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Ashwagandha, the ancient Ayurvedic herb also known by its scientific name Withania somniferans, has been used for thousands of years to treat anxiety and insomnia. Recent science confirms how well it works.

Ashwagandha is an ancient herb from India that has many modern applications. Its Ayurvedic name taken from a Sanskrit term meaning "smell of a horse," ashwagandha traditionally gave men the "strength of a stallion" in bed. That doesn't mean that this plant is an herbal Viagra. Although it can improve sex life in both men and women, it works on the brain, not regions of the body a little lower down. However, in both men and women ashwagandha relieves anxiety and releases the mind to sleep.

There's no shortage of scientific evidence that this Ayurvedic herb really works, but the form in which you use the herb affects how well it works.

  • One clinical trial observed the effects of giving participants either a placebo or a whopping-big dose of 12,000 mg of dried ashwagandha root every day. Just taking the powdered, dried root of the plant as an whole herb showed no significant benefits.
  • Another clinical trial observed the effect of giving participants either a placebo or a 125 mg or 250 mg dose of a water extract of ashwagandha. A water extract uses hot water to dissolve medicinally active chemicals from finely chopped root. The water is then (usually) evaporated way to leave the relevant medicinally important plant chemicals. In this study, the researchers used a protocol to create a product "standardized to minimum of 8 percent withanolide glycosides and 32 percent oligosaccharides, with maximum withaferin A." This is the same standard used to make the over the counter product Sensoril. In this study, all of the patients given this relatively low dose of ashwagandha improved on all the psychological tests of anxiety. Some researchers are skeptical, since the maker of an ashwagandha supplement hired the researchers and paid for the study.
  • Yet another clinical trial recruited people with anxiety to take either a daily placebo or a a daily tablet relatively high-dose product that contained 1000 mg of the 8 percent glycoside mixture. This was equivalent to taking four to seven times the recommended dose of ashwagandha. In this study, half of the volunteers who got actual ashwagandha dropped out, probably because of unpleasant side effects. Only half of the volunteers who remained in the study reported any benefits. Clearly, 1000 mg of ashwagandha extract every day is too much.
  • An American study attempted to calibrate the dose of ashwagandha to find maximum herbal benefits. Naturopaths assigned patients either to get 600 mg of ashwagandha extract every day or to see a psychotherapist once a week. Both groups improved significantly, but the group taking ashwagandha reported significantly greater reductions in anxiety (as measured by a psychological test called the Beck Anxiety Inventory). 

The results of clinical testing tell us that just chomping down on an ashwagandha root isn't really going to do you any good. The whole herb doesn't liberate its psychoactive compounds through the human digestive process. Just a relatively small dose of an organic, hot water extract, 125 to 250 mg a day, is enough to make a real difference, and 600 mg a day is even better. An overdose of ashwagandha, however, is counterproductive.

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