You’ve probably heard of Ashwagandha as a miracle food. It has been flying off the shelves in pharmacies and supermarkets faster than toilet paper in a lockdown. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, Ashwagandha sales grew by a mind-boggling 185% between 2018 and 2019 in the US to reach USD 10 million. It has shown a steady increase in sales since then to break into the 40 most popular herbal health supplements sold in the US.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is a herb that grows wild in India where it has been used for millennia in India’s traditional system of medicine called Ayurveda. The scientific name of Ashwagandha is withania somnifera. The latin prefix “somni” means sleep ( as in somnambulant, somnolent), and ashwagandha is commonly believed to be a sleep-inducing or anxiety-reducing herb. In India, the word Ashwagandha literally translates into “that which smells like a horse”, and is used as a supplement for increasing virility and strength. ( hence the comparison with the horse).
The main active ingredients in Ashwagandha are a group of naturally occurring steroids called Withanolides that have mild antioxidant, anti-stress, analgesic, and sedative properties. Naturally occurring Withanolides have been tested and found to have the potential for treating a number of chronic ailments including arthritis, autoimmune disease, and cancer. Based on the Withanolide content, Ashwagandha extract may be classified as 1%, 2%, 2.5%, 5%, and 10%. While a higher Withanolide concentration means more potency ( and more benefits), this is true only up to a certain concentration. Remember, Withanolides are just one of the several bioactive ingredients in Ashwagandha, and an unusually high concentration of Withanolides would mean suppressing other bioactive compounds present in smaller quantities that also have an important role to play.
Ashwagandha with 2.5% – 10% Withanolide content is considered to be the most effective and is most popularly used.
What is Ashwagandha Good For?
Ashwagandha benefits can be classified into 3 types:
- Reduce anxiety, stress, and improve sleep.
- Improve testosterone levels and increase strength
- Increase immunity
As an anxiety-relieving supplement, Ashwagandha usage went through the roof post-2019 as people grappled with the effects of lockdowns and sought ways to improve their immunity.
As a test booster and strength enhancer, Ashwagandha has been used by professional bodybuilders and strength athletes for much longer, many of whom swear by its benefits for increasing muscle mass and cutting down fat simultaneously.
In Indian traditional medicine, Ashwagandha is also used to treat male infertility, as well as an aphrodisiac that may increase libido and sex drive.
But is any of this backed by scientific evidence?
Yes, quite a bit of it actually.
For instance, this independent double-blind, placebo-controlled study concluded that ashwagandha has a noticeable effect on stress and anxiety levels.
This study concluded that supplementation with ashwagandha significantly increased VO2 Max, a key indicator of athletic performance among trained athletes and non-athletes alike. While this study concluded that ashwagandha supplementation significantly improved muscle mass.
And there are many more. Ashwagandha is in fact, one of the most researched herbal supplements out there. However, you need to realize that our bodies and immune systems are wired differently, and not all people respond the same to herbal supplements.
How Much Ashwagandha Per Day?
Ashwagandha benefits may be dosage dependent, and to arrive at the correct dosage you may need to experiment with your body’s tolerance, starting with a low dosage, and gradually increasing if you don’t notice any benefits. Generally speaking, ashwagandha dosage is safe between 250 mg to 1gm per day, with most people reporting ashwagandha benefits for dosages of around 500-600mg per day.
Dosage may also depend on the type of ashwagandha extract you are using (root, leaf, or root-leaf mix), and its Withanolide concentration.
So How Much Ashwagandha Are Americans Consuming?
A lot. Worth USD 10.85 million in 2019, to be precise. That year, ahswagandha was the herbal supplement with the third-highest increase in sales at 45.3% over the previous year. Only CBD and Elderberry sales grew faster than ashwagandha. In fact, ashwagandha sales in the US only took off in 2018. Before that, most Americans wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it.
As of 2022, ashwagandha sales are only going in one direction – up north. According to Data Bridge Market Research, the global ashwagandha market will cross USD 100 million by 2029.
Where Does Ashwagandha Come From?
Most ashwagandha in the world is grown in India where it is a part of the ecological and cultural heritage of the region. Smaller quantities are grown in Nepal, Yemen, and Africa. Traditionally, the plant grew wild in India, and was an integral part of the over 5000-year-old Indian system of indigenous medicine known as Ayurveda. With increased global demand, the plant is now cultivated on a commercial scale.
The ashwagandha plant grows best in dry, warm, sunny conditions, with sandy-loamy soils, and annual rainfall not exceeding 750mm. The quality and potency of the ashwagandha extract is determined by the Withanolide content of the plant, which in turn is a function of the soil and climatic conditions. Different soil and climatic conditions can produce dramatic variations in the Withanolide content, and consequently in the potency of the ashwagandha extract. Most ashwagandha is produced in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, sitting on the edge of the Thar desert. To be more specific, 3 districts of Nagaur, Neemuch, and Mandsaur produce most of India’s and the world’s ashwagandha. The adjoining states of Gujarat, Punjab, and Haryana, with similar semi-arid climates and soils, also grow small quantities of ashwagandha.
According to data from 2016-17, India produced around 8429 tonnes of ashwagandha a year from 10, 780 hectares of land. One hectare of commercially farmed land produces anywhere between 300 to 500 quintals of dried Ashwagandha root, which is then either used in powdered form, or has the active ingredient extracted from it. The leaf of the plant is more plentiful but is less valuable due to lower concentration of active ingredients.
Who are the Major Manufacturers of Ashwagandha Supplements in the USA?
Ixoreal Biomed is one of the leading manufacturers of Ashwagandha with offices in Hyderabad, India and Los Angeles, California. The company developed a proprietary Ashwagandha extract called KSM-66 which contains only the extracts from the roots of the plant, and not its leaves. It is a B2B player, meaning it does not sell its products in retail but rather to supplement manufacturers who buy KSM-66 Ashwagandha extract from the company and use it in their own products. According to the company, it is one of the few Ashwagandha manufacturers in the world that owns and controls the entire supply chain in the manufacture of Ashwagandha extract – right from the growing of the crop to making the extract available to retailers.
There are other boutique manufacturers such as the Oregon, USA-based Mountain Rose Herbs who source their Ashwagandha direct from farmers in India and produce high quality Ashwagandha products. You can check them out here.
How to Consume Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is available commercially in several forms:
- Ashwagandha powder
- Ashwagandha pills
- Ashwagandha extract (liquid)
- Ashwagandha gummies
- Ashwagandha cookies
When to Take Ashwagandha?
There is no specific time to take Ashwagandha. You can either take it in the morning or at night. Before your meals or after your meals. Just experiment with different times and settings and see what suits your body best.
To Sum Up
Ashwagandha is not just another food fad. It is here to stay. Given its many benefits, the demand for ashwagandha is only set to grow exponentially. However, it is only a food supplement and not a wonder pill. You should always consult your doctor before you start taking any supplement, and discontinue immediately if you see any adverse effects. You should also avoid taking ashwagandha if you are pregnant.