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Do you use any natural remedies to help you sleep? They’ve become very popular alternatives to over-the-counter (OTC) and even prescription sleep aids, because they lack the potentially problematic side effects of traditional medications.
While some natural remedies are completely bogus— like many of those featured in TikTok sleep hacks— there are plenty of natural remedies that can help you get better, more restful sleep. Another one that I’ve seen making the rounds online is an herb called ashwagandha.
You may be thinking “Ashwa— what?!” It’s definitely a mouthful. But even though it may not be as well known as some other natural remedies, ashwagandha has been used medicinally for thousands of years. That alone may seem pretty encouraging about its effectiveness.
But does ashwagandha help you sleep? And what actually is ashwagandha?
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha— also known as Withania somnifera or Indian ginseng— is a medicinal plant that’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Ayurveda is a traditional alternative medicine based in India. It uses natural therapies to help you regain or maintain balance within your body, mind, spirit, and the world around you.
Some potential benefits of ashwagandha include:
- May help reduce anxiety and chronic stress. Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen, which are plants or fungi that help your body respond to stress. It can help control cortisol levels in your body and help regulate your stress response. One small study found that those who took ashwagandha root extract for 8 weeks experienced significant improvement in their stress levels when compared to those who were given a placebo.
- May help boost fertility— particularly in men. Ashwagandha can help increase testosterone levels and blood circulation. In men, it can also increase sperm concentration and motility, as well as semen quality.
- May help regulate blood sugar. Studies have found that treatment with ashwagandha significantly reduced blood sugar, insulin, and blood lipids in patients with diabetes.
- May help improve brain function. Ashwagandha may benefit cognitive functions like memory, concentration, mental alertness, and reaction time. This is because compounds in ashwagandha have an antioxidant effect on your brain. Oxidative stress can take a toll on your brain function, so antioxidants help to clear any brain fog that may be hindering your day-to-day life.
- May improve thyroid function. Because ashwagandha helps reduce cortisol levels, this can in turn boost your thyroid hormone levels and stimulate your endocrine system.
While these findings are encouraging, more research is needed to understand ashwagandha’s full effect on your body.
But now you’re probably thinking “Well that’s great Dr. Breus, but what about ashwagandha’s effect on sleep?”.
Does Ashwagandha Help You Sleep?
It can— however, more research is needed to know for sure. One study with 50 senior adults found that taking an ashwagandha root supplement for 12 weeks significantly improved their sleep quality and mental alertness upon waking when compared to those who took a placebo. These results were more pronounced in patients with insomnia, and who took the supplements consistently.
But why is this the case?
Ashwagandha supplements may improve sleep because of how they can regulate your HPA axis. This is where your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands interact and produce cortisol— your body’s stress hormone.
Remember, ashwagandha can help regulate levels of cortisol to help you de-stress. Because of this calming effect, ashwagandha may also help improve your sleep quality, as well as your sleep onset latency— or how long it takes for you to fall asleep. Ideally, you want to fall asleep within 10-20 minutes of laying down.
But what exactly does cortisol have to do with your sleep?
Cortisol and Your Sleep Cycle
While it’s best known as your “stress hormone,” cortisol is an important part of your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm. Normally, your cortisol levels are high in the morning to help you wake up. They’re supposed to decrease throughout the day and be lowest in the evening to help you sleep.
However, it’s possible for your cortisol levels to be too high in the evening. Higher cortisol levels at night— often caused by prolonged stress— can cause sleep problems like poor sleep quality. It can also cause adrenal fatigue, or inadequate production of necessary hormones. This can cause symptoms like fatigue, body aches, and low blood pressure.
Too much cortisol can also increase adrenaline and noradrenaline levels, which in turn spikes your heart rate and body temperature. Of course, this can contribute to insomnia and make it harder for you to get a good night’s sleep.
So if you’re feeling stressed out and are having sleep problems because of it, ashwagandha could be helpful. But even if you want to use ashwagandha supplements— where do you find them? They’re actually easier to find than you may expect.
Where Do I Find Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha can be found in three main forms— root, powder, and supplement. The entire ashwagandha root and ashwagandha powder can be found online or at specialty health stores. Ashwagandha supplementation can often be found at your local pharmacy, or even at the grocery store.
However, you want to be choosy when it comes to selecting the right supplement.
When you’re selecting an ashwagandha supplement, you want to avoid any unnecessary additives in the ingredient list. These can reduce the effectiveness of the supplement— or even make your symptoms worse. In short— make sure your supplement contains ashwagandha and virtually nothing else.
Who Should Not Take Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is generally safe for anyone to take regularly. However, you may want to reconsider taking an ashwagandha supplement for sleep if you have certain health conditions. In particular, you should avoid taking ashwagandha if you have:
- Hyperthyroidism. Remember— ashwagandha can potentially raise your thyroid levels, which is fine if you have hypothyroidism, or low thyroid levels. However, if your levels are already high— hyperthyroidism— you should avoid taking ashwagandha supplements. They may raise those levels even further, which can cause problems like rapid or irregular heartbeat.
- Autoimmune conditions. Ashwagandha is considered a nightshade like tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant. You may be more familiar with the term because of its connotation with poisonous plants— i.e., deadly nightshade. Unlike the aforementioned plant though, nightshade vegetables are safe to consume unless you have an allergic reaction to them. However, they contain an alkaloid called solanine. While most often found in greened potatoes, this chemical can be toxic in high concentrations. It can also cause irritation or discomfort in those with autoimmune disorders— including rheumatoid arthritis.
If you’re not sure if ashwagandha is right for your sleep needs, talk to your doctor. They can help you determine what the cause of your sleep problems is, and if ashwagandha will help. Additionally, they can test your thyroid to see if it’s working the way it should be.
Sage Advice for Using Herbs for Sleep
Herbal medicine can be very hit or miss when it comes to delivering on its health promises. It seems like for every promising natural remedy, there’s always at least one more that doesn’t work at all. And while more research is needed to understand its full effects on the human body, ashwagandha may have some real benefits not only for your sleep, but for your overall health too.
So if you’ve been struggling with insomnia or poor sleep, this may be a worthwhile addition to your healthy sleep routine. Just remember to contact your doctor if you have any questions before you start.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor