MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Health benefits from an herbal supplement grown in Asia and Africa claim to make you smarter, calmer, and less anxious.
Right now, it’s hard to find in Mid-south health and natural food stores.
“Definitely in the last four to six months, it has been a peak herb and a high demand," said Steve Lubin, a retired pharmacist and herbalist in Memphis.
While ashwagandha (ash-wah-gan-duh) has been around for hundreds of years, it has been growing in popularity, recently, thanks to word of mouth and TikTok.
Many TikTok users implied that it helped reduce stress and made them feel happier, and highly recommended the supplement.
Some users also said it improved their sex lives, testosterone levels, sleep patterns, focus, memory, energy levels, and reduced their anxiety.
Is the hype behind ashwagandha legit, or is it full of empty promises?
Dr. Jeff Mullins, a primary care physician with Methodist Medical Group.
Steve Lubin, an herbalist and retired pharmacist from Good Life Honeysuckle Health foods in Memphis.
WHAT WE FOUND
“Since these are dietary substances, they are not regulated like medications. So they don't have to prove to anybody, even the FDA or USDA, whether they contain the substance they say they contain or the amount they contain," said Dr. Mullins.
That is also part of the problem of getting a definitive yes or no about the ashwagandha's effectiveness.
Every manufacturer uses a different amount of active ingredients, and the supplement comes in many different forms: powders, capsules, tablets, extracts, roots, and leaves.
Also, how it reacts from person to person varies.
“It could affect you more so, one way, than me another way," said Lubin.
While marketed as a supplement that treats a number of conditions including insomnia, aging, anxiety, and more, the National Institutes of Health stated: there is no good scientific evidence to support most of these uses.
Meanwhile, the National Library of Medicine rated ashwagandha's effectiveness as possibly effective for stress.
The six categories of the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates effectiveness using this scale:
- Likely Effective
- Possibly Effective
- Possibly Ineffective
- Likely Ineffective
- Insufficient Evidence to Rate
Researchers said that there isn’t enough reliable information to say whether ashwagandha is helpful for a number of other purposes.
“There may be some benefit to taking Aashwaganda or other ancient remedies, but you gotta be careful about what source you get," said Dr. Mullins.
CLINICAL TRIAL DATA
Since 2015 there have been dozens of clinical trials which looked at the effectiveness of the supplement.
In 2015, a randomized study of 57 men between the ages of 18 to 50 found that 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract, twice daily, increased muscle strength, muscle size, and testosterone levels in participants versus those in the placebo group.
A study published in 2015 showed that healthy women given capsules of 300 mg twice daily for eight weeks had improved sexual function.
A 2017 study found that adults given 300 mg of the supplement over eight weeks improved their memory and attention span.
Findings from a study published last year found adults given 300 mg of ashwagandha twice daily for eight weeks increased their endurance.
Findings from a study published in 2019 looked at the fatigue and testosterone levels of 50 healthy but overweight men between the ages of 40 and 70. The men were given ashwagandha for eight weeks.
The study found that testosterone levels improved fatigue, sexual and mental health, but there was no significant difference between the group that received the supplement and the group that received the placebo.
Dr, Mullins cautions though, all of the data from these clinical trials only paints a partial picture.
“It seems to me that there have been no real, true clinical trials that have been done. A lot of it is observational," said Mullins.
The authors of the 2019 clinical trial even documented that the sample size of the study - about 50 people - was small.
Researchers also confirmed that other lifestyle changes, like diet and social, were also not looked at.
The study limitations made it difficult to "develop definitive conclusions," per the authors.
While participants in the small, limited clinical trials benefited from the supplement, Dr. Mullins said, "when you are dealing with symptoms like fatigue, stress, sexual potency, focus, mental clarity, these are called subjective symptoms."
"They are based upon how the patient feels," said Dr. Mullins. "They are very prone to what we call the placebo effect."
It's why he cautions talking to your doctor or physician before taking ashwagandha or any herbal supplement - to determine if it's right for you or if it would negatively interact with other medications you might be taking.