The medicinal herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medical practice in India as an “adaptogen” – a herb or drug that acts against both deficiency and excess and helps stabilize and regulate the body’s functioning. Modern research data points to its abilities to modulate the immunity to a desired level, serve as an antioxidant for the brain, protect the nerves, prevent or reduce inflammation, and enhance memory. Does the herb help against thyroid problems too? Let’s find out.
Why Are Thyroid Hormones Important For You?
Thyroid Hormones (T4 and T3) act on nearly every cell in the body. They have numerous functions like:
- Increasing the basal metabolic rate – that is the rate of energy spent when one is resting
- Influencing protein synthesis
- Helping regulate long bone growth (synergy with growth hormone) and the maturation of nerves
- Increasing the body’s sensitivity to hormones released by the body in response to stress
- Helping proper development and differentiation of all cells of the human body
- Regulating protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism, affecting how human cells use energetic compounds
- Stimulating vitamin metabolism
Numerous factors, both regular and disease-related, influence thyroid hormone synthesis.
Why Is Thyroid Dysfunction Harmful?
Thyroid dysfunction manifests in two primary ways: hyperthyroidism (thyroid generates too much T3 and T4) and hypothyroidism (thyroid generates too little T3 and T4).
- Hyperthyroidism is characterized by irritability, muscle weakness, sleeping problems, a fast heartbeat, poor tolerance of heat, diarrhea, enlargement of the thyroid, and weight loss.
- Hypothyroidism is characterized by tiredness, constipation, depression, poor ability to tolerate cold, and weight gain.
Hypothyroidism Is Linked To Liver Damage
Thyroid hormone (TH) and its receptors play a fundamental role in lipid metabolism and lipid accumulation in the liver. Hypothyroidism and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) are known to be linked.1
Thyroid Dysfunction Can Lead To Mental Health Issues
Dysfunction of the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid neuroendocrine axis has been known to cause major depressive and bipolar disorders. Moreover, symptoms such as fatigue, tiredness, mental slowing, concentration and memory impairments, weight gain, and depression are common to both overt hypothyroidism and to unipolar depressive and bipolar disorders.2
Ashwagandha For Thyroid Problems
Ashwagandha can stimulate the thyroid gland to produce more T4 hormone, thus treating hypothyroidism.
Ashwagandha is known to stimulate the thyroid gland to produce more T4 hormone – which is why it is such a promising natural cure for hypothyroidism.
A placebo-controlled study was conducted in 2014 to measure thyroid indices (TSH, free T4, and T3) of 60 patients being treated with ashwagandha for bipolar disorder. The study found that in patients treated with ashwagandha, T4 levels increased and TSH levels were normalized. The researchers concluded that patients with hypothyroidism can likely see benefits from consuming ashwagandha, because of its T4-elevating, anti-inflammatory, nerve-protecting, antioxidant, and antidepressant properties.3
While high T4 levels may generate free radicals and damage cells, ashwagandha can fight against the free radicals.
Excess amounts of T4 can lead to oxidative stress. When the body is under oxidative stress, it becomes unable to fight against reactive molecules called free radicals. The free radicals oxidize the lipid membranes of cells in a process called lipid peroxidation and damage the cells.
However, ashwagandha – an effective antioxidant – is able to scavenge free radicals and reduce lipid peroxidation and oxidative stress.4 Therefore, even as it stimulates the thyroid to produce more T4, it keeps potential risks of excess T4 in check. In any case, as T4 is only gradually processed and converted to active T3 by the body, the risk of oxidative stress, especially in patients with an underactive thyroid, is very low.
Ashwagandha regulates the conversion of T4 into T3 and thus treat hyperthyroidism, which is caused by an overactive T3.
By stimulating the thyroid to selectively increase T4 levels and simultaneously reducing oxidative stress, ashwagandha can slow down and regulate the production of active T3, which is the key contributor to problems related to hyperthyroidism.
Clearly, in this case, the dosage of ashwagandha needs to be monitored carefully. A minimal dose, as typically recommended by Ayurveda, might just be enough to trigger the body’s natural thyroid hormone regulation mechanism, which controls T4 levels by increasing or decreasing TSH levels, to take over.
Is Ashwagandha More Effective When Combined With Other Herbs?
A combination of ashwagandha root, guggulu gum, and bauhinia bark has been known to regulate thyroid function.
In Ayurveda, treatment generally involves combination of multiple plant extracts, presumably to enhance overall effectiveness as well as to counter potential side effects of individual plants.
For example, it has been found that three different plant extracts – ashwagandha root, guggulu gum, and bauhinia bark – when given in combination, stimulate and regulate thyroid function while simultaneously protecting the liver and keeping lipid peroxidation under check.5
Ayurvedic preparations often use ashwagandha root or leaf powder instead of a concentrated extract. One or two teaspoons twice daily (boiled in water or mixed with milk or honey) is the recommended amount, for long term use. One tsp of ashwagandha root or leaf powder can be reduced to about 300 mg of concentrated extract.
Taking this cue from traditional texts, most human studies on ashwagandha have tested effects of dosage of 600–1,200 mg of ashwagandha root or leaf extract per day; they have found this dosage to be both safe and effective. In capsule form, that works out to 1–2 capsules, twice daily.
Ashwagandha has been found to be effective at even lower doses; the minimum effective dosage of ashwagandha extract is 50–100 mg. On the other end of the spectrum, even dosages as high as 6,000 mg of extract per day have been found to be completely safe and non-toxic.
Ashwagandha is known to be a miracle drug of sorts in Ayurveda, with a great ability to improve the body’s vitality and immunity. One of the key reasons for its holistic benefits could be its ability to stimulate the thyroid gland, which in turn plays a major role in multiple functions of the body – chiefly metabolism, growth, and mental functioning.
|↑1, ↑4||Huang, Yue-Ye, Aaron M. Gusdon, and Shen Qu. “Cross-talk between the thyroid and liver: A new target for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease treatment.” World J Gastroenterol 19, no. 45 (2013): 8238-8246.|
|↑2, ↑3||Gannon, Jessica M., Paige E. Forrest, and KN Roy Chengappa. “Subtle changes in thyroid indices during a placebo-controlled study of an extract of Withania somnifera in persons with bipolar disorder.” Journal of Ayurveda and integrative medicine 5, no. 4 (2014): 241.|
|↑5||Panda, Sunanda, and ANAND KAR. “Combined effects of ashwagandha, guggulu and bauhinia extracts in the regulation of thyroid function and on lipid peroxidation in mice.” Pharmacy and Pharmacology Communications 6, no. 3 (2000): 141-143.|