The first time I heard about ashwagandha was when Gwyneth Paltrow’s daily smoothie broke the internet. Spending close to $200 on ingredients made me cringe, but the thought of getting Gwyneth’s glow piqued my interest, as did the notion that this magical smoothie could help me get her toned physique too. (It didn’t.)
I skimmed the list of ingredients and nearly went cross-eyed. Coconut oil and almond butter I knew, but the dusts and exotic tinctures I did not—and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. As someone who loves drinking the wellness Kool-Aid—golden milks, probiotic tonics, collagen boosters, butter coffees, you name it—I was surprised to find myself skeptical and unenthused. Perhaps it was the media backlash from the recipe release (haters gonna hate), or perhaps it was that I was sick of investing in cure-all ingredients that did seemingly nothing aside from eat my savings account and momentarily boost my sense of self-worth.
Within minutes, I’d given up on the Goop life and forgotten all about ashwagandha. But then it started haunting me.
First it came up at a dinner with health-minded friends, then at a yoga workshop, then in my Instagram feed, and then I got this text: “Do you like ashwagandha? It’s so disgusting, but I’m obsessed with it.” Upon reading it, my face wrinkled up in equal parts concern and alarm—and, to be honest, a bit of disgust too. What the heck was it about this ashwa-what?
WTH Is Ashwagandha?
Someone wise once said, “Don’t knock it till you try it.” So I decided to give ashwagandha a chance and do some digging (a.k.a. research). Here’s the need-to-know:
- Ashwaghanda is an herb believed to offer rejuvenating properties that promote physical and emotional well-being and longevity (maybe why it’s commonly referred to as “Indian ginseng”).
- It means "horse smell"—literally. It’s a combination of the Sanskrit words ashva (meaning "horse") and gandha (meaning "smell"). So yes, it’s named for its horse-like smell (yummy) but also for the strength of the herb, which is akin to a stallion.
- Don’t worry: Despite the name, you don’t have to swallow horse-size pills. Instead, it’s often taken in powder form, which looks like cinnamon. If only it tasted like cinnamon...
- It’s an adaptogen. A what? If you had to guess, you’d probably assume the word is related to adapt. Bingo. An adaptogen is believed to help the body adapt to stress and to exert a normalizing effect on bodily processes. To put it simply: If something feels out of whack, adaptogens might help. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Panossian A, Wikman G. Current clinical pharmacology, 2009, Sep.;4(3):2212-3938.
- While, yes, it is super trendy, it’s hardly new. The herb has been used for thousands of years to treat stress, increase energy, and improve focus. Steroidal lactones from Withania somnifera, an ancient plant for novel medicine. Mirjalili MH, Moyano E, Bonfill M. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 2009, Jul.;14(7):1420-3049.
Why Do People Take It?
When I asked my friend why she loved ashwagandha, she didn’t respond. A few hours later she sent me a link that claims it’s “an excellent tonic for immune health, sexual vitality, and harmonized mood.” When I asked if it worked, she said yes. When I asked how long she’d been taking it, she said she’d only tried it once. Hrmph.
Unsatisfied, I took my search elsewhere. I asked everyone who seemed remotely interested in health and even strangers I met at smoothie shops. The response from most was the same: They didn’t really know! But they heard it was awesome.
I wish I was surprised, but more often than not, health trends explode with the majority of consumers knowing little to nothing about what they’re imbibing—except that it’s “awesome.” And I’m no different. My cupboard contains several untouched superfoods and supertonics. I can tell you what I think they’re good for, but the honest truth is I don’t really know and can’t remember why I bought them in the first place.
Fortunately, I have a trusted advisor who's always there to help when I’m in need: the internet. A quick search for “the benefits of ashwagandha” will lead you into a treasure trove of supposed benefits. It boosts immunity, improves stamina, promotes mental clarity, prevents aging, treats fertility, lowers cholesterol… the list goes on and on and on some more. I’m honestly surprised that when you Google “miracle pill” and “secret to world peace," ashwagandha isn’t the first result. Because according to said internet, it can even treat cancer.
But wait one second before throwing horse powder into your daily routine. Because as much as I love me some internet, health fads are often just that: fads. Let’s talk science.
The Benefits, According to Science
Unlike many trendy herbs and tinctures, ashwagandha (known as Withania somnifera in the science world) seems to actually live up to the hype. Here are some of its purported powers:
- Let it go, let it go: It may help the body cope with stress, boost immunity, and improve focus and mental clarity.
- Bye bye bye: Studies show ashwaghanda may help reduce the signs of aging.
- He's going the distance: When scientists tested the swimming performance of adult rats, the rats who were given ashwagandha swam twice as long as those who weren’t, proving the herb may help increase stamina.
- Ooo baby baby: Ashwagandha is used to treat fertility problems in men and to increase sexual desire in women—and may help balance hormones overall.
- Beat it: It may help treat adrenal fatigue and fight diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer’s, Huntington's, arthritis, diabetes, and hypertension.
- Hit me with your best shot: Some even use it topically to heal wounds, backaches, and paralysis, while others claim it can reduce depression and brain cell degeneration, stabilize blood sugar, decrease inflammation, lower cholesterol, and help prevent and treat cancer.
I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. And I’m definitely not going to tell you to start guzzling horse tonics and trust in a single herb. But I am saying I was wrong: Ashwagandha is pretty darn awesome—and might just live up to its reputation. Since taking it, I’ve been sleeping like a champ (even with a hyperactive puppy in the bed), my menstrual cramps have subsided (glory hallelujah), and I’ve reconnected with the laid-back California vibe I came to New York with (so long, stress case).
That said, it also lives up to its flavor reputation—and a rather unpleasant one at that. To make it a bit tastier, try adding a teaspoon to morning matchas, coffees, or smoothies or nighttime golden milks and teas. If you’re feeling extra bold and are already on the apple cider vinegar train, try mixing a few droplets of liquid ashwagandha with two tablespoons of ACV and 8 ounces of water. Chug; don’t sip. It may not go down smoothly at first, but if it’s really a medicinal miracle like some of these studies claim, then it may be worth adapting to its funky flavor.