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What is ashwagandha and what can it help with?

It’s the natural herb that’s going viral. Here’s everything you need to know about the supplement said to remedy a long list of problems.  

If you’ve seen this natural supplement trending everywhere, you’re not alone. 

It seems to pop up on TikTok and Instagram feeds every day, with everyone from plumped-up influencers to medical professionals singing its praises. 

So why is this particular herb getting so much good publicity? Is it simply another trendy health fad, or do the health benefits stack up?

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When it comes to over-the-counter supplements in little brown bottles, I’m fairly sceptical. 

Growing up the daughter of two paediatricians, my siblings and I were raised to trust modern medicine, but the kind of medicine that requires specialist prescriptions and carefully-measured dosages. Natural remedies paled in comparison. 

If we had an ache, pain, bout of nausea or trouble sleeping, you’d never find us reaching for natural remedies. In fact, the only time my family leaned into the world of naturopathy, was when we tried to alleviate our elderly beagle’s arthritis with fish oil tablets for a month (he happily obliged). 

While it seems like the western world just discovered the natural herb, ashwagandha has been celebrated for its powerful medicinal properties for centuries. Native to India, it’s been a widely-used staple in Ayurvedic medicine as a nervine and sedative to aid in relaxation and sleep. 

Melissa Briggs, an expert in naturopathic medicine, explains why ashwagandha is fast becoming people’s go-to solution for a range of ailments and chronic health conditions. 

“Ashwagandha has many therapeutic uses but is most commonly known for its role as an adaptogen, assisting the body in managing both physical and psychological stressors thus building resilience towards stress,” Briggs explains. 

As a tonic herb, ashwagandha works its magic from within, strengthening and tonifying the body’s organs and systems. Perhaps the most popular trait of the herb today is its adaptogenic effects.

Why are we seeing a rise in ashwagandha now?

Over the past few years, ashwagandha has become increasingly popular in the health and wellness space. In a recent survey by US supplements website, it even took out the top spot as the most Googled supplement, with a whopping 919,742 monthly searches. 

“In the past few years Ashwagandha has grown in popularity likely due to the increase in stress, burnout, anxiety and illnesses, as well as the trend in the importance of health,” Briggs says on the rapid emergence of the herb in popular culture.

“We are seeing more sickness, particularly post-pandemic, including influenza and Covid which can lead to post-viral fatigue and long Covid.”

The naturopath also says the cost of living crisis across the globe is having a detrimental effect on our mental health, with prolonged periods of heightened cortisol causing an increase in stress, anxiety and insomnia.

Over time, Briggs says, living in this kind of state can seriously weaken the immune system and reduce libido. 

But the rise in ashwagandha interest is more than just a reflection of our collective stress. It’s a signal of a broader trend that people all over the world are leaning towards holistic and natural remedies when it comes to their health.

“People are searching for more holistic support over what a doctor can conventionally offer,” Briggs says, speaking to the upsurge in clients at her own East Brisbane-based practice. “If there was one benefit that came out of the pandemic it was that people realised the value of their health and the importance of nurturing this.”

The benefits broken down

While ashwagandha is glorified for its stress-relieving properties, the natural herb is definitely not a one-trick pony. 

As public interest grows, so does the body of research. Studies across the board have shown ashwagandha may be useful in:

  • Improving insulin sensitivity (its ability to decrease blood glucose is reported to be comparable to that of oral hypoglycemic medications)
  • Managing cholesterol 
  • Regulating immune function 
  • Improving cognition 
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improvement of libido and enhancing reproductive function in both men and women

While ashwagandha is considered to be a very safe herb, most medical professionals would advise against taking it during pregnancy, unless supervised by your practitioner. The same level of caution applies to patients on immunosuppressive medications given the direct impact the supplement can have on the immune system. 

Additionally, Briggs notes that ashwagandha increases thyroid hormone production and therefore isn’t suitable for anyone with hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease.

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