggest ashwagandha might be effective at fighting stress.
According to some, ashwagandha also improves functioning in the endocrine, nervous, and cardiopulmonary systems. It is said to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and to be effective in treating forms of breast cancer as well as anxiety, cognitive impairment, and diabetes. These claims need more scientific evidence to back them up, and scientists are still unraveling exactly how the herb works and whether there could be unknown side effects.
Ashwagandha as a Sleep Aid
Preliminary research has found that ashwagandha may help people fall asleep faster, spend more time asleep, and experience better sleep quality. After taking ashwagandha for six weeks, participants in one actigraphy-based study described their sleep as being 72% better, on average.
Several compounds present in ashwagandha may be responsible for its sleep-promoting effects. Researchers have proposed that the triethylene glycol naturally present in the herb may bring on sleepiness. Other researchers propose that ashwagandha acts on GABA receptors, which are a key part of the sleep-wake circuit. There are likely additional undiscovered compounds that contribute to ashwagandha’s apparent therapeutic effects.
Ashwagandha’s main active ingredients are withanolides, which are believed to carry a host of benefits including the ability to ease stress. Stress has been linked to poorer sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness. If taking ashwagandha before bed helps you relax, this may be another way by which it promotes better sleep.
How to Use Ashwagandha for Sleep
Ashwagandha is available in multiple forms. It comes as a powder, tea, pill, tincture, or gummies. The price can depend on the brand, quantity, and quality. Ashwagandha products may also be mixed with other herbs or vitamins.
To use ashwagandha for sleep, follow the instructions of the particular product you buy. The optimal dosage of ashwagandha is still under debate, and it may differ between supplements. Typical doses used for helping people sleep are generally between 250 milligrams and 600 milligrams. You should not use ashwagandha for more than three consecutive months.
Ashwagandha is considered a supplement, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review supplements on the market for quality and safety. There is a possibility that some ashwagandha products may contain ingredients that are not listed. This makes it important to ensure that you are buying your products from retailers that you trust. It could also help to check with your doctor, as they may have suggestions for reputable retailers.
How Ashwagandha Compares to Other Sleep Aids
There is little to no research directly comparing ashwagandha to other natural, prescribed, or over-the-counter sleep aids. A review comparing 23 herbal remedies for insomnia found that valerian, passionflower, and ashwagandha may be the most promising. However, as with many natural sleep aids, the lack of strong research on ashwagandha makes it difficult to evaluate its effectiveness.
By contrast, prescription sleep medications are regulated by the FDA and require a prescription from a doctor or other medical professional. Over-the-counter sleep aids may be more accessible and possibly more affordable. Whether natural, prescription, or over-the-counter, all sleep aids come with potential side effects.
Finding what works for you might take some trial and error. Talk to your doctor if you are having trouble sleeping. They may be able to recommend sleep hygiene tips, help you treat an underlying sleep disorder like insomnia, or recommend a safe treatment plan that includes natural, alternative, or pharmaceutical sleep aids.
Side Effects of Ashwagandha
Although its long-term safety profile has not been sufficiently studied, ashwagandha may be safe when taken for up to three months. The most common side effects of Ashwagandha are mild and include:
- Upset stomach
Some people may experience less common symptoms, which include:
- Dry mouth
- Cough and congestion
- Blurred vision
- Weight gain
There is some evidence that ashwagandha supplements may cause liver damage. If you experience any side effects, especially symptoms consistent with liver damage such as jaundice or itchy skin, call your doctor immediately.
How to Decide if Ashwagandha Is Right for You
Ashwagandha may be an option for people who are interested in trying alternative remedies for sleep. However, some groups should avoid ashwagandha. These groups include:
- People who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- People with auto-immune diseases
- People who have recently had surgery, or who have an upcoming surgical procedure scheduled
- People who have thyroid disorders
If you fall into any of these categories, talk to your doctor about sleep aids that are safe for you to use. You should also talk to your doctor before taking ashwagandha to ensure it does not interfere with other medications.
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