Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb commonly used in Ayurveda, an ancient Indian medical system based on a holistic approach to healing (1).
It is considered an adaptogen — a plant substance that helps the body adapt to stress and maintain homeostasis (or balance) (2).
For more than 5,000 years, people have used ashwagandha to relieve stress, improve sleep, and treat infections (1).
More recently it has gained popularity as a potential treatment for acne. But does it really work? Keep reading to find out!
Does ashwagandha help acne?
Unfortunately, few studies have looked at the effects of ashwagandha on acne.
An older (2001) trial found participants who took a supplement containing ashwagandha had fewer pimples after 4 weeks (3).
However, the supplement also contained extracts from other herbs, so we can’t say for sure whether ashwagandha was responsible for the results (x).
Still, ashwagandha does have some potential health benefits (listed below) that could theoretically help with acne.
1. Eases stress and lowers cortisol
It’s common for acne to worsen during periods of stress (4, 5, 6).
When we’re stressed, the body responds by releasing cortisol (AKA “the stress hormone) and other signaling molecules (6).
This helps us adapt to stress in a healthy way, at least in the short-term. If stress becomes chronic (long-term), these hormones can wreak havoc on our bodies (7).
Chronic stress triggers inflammation and sebum (oil) production on the skin, both of which can increase the risk for acne (6, 8, 9).
We have strong evidence that ashwagandha significantly improves symptoms and reduces cortisol levels (by up to 32%) in people with chronic stress and anxiety (10, 11, 12, 13).
This may be due to ashwagandha’s ability to enhance the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — a neurotransmitter that blocks certain brain signals (14, 15).
GABA produces a calming effect and is thought to play a role in decreasing anxiety (16, 17).
Even if ashwagandha doesn’t help with acne, it’s worth giving it a try for the stress-relieving benefits alone.
2. Helps reduce blood sugar
Insulin is an important hormone that helps cells absorb glucose (sugar) from the blood.
People with acne are more likely to have insulin resistance, a condition in which the body doesn’t respond well to insulin (18, 19).
When this happens, blood sugar levels rise, and the body produces more insulin to compensate — leading to high blood insulin levels (called hyperinsulinemia) (20).
Hyperinsulinemia triggers the skin to produce too much sebum, an oily substance that can combine with dead skin cells to form pimples (21, 22, 23).
A review of five clinical studies found that treatment with ashwagandha significantly reduced blood glucose, insulin, and hemoglobin A1c levels in participants with diabetes (24).
This may be due to compounds called withanolides, found in ashwagandha, that help stimulate cells to absorb glucose from the blood (25).
More research is needed, but it seems that ashwagandha could help balance blood sugars and combat acne, especially if combined with a low-glycemic diet.
3. Lowers inflammation
Inflammation is one of the main causes of acne (26).
It occurs when the immune system recognizes a potential threat, such as pathogenic bacteria like Cutibacterium acnes (the main bacteria responsible for acne) (26, 27).
This triggers immune cells to release chemicals, called proinflammatory mediators, that attack and destroy the bacteria.
Unfortunately, this also causes a lot of damage to skin cells, and it’s the reason for the redness and pus that we see with pimples.
Withaferin A, a compound found in ashwagandha, has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that could theoretically help protect against acne (28).
Studies in animals and humans have found that ashwagandha supplementation reduces levels of inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein and interleukins (29, 30, 31).
We also know that people who follow anti-inflammatory diets, like the Mediterranean diet, are less likely to have acne (32).
On its own, ashwagandha is unlikely to cure anything, but it can be part of an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle designed to heal acne.
Potential side effects of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is considered to be very safe for most people (33, 34).
Side effects like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are rare but still possible (35).
There have also been a few reports of liver damage in patients taking ashwagandha supplements for 2-12 weeks (35).
However, in most of these cases the supplements were found to be contaminated with other toxic substances (35, 36).
Ashwagandha can also interact with certain medications, and may not be safe during pregnancy if used in large doses (37, 38, 39).
Before taking ashwagandha, check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you.
How to use ashwagandha for acne
You can buy ashwagandha in the form of capsules, powders, and tinctures.
The powder form is best for adding to foods, and you can purchase some online here and here. Most studies have used around 5 grams (close to 2 teaspoons) of ashwagandha root powder (40, 41).
Ashwagandha literally translates to “smell of the horse” from Sanskrit, named after its unique scent. Many people find its flavor to be bitter and overwhelming (1).
If you’re worried about this, it might be better to use the capsulated form — ashwagandha extract. Typical dosing for ashwagandha extract is 600 mg per day (33).
Thankfully, combining ashwagandha with certain foods can help disguise its strong flavor. Here are some ways to include it in your diet:
1. Hot drinks
Try adding ¼ teaspoon of ashwagandha powder to hot beverages like hot cocoa, turmeric milk, and coffee. These cozy drinks can help you relax before bed.
Just remember to use unsweetened plant-based milk rather than cow’s milk in these recipes, since we know that dairy is linked with acne (42).
Here are some acne-friendly recipes that feature ashwagandha:
Next time you make a smoothie, add some ashwagandha root powder — you’ll probably won’t be able to taste it at all!
You can add ashwagandha to any recipe, but here are some ideas to get you started:
Oatmeal makes for a super easy breakfast, and it’s one of my favorite foods to mix in powdered supplements.
Try making your oatmeal with almond or soy milk, then sprinkle in some ashwagandha along with nut butter, ground flax seeds, and cinnamon.
Or, here are some other options:
4. Energy balls
If you’re always on the go, energy balls (a combination of dried fruit and nut butter) might be the best option for you!
You can add ashwagandha to just about any energy ball recipe, but it pairs well with cocoa powder and dates. Try these options:
If you’re not a fan of ashwagandha’s flavor, don’t worry! It’s easy to disguise in baked goods and other desserts.
Ingredients like chocolate and nuts can help mask the bitterness of ashwagandha. Here are a few recipes to try:
- Adaptogenic Chocolate Truffles
- Ashwagandha Chocolate Brownies
- Raw Adaptogen Fudge
- Stress-Reducing Avocado Mousse
Ashwagandha is a promising medicinal herb, with research-backed benefits.
It can ease stress, balance blood sugars, and lower inflammation. In theory, this could help protect against acne.
But if you decide to add ashwagandha to your diet, keep in mind that it’s unlikely to be the solution for clear skin. Healing acne requires a root-cause approach — there is no magic pill to cure it.