It has many touted health benefits, but as with other natural remedies it can be difficult to tell which are legitimate and which are overblown. Can ashwagandha really help with healthy hair growth?
Today, we’ll dive in deep to uncover the science-backed benefits of ashwagandha, how it might work to prevent hair loss, and how it can help you achieve healthier hair.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is perhaps the best known adaptogen, a term you have probably come across in the beauty and wellness spheres as of late. Adaptogens are a class of medicinal herbs that, as the name hints at, help your body adapt to the demands of internal and external stressors.
“Adaptogens are herbs that help to strengthen our resilience to stress, and especially to stay calm in the midst of it,” explained Rachelle Robinett, Clinical Herbalist and educator.
Also known as Indian ginseng or Indian winter cherry, ashwagandha (Latin name: Withania somnifera) is a nightshade that grows primarily on the Indian subcontinent and in North Africa.
If you took Latin in school you might notice that the name “somnifera” means sleep-inducing, which relates to how ashwagandha works in the human body. It’s a calming plant, and according to Ayurveda it has a wide range of rejuvenating and health-boosting benefits. “Ashwagandha is used as an overall health tonic, too—supporting fertility, immunity, energy and sleep (yes both!) and more,” added Ms. Robinett.
Ashwagandha extract is prepared from the roots and leaves of the plant. The active constituents in the extract are called withanolides and withaferins, which are extremely bioactive steroids. These steroids are known best for their remarkable anti-inflammatory and anti-stress effects, though they also contain other constituents that have their own benefits, primarily as antioxidants (the top defenders against environmental aggressors).
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The Hair Benefits of Ashwagandha
What about ashwagandha for hair you ask? You can think of ashwagandha’s effect on hair growth as very much like CBD’s effect on hair growth in that they both support your body’s ability to stay balanced and healthy so it can grow healthier hair.
“The way most herbs—or supplements, or nutrition, or products—work isn't by directly increasing hair quantity or growth rate. Rather, and for the better, herbs work on bringing our bodies into a better balance, with better functioning processes, so they can then do what they do best. In the case of hair, that would be to grow more hair, or grow it faster,” explained Ms. Robinett.
There are a few global health benefits that will help your body, scalp and follicles cruise along the superhighway to great hair, so let’s unpack them.
Calming and Stress-Relieving Benefits
“Hair loss is a complicated problem that can happen for many reasons: nutritional deficiencies, a change in location or childbirth being just a few of them. These days, stress is one of the top reasons for hair loss and ashwagandha helps manage it, which is why it helps in hair rejuvenation,” shared Lovneet Batra, a dietician and nutritionist based in Delhi.
She’s not wrong. Increased stress and anxiety in modern life have made hair loss a very common issue for many people, especially for women. Luckily, ashwagandha has been most thoroughly studied for its ability to reduce stress in the body.
How does it help combat stress? Ashwagandha is believed to both directly and indirectly impact stress in the body. Directly it has been shown in multiple studies to help reduce cortisol levels. Indirectly it can help mitigate other impacts of cortisol and acute stress by reducing heart rate and blood pressure, for example.
Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” might sound like bad news but in fact it’s a very important part of many bodily functions. Chronically high levels of cortisol caused by chronic stress, though, can have lasting impacts on our good health.
Cortisol is also directly connected to hair growth by suppressing the production of hormones that promote hair follicle action. Ashwagandha, by reducing stress, can balance out the cycle of cortisol production and hair loss, acting as both a preventative and a remedy since once the body stops producing too much cortisol, hair growth eventually resumes.
Another indirect way ashwagandha can help alleviate the impacts of stress is by targeting other stress-related conditions like insomnia.
Soothing and Anti-Inflammatory Benefits
Another important physiological function that can do us wrong when it gets out of control: inflammation.
As a response to inflammation, the body produces a substance called C-reactive protein (CRP for short) which shows up in the blood. The administration of ashwagandha corresponds with a reduction in CRP, suggesting that it can reduce inflammation and might also have wide-ranging physiological benefits for all kinds of pain. So far, research has been done specifically in relation to gum inflammation and arthritis, but these effects are also relevant to other types of inflammation in the body.
Inflammation at the hair follicle can have a wide range of causes, from genetic skin conditions to temporary infections or allergies, and it can also be a part of how the auto-immune disorder alopecia areata causes hair loss. By taking ashwagandha, you can help alleviate body-wide inflammation to help restore the health of the hair follicles.
Other Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
It’s often difficult to find scientific research that backs up the anecdotal claims about natural supplements, but that’s not the case with ashwagandha. More and more research is being done to uncover the medicinal properties and understand just how potent this ingredient happens to be.
It is too early to start talking about the benefits of ashwagandha as a cure or therapy for serious ailments, but so far there is early evidence that suggests that this medicinal herb could help with different types of cancer, aged spinal cords, as well as with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. One of the two primary active compounds found in ashwagandha, called withanolides, have been shown to fight inflammation and tumor growth.
Not only that but ashwagandha might be able to help boost the immune system, reduce blood sugar levels, improve male fertility, build muscle, improve cognition, and even out hormonal imbalances, among other benefits. And, if nothing else, ashwagandha could be added to your diet merely as a good source of iron and amino acids.
Who Should Take Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is, so far, most promising as a safe and all-natural stress reducer. If your life is hectic and you find yourself anxious or unable to relax as a result then you are probably the best candidate for ashwagandha.
Since ashwagandha’s effect can be compared to CBD, many people find that they enjoy them in combination with each other. If you live in a place where CBD isn’t totally legal or unregulated, ashwagandha can be an excellent alternative.
Who Shouldn’t Take Ashwagandha
Folks with an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and type 1 diabetes should avoid it, along with folks who have thyroid disease.
If you’re taking medication for blood sugar or high blood pressure, your doctor might recommend against it or need to adjust dosages when taking ashwagandha.
“As with any herb, start with a small test first to make sure you tolerate it and if pregnant, nursing, or using any pharmaceutical medications make sure to check with your doctor or herbalist for safety,” advised Ms. Robinett.
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How Can I Take Ashwagandha?
Orally, ashwagandha supplements can be taken as a tincture, capsule, powder or tea. Root extracts typically come in standardized daily doses ranging from 300-500mg, but be sure to follow the directions on any supplement you try.
“The most important notes with ashwagandha are to take enough, to take it daily, and to use it long term. I usually recommend committing to it for a season,” said Ms. Robinett.
One popular and traditional Ayurvedic way of consuming it is in a beverage (sometimes referred to as Moon Milk) made by mixing ashwagandha powder with hot milk, ghee, honey, and other spices. In fact, you should always try and include healthy fats when taking ashwagandha. “The active components of ashwagandha are fat-soluble and hence the supplements should be taken with meals that include quality fats,” explained Dr. Ailynne Marie Vergara-Wijangco of Thank Your Skin.
But be forewarned: not all palettes will enjoy the flavor. “It's not the greatest tasting herb so I generally recommend making a little shot of it and just knocking it back,” suggested Ms. Robinett. Capsules are another good option for folks who don’t love the taste.
While medical research has focused on using ashwagandha orally, it can also be used topically. Ashwagandha powder is often mixed with other beneficial ingredients to make a mask that is applied directly to the hair and scalp. When applied topically it is believed to improve scalp health but it can also soothe an irritated or inflamed scalp while helping to improve scalp circulation.
Last, be choosy when purchasing ashwagandha, since not all products are created equally. While products can be made from the roots and leaves of the ashwagandha plant, research has shown that roots are the best source of the active compounds: so be sure to look specifically for products made with them.
If stress is a contributing factor to hair thinning or loss, consider turning to ashwagandha for its amazing mitigating effects. Even if stress is not the main issue you’re dealing with, this wonderful adaptogen can still help!
Additional members of Team VEGAMOUR contributed to the reporting for this article.
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