Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, is a herb commonly associated with Ayurveda, a pseudoscientific alternative medicine system with roots in India.
Although there is far from sufficient scientific evidence of its health benefits, it has been used as an alternative medicine to deal with stress, anxiety, and fatigue.
Added to the list of problems that ashwagandha is said to solve, is hair loss. If you have been struggling with hair loss for years and have tried all sorts of remedies, it is understandable if you are skeptical about these claims.
So can taking ashwagandha really help combat hair loss? Here is our take.
The Key Comparison
Our quest for answers as to whether ashwagandha can indeed help combat hair loss leads us to a comparison between the causes of hair loss and the properties of ashwagandha.
Causes of hair loss in men
Almost all hair loss in men is caused by male pattern baldness which can be blamed on genetic traits of the individual man. It accounts for at least half of all cases of hair loss in men over the age of 40.
However, hair loss could also be caused by stress. Stress-induced hair loss has been known to cause heavy, sometimes sudden, shedding in a condition called telogen effluvium.
Uses of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen. These are substances that work to counteract the effects of stress and anxiety by lowering the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Their overall effect is an increased state of resistance in stress and reduced sensitivity to stressors.
Stress-related Hair Loss
In telogen effluvium, a condition in which men lose hair due to intense stress, large numbers of hair follicles are prematurely pushed into a resting phase. When this happens, they stop producing hair strands and affected hair could suddenly fall out when doing simple, regular grooming like washing or combing.
This condition could also cause hair to thin drastically, where the hair on the top of the scalp thins a lot more than that on the back or sides of the scalp.
With a clear connection between hair loss and stress, we can conclude that ashwagandha could potentially help to combat hair loss in instances when stress and anxiety are the primary causes of hair loss.
Let’s dip our toes into the science behind it.
How Ashwagandha Can Combat Stress and Stress-Related Hair Loss
To understand how ashwagandha works (or could work) to combat stress-related hair loss we will need a basic understanding of stress and the three-stage process our bodies go through when under physical or emotional stress.
Stages of stress
We experience stress as soon as our brains perceive any form of danger or threat. Although we don’t experience actual life-threatening dangers every day, our brains interpret everyday stressors like unmanageable workloads, deadlines, excessively tight schedules, and even the pandemic as life-threatening dangers, therefore causing intense stress.
The first stage of the stress process is an ‘alarm’ stage where the body simply perceives the stressor. The second stage of ‘resistance’ has the body produce adrenaline which is intended to enable one to defend themselves. The third stage is ‘exhaustion’ when all the hormones and energy released for protection are depleted.
If the exhaustion stage persists, the brain shuts down non-essential systems such as the digestive system, nervous system, and immune system in an attempt to preserve energy. That includes systems behind normal, healthy hair growth.
Adaptogens like ashwagandha help to maintain the brain and body in the second ‘resistance’ stage for longer, therefore, delaying progression to the exhaustion stage where other functions including normal hair growth are interfered with.
Adaptogens are no new concept in the world of alternative medicine. They have been used by Ayurvedic practitioners for centuries to help people deal with stress and anxiety.
What may be considered novel is their use and potential benefits for combating hair loss. There is little scientific research to support claims of its benefits for stress relief and even less (if any) to support its benefits for healthy hair.
Although ashwagandha is easily available in different forms, it must be consumed with caution. It is classified as a supplement that is not FDA-approved and is not regulated.