Does Ashwagandha Really Reduce Anxiety?
Is It An Effective Nootropic Supplement?
Let’s Find Out!
Ashwagandha is one of the most commonly used anxiolytics in the world. You’ll find it in dozens, if not hundreds of natural nootropic supplements, and standalone ashwagandha extracts have been used to combat anxiety for a long time now. It has been a staple of Ayuverdic medicine for centuries, possibly millennia. Today, it enjoys renewed popularity in India, and a growing user base around the world.
But what does this plant actually have to offer?
We know that Ayuverdic medicine is far from reliable. There are lots of things that it claims which simply aren’t true; lots of substances that it relies on which don’t actually do anything. That’s why in the west it is referred to as “alternative medicine” instead of just “medicine”.
Is ashwagandha another dud herb used for centuries for no good reason?
Or is it one of the handful of substances discovered by Ayuverdic sages and rightly utilized for centuries to help with mood, anxiety, focus, and sleep?
There’s really only one way to find out. Below, I will go through the evidence to find out if ashwagandha really works as an anxiolytic. I’ll discuss the major studies cited in support of its use, and any trials showing that it’s bogus. I will lay out the main, known side effects, before moving on to talk about alternatives. In the end, I’ll say whether I think this stuff should be in your nootropic stack, or whether there are better things for the natural treatment of anxiety.
If you have any questions, please post them in the comments section at the end and I’ll get back to you asap.
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that ashwagandha is a very effective substance for reducing stress and anxiety.
I’ll now run through some of the main trials showing good results from ashwagandha administration.
Check out this clinical trial, first published in 2000 in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, in which participants were either given a potent ashwagandha extract or placebo. The participants were suffering with anxiety disorder. Researchers found that significantly more participants in the extract group (88.2%) showed improved symptoms and reduced anxiety than the placebo group (50%).
Another trial worth looking at is this one, published back in 2009. Here, researchers sought to evaluate the effectiveness of naturopathic care for anxiety, as compared to a standard psychotherapy intervention.
The naturopathic care (NC) in question involved a change in diet, deep breathing exercise instruction, a standard multivitamin, and an ashwagandha supplement.
The psychotherapy (PT) group received counselling, the same deep breathing exercise instruction as the naturopathic group, and a placebo.
The results of this trial were pretty incredible, and they are worth quoting in entirety:
“Seventy-five participants (93%) were followed for 8 or more weeks on the trial. Final BAI scores decreased by 56.5% (p<0.0001) in the NC group and 30.5% (p<0.0001) in the PT group. BAI group scores were significantly decreased in the NC group compared to PT group (p = 0.003). Significant differences between groups were also observed in mental health, concentration, fatigue, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life with the NC group exhibiting greater clinical benefit. No serious adverse reactions were observed in either group.”
It’s important to note that both the NC and PT groups showed significant improvements from baseline. Psychotherapy worked. The naturopathic care also clearly worked.
The problem is, we can’t say whether it was the ashwagandha, the deep breathing exercises, or the dietary interventions which caused the biggest improvements in the NC group. It could be that regular deep breathing exercises are a potent way to reduce anxiety – as powerful as standard therapy.
But this is definitely a fascinating study, and it does mean that we should do much more research into the efficacy of ashwagandha as an anxiolytic.
There’s one final study worth looking at before we move on is this one.
Published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine in 2012, this clinical trial looked at the safety and effects of giving a full-spectrum ashwagandha extract to adults who were under significant levels of stress.
Once again, I’ll quote the results in full:
“The treatment group that was given the high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract exhibited a significant reduction (P<0.0001) in scores on all the stress-assessment scales on Day 60, relative to the placebo group. The serum cortisol levels were substantially reduced (P=0.0006) in the Ashwagandha group, relative to the placebo group. The adverse effects were mild in nature and were comparable in both the groups. No serious adverse events were reported.”
The basic finding is that ashwagandha reliably reduces feelings of anxiety in adults that are under acute stress.
But the much more interesting finding in my opinion is that a full spectrum ashwagandha extract was able to significantly lower cortisol levels. Or more accurately, taking ashwagandha was correlated with significantly lower cortisol levels.
We now have a tentative mechanistic explanation for how ashwagandha works. That makes the other studies much more convincing, at least in my opinion. Correlation is one thing; being able to convincingly explain that correlation is quite another.
I therefore partly share the conclusions drawn by the researchers of the above paper: “The findings of this study suggest that a high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
I say partly because I am not yet 100% convinced. For me to be completely convinced of ashwagandha’s efficacy, I need to see much broader, more in-depth studies and a more robust mechanistic explanation of its action.
Different ‘Strains’? – Which Ashwagandha Is Best?
You’ll notice that different nootropic supplements list different forms of ashwagandha.
Some simply list “ashwagandha”. This often means a whole plant powder, which is never ideal.
Others show “ashwagandha extract” with a given potency.
You’ll notice that a small number, however, utilize something called KSM-66.
This is a branded form of ashwagandha manufactured by a company called Ixoreal Biomed. Here is their description of what makes KSM-66 special:
As you can see, the reason people use KSM-66 instead of regular ashwagandha extracts is that it is supposedly stronger, more concentrated, and pure.
It claims to be made without alcohol or other potentially irritable agents, and according tot he description above, it provides more than 5% anolides (as observed by High Performance Liquid Chromatography).
So is there anything to this?
I think so!
If you’re concerned about purity, potency, and value for money, then it’s always worth paying a little more to get a superior product. I suspect that the talk about the extraction process being ultra pure is a bit of exaggeration and PR. But it’s definitely preferable to have an explicitly stated extract potency – and a pure, standardized form – to work with.
If you’re looking for a stack containing ashwagandha, or you want to use a standalone ashwagandha supplement, then it’s probably worth using KSM-66 or another branded, standardized extract.
How Does It Compare To Other Anxiolytics?
Does ashwagandha work?
It really seems like it does.
Several robust, conclusive scientific studies and clinical trials have shown that people supplementing with ashwagandha tend to exhibit significantly reduced anxiety than baseline or placebo. We also have a mechanistic explanation for how ashwagandha might work; through the reduction of cortisol levels.
But the simple fact that it works isn’t enough for us to recommend using it.
For it to be recommended by this site, we need to compare how well it works to the alternatives.
Or to put that another way, how well does it compare to other anxiolytics?
If you’re talking anxiety reduction and stress tolerance, then we need to talk about rhodiola rosea.
This stuff is probably the best anxiolytic in existence if your main goal is reducing stress to maximize cognitive function.
Rhodiola rosea has been studied extensively for its ability to support cognition during times of acute stress, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.
I’d actually go as far as to say that no substance shows as much promise as a specific counter to stress-induced fatigue and cognitive impairment as rhodiola rosea.
For instance, take a look at this trial, in which participants suffering with serious stress-related fatigue were given either a rhodiola rosea extract or a placebo. The participants’ mental capacity was tested according to the fatigue index at regular intervals.
The results of the trial were as follows: “A statistically significant improvement in these tests was observed in the treatment group (RRE) during the first two weeks period. No side-effects were reported for either treatment noted. These results suggest that RRE can reduce general fatigue under certain stressful conditions.”
If you have a busy, stressful job, then you might find this study even more interesting.
Here, researchers investigated the effectiveness of rhodiola rosea as a cognitive enhancer and energy-booster among people with symptoms of work related stress. Interestingly, both work and social performance were measured using a range of questionnaires, including Numerical Analogue Scales of Subjective Stress Symptoms, the Perceived Stress Questionnaire, the Multidimensional Fatigue Inventory 20, the Numbers Connecting Test, and the Sheehan Disability Scale.
The conclusions reached by the paper’s authors are pretty convincing: “Rhodiola rosea extract WS® 1375 was safe and generally well tolerated. Adverse events were mostly of mild intensity and no serious adverse events were reported. Rhodiola extract at a dose of 200 mg twice daily for 4 weeks is safe and effective in improving life-stress symptoms to a clinically relevant degree.”
Not only did rhodiola rosea ameliorate the symptoms of stress, anxiety and fatigue, but it promoted multiple different aspects of cognitive function.
Merely lowering anxiety is sufficient to see an increase in focus and subjective well-being, but the results obtained through rhodiola rosea administration are significant; they are above and beyond what we would expect from a simple reduction in stress.
Does ashwagandha have these same nootropic effects?
Is it as effective in terms of enhancing work performance as rhodiola rosea?
In my opinion, and in the opinion of this site’s editorial staff, the answer is a resounding “no”.
Ashwagandha seems to be extremely effective at reducing subjective feelings of anxiety, attenuating the worst symptoms of stress, and reducing some of the physical effects of anxiety. It also seems to be quite an effective sleep aid.
But it does not have the same powerful nootropic effects as rhodiola rosea. The studies don’t mention any at least. Perhaps if more trials were done looking at these specific effects, it’d be a different story. But until that happens, I have to conclude that in terms of enhancing work performance, productivity, and cognition, rhodiola rosea beats ashwagandha hands down.
Final Verdict – Ashwagandha – Should You Use It?
This very much depends on what you want to achieve.
If you’re looking for a natural sleep aid, or something natural to help you during a particularly stressful period, then ashwagandha might be a good option. There’s a lot of evidence that it works, not to mention the troves of anecdotal data from millennia of use in India. It seems to be well-tolerated and side-effect free.
However, if your main goal is enhancing productivity and optimizing cognitive performance through anxiety reduction, then rhodiola rosea is probably a better option. It has been studied for this specific effect a lot more than ashwagandha has, so it’s just a more reliable way to go.
Put simply, people wanting natural anxiety reduction should go for ashwagandha.
Nootropic enthusiasts are probably better going for rhodiola rosea, at least until more research is done into the nootropic properties of ashwagandha.