Healthy Sleeping Habits

How the Stress-Fighting Adaptogen Ashwagandha Helps You Sleep Better

Getty Images/Kilito Chan
Of all the ancient, stress-fighting herbs, collectively known as adaptogens, to go mainstream in recent years, ashwagandha may just be the most recognizable—if not the hardest to spell or pronounce (though eleuthero, reishi, and astragalus all give it some steep competition). For thousands of years, practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine have used ashwagandha to help address a whole host of health issues. Today, holistic health experts are just as ready to recommend the Indian herb to clients whose concerns range from chronic fatigue to thyroid imbalances.

"In the Western world, [scientists] abstract the active ingredient in an herb, synthesize it in a laboratory, and use it in a drug that has a specific action—typically shutting something in the body off," plant expert and holistic nutritionist Anne Baker, CN, LE, previously told Well+Good. "But when you use the whole herb, it can be used to treat many different conditions instead of targeting just one, like a drug does. [Herbs] support the body, as opposed to suppressing something."

Health benefits of ashwagandha

“Besides managing stress, it can help with chronic fatigue, insomnia, mild obsessive compulsive disorder, restless leg syndrome, and fibromyalgia," says Baker. Furthermore: “Ashwagandha has been linked to stabilized blood sugar, enhanced brain health, and lowered anxiety,” says Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, a leading functional medicine expert and author of KetotarianThe Inflammation Spectrum, and Intuitive Fasting. 

For example, research shows ashwagandha can help regulate cortisol, which is the body's stress hormone. Evidence also suggests its potency in alleviating chronic stress and preventing HPA-axis dysfunction. “Also known as adrenal fatigue, this condition can lead to extreme, constant exhaustion, and ashwagandha helps treat and prevent it, as well as support optimal thyroid function,” says Dr. Cole. In fact, regular supplementation of ashwagandha is linked to healthier thyroid hormone levels and function.

Many studies support use for improved immunity, too.

Can ashwagandha help you sleep?

Ashwagandha supplementation may improve sleep due to its role in regulating the aforementioned HPA-axis, where the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands interact, hence the HPA abbreviation. “In a healthy individual, cortisol is supposed to be high in the morning to help you wake up and then taper off throughout the day, becoming lower as hours pass,” explains Dr. Cole. He says people who have trouble sleeping may be experiencing higher cortisol levels in the evenings, which is the case for those with conditions like adrenal insufficiency or fatigue.

“In cases of adrenal fatigue, there is a miscommunication between your brain’s communication with your adrenals, which causes an imbalance in cortisol rhythm,” says Dr. Cole. Instead, cortisol is low when it should be high, and high when it should be low—or maybe it’s always high or low, as a dysfunctional rhythm and imbalance, based on the individual. “That's often why people with this have trouble sleeping because their cortisol is high in the evening,” says Dr. Cole. (As if you’re getting a "second wind” of energy, which can last hours.)

Ashwagandha helps regulate cortisol rhythms and thus may promote better sleeping habits—however, as with any supplement, consistency is key. “If you’re struggling with stress and anxiety, which can make it difficult to fall asleep, my advice is to start taking ashwagandha consistently for at least 90 days,” advises Dr. Cole. “In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I see that it can take at least that long to see consistent, long-term effects after starting a supplement routine,” Dr. Cole continues. One of the top benefits is improvement in stress and anxiety.

Best practices for ashwagandha supplementation

While consistency is key when it comes to taking ashwagandha, the time of day you take it doesn’t matter, according to Dr. Cole. “The quality of your supplement does matter, though,” he says. “You always want to make sure the brand you choose isn't using any unnecessary additives or other ingredients, which could further perpetuate symptoms.”

Dr. Cole likes NOW organic ashwaghanda liquid extract since you’re getting a rich dose of bioavailable ashwagandha for absorption and use, without much else on the ingredient list.

While research does not show any common negative side effects from taking ashwagandha, Dr. Cole does say anyone with hyperthyroidism should consult their doctor first. “One thing to note is that those with hyperthyroidism should be more cautious, as ashwagandha can raise already high thyroid levels,” he says.

What’s more: “If you have autoimmune conditions, ashwagandha, which is considered a nightshade, can cause irritation in some people,” Dr. Cole cautions. In these cases, it’s even more imperative to speak with a healthcare provider first.

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