Understanding Ashwagandha Allergies
and Side Effects
In Ayurvedic medicine, the world’s oldest system of holistic medicine, ashwagandha remains a popular and often used herb. Also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, it belongs to an elite class of herbs known as a rasayana, which according to Eastern cultures signifies that the herb has a greater ability to promote vitality and longevity when compared to other plants.
Man cultures revere and have used Ashwagandha for ages, but is that enough to trust that it’s safe? Many people want to know what they should expect before using the herb, as introducing something new into our body may caused any number of reactions. There is no exact answer for how any one’s body will react because each person is different. Age, gender, pregnancy, and an assortment of health maladies may affect how you react to the herb.
While some plants are known to cause bad reactions, there are very few side effects associated with ashwagandha. However, any time you introduce anything into your diet with the goal of provoking a medicinal response, use caution and recognize when you need to seek professional help.
More About Ashwagandha
Descriptions of ashwagandha can be found in ancient texts dating back centuries. A hardy evergreen shrub that originates in India, parts of the Middle East, and northern Africa, ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse” in Sanskrit, which refers to the odor of its roots and its reputation for giving those who ingest it the vigor and strength of a stallion. Its leaves, flowers, seeds, and roots have been used medicinally for more than 3,000 years. Practitioners of alternative systems of medicine use ashwagandha in tonics to help and address physical and mental ailments ranging from skin infections, rheumatism, and constipation to nervous breakdowns, exhaustion, and sleeplessness.
The mysticism of the herb through the ages has prompted modern-day researchers to explore its potential medicinal properties. While studies are limited and evidence is insufficient to back the myriad of claims about what ashwagandha can do, scientists have found that it “appears to exert a positive influence on the endocrine, cardiopulmonary, and central nervous systems,” according to a study in the Alternative Medicine Review.
Not only does ashwagandha provides antioxidants that support immune health, but it also contains compounds known as adaptogens, which are natural substances that support the body’s adaptive response to feelings of stress and frustration. These adaptions may even provide support for hair health.
Advocates of ashwagandha believe that combining the herb with other healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as eating right, staying active, and getting enough rest, can help not only enhance resilience to stress and its symptoms, but also head off some of the health problems associated with it. They like that ashwagandha seems to lack the toxicity of much of the medication prescribed for stress-induced disorders. But the herb is not without side effects. Consuming too much ashwagandha at once has been known to cause stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting.
While there are few established dosage guidelines for ashwagandha, experts generally suggest small doses of just 1–2 teaspoons of the powder; 3–6 grams of the dried root; or 450–2,000 milligrams of the capsule supplement daily. Ashwagandha has a bitter taste, so it’s best to ingest with food and start with smaller amounts before working your way up to a full dose.
When to Avoid Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is generally considered to be safe when taken orally in moderate doses, but it’s not for everyone. Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha can pose risks for people with certain health issues. Here are some situations where you may want to steer clear of ashwagandha:
- If you have allergies or food sensitivities - People with an intolerance to nightshade plants like tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes, which are related to ashwagandha, may have trouble digesting them completely, which can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is possible for some people to experience allergic reactions, such as skin rashes, itchiness, chest pain, and difficulty breathing, from consuming ashwagandha. Nightshade allergies are rare, but those who have them should always avoid ashwagandha.
- If you are pregnant - Pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha since preliminary studies show that overconsumption may affect hormone levels in the body and cause spasmolytic activity in the uterus that can result in early delivery and possible miscarriage. Not enough is known about the effects of taking ashwagandha during breastfeeding, so new mothers should abstain from using it as well.
- If you have gastrointestinal issues - Ashwagandha has been shown to irritate the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, so people with stomach ulcers should steer clear of it.
- If you have an autoimmune disorder - Ashwagandha has properties that may activate the immune system and exacerbate symptoms of autoimmune disorders such as joint pain.
- If you have an upcoming surgery scheduled - Preliminary studies have shown that ashwagandha may be capable of slowing down the activity of neurons that transmit messages between the central nervous system and the brain. Because anesthesia and other medications given to patients during and after surgery could enhance this effect, medical experts suggest discontinuing the use of ashwagandha at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery.
Take medication for a chronic health issue? You’ll also want to be cautious with ashwagandha because it can interact with prescription drugs. A few of examples include:
- Medications that lower blood sugar - Ashwagandha can interfere with drugs that help control blood glucose and possibly cause blood sugar levels to drop too low. If you take any of these drugs with ashwagandha, monitor your blood sugar closely and ask your doctor if your medication should be adjusted.
- Medications that lower blood pressure - Ashwagandha may also interfere with medication that regulates blood pressure, possibly causing blood pressure levels to bottom out.
- Immunosuppressants - Ashwagandha contains free radical scavenging antioxidants and other properties that stimulate the immune system. So taking the herb with corticosteroids and other drugs that suppress the immune system may weaken the effects of the drugs.
- Sedatives - Lab studies have shown that ashwagandha may have a mild tranquilizing effect on the brain. Taking it with sedatives could enhance the strength of the sleeping pills, possibly causing excessive drowsiness or sleepiness.
- Thyroid hormones - Ashwagandha supports endocrine function and may enhance hormone production in the thyroid. There is a small amount of evidence that taking ashwagandha with thyroid hormone pills could result in an overproduction of thyroid hormones in the body.
Anytime you’re thinking of adding a new herbal supplement to your regimen it’s a good idea to discuss with your doctor first to make sure it doesn’t conflict with any medications or health issues you may have.
While preliminary studies have found a variety of therapeutic effects and no toxicity associated with using ashwagandha, more clinical trials are needed to understand its impact on human health. Researchers have yet to explore the viability of taking ashwagandha continuously over an extended period of time, which means its long-term effect on the body is still unknown.
Unlike pharmaceutical makers and food producers, manufacturers of herbal products aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so their products may contain harmful fillers and additives. It’s important to read the labels of any herbal products or supplements carefully and make sure you purchase the highest quality, organic varieties of ashwagandha from sources you can trust.