Might Ayurvedic medicine—traditional medicine practiced in India for 3,000 years—offer an effective treatment for insomnia?
If you’re looking for an alternative treatment vetted by scientists in controlled clinical trials, the answer is no. But an Indian herb called ashwagandha is receiving attention as a substance that might help people with several health conditions, including chronic stress, anxiety, and memory loss. It’s also being studied as a possible sleep aid. Here’s more about it.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ayurvedic medicine is a holistic healing system. Patients are generally prescribed a combination of herbs, special diets, and daily practices aimed at promoting overall health rather than eliminating a specific problem like insomnia.
But the Latin somnifera means sleep-inducing, and ashwagandha powder, prepared from the root, leaves, or whole plant and taken orally, has been prescribed to improve sleep for centuries. A handful of laboratory studies on rodents have provided evidence for ashwagandha’s sleep-inducing effects. Results of some studies suggest that ashwagandha leaf extract may also protect rats from the consequences of sleep deprivation.
Authors of a recently published paper in PLOS ONE have identified a specific component of the ashwagandha leaf that puts mice to sleep. Following is a summary of their findings.
An Active Component That Promotes Sleep
Biologically active components in ashwagandha include withanolides—naturally occurring steroids—and triethylene glycol, or TEG. TEG is currently used in various manufacturing processes, but how it impacts biological systems is largely unknown. In this study, investigators wanted to find out if one or the other of these substances had sleep-inducing effects.
Via a complicated extraction process, the researchers isolated each of these compounds, mixing them with alcohol and water so they could be administered orally to mice. Here are the results:
- Compared with the alcoholic medium alone, the alcoholic extract containing a high amount of active withanolides had no effect on the sleep–wake system of the mice.
- Compared with water alone, the extract containing lots of TEG induced a significantly greater amount of non-REM, or quiet, sleep—without affecting the amount or nature of REM sleep.
- Commercially available TEG was also administered to the mice in 10, 20, and 30-mg doses. The larger the dose, the more non-REM sleep the mice got over a 12-hour period and the more quickly they fell asleep.
The authors conclude that while low to moderate levels of TEG clearly induce sleep in laboratory animals, possible “toxicological properties of TEG need to be studied in detail before its used is advised in humans.”
Meanwhile, Is Ashwagandha Safe for Humans?
It depends on where you ask the question. Indian practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine have been prescribing it for centuries. A handful of scientific studies also attest to the safety of this herb when used short term in therapeutic doses. (Long-term effects are unknown.)
But an article in Medline Plus lists a number of safety concerns. People who are pregnant and breast feeding, who have diabetes, or who have an auto-immune disorder should steer clear of ashwagandha. The herb can interact with various medications and supplements, too.
For a definitive reading on whether ashwagandha could work as a treatment for insomnia we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s widely available as a dietary supplement in powder, capsule, and tablet forms. Of course, dietary supplements are less well regulated by the FDA than prescription medications. Quality is not assured.
But if you’re looking for better sleep and tempted to try ashwagandha, consult a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine or a naturopath about whether the herb might have something to offer you.