End confusion when choosing herbs—Ask The Herbalist
A reader asks: I take Astragalus, can I also safely take Ashwagandha?
Great question. It can be overwhelming to sort out what is and isn’t safe in herbal medicine, and we are here to help! Let’s take a look at why people might take these plants to improve health, and consider what is known about contraindications and cautions for these, and then go from there.
Astragalus Astragalus membranaceus is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae), native to China and other regions in Asia, and has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The medicinal part used is the root, typically in powdered form in capsules or as a tea, or as a medicinal addition when cooking soups or grains. Astragalus root is considered to be immune-enhancing, tonic and adaptogenic, which is to say its great for for helping someone who needs to rebuild or tonify their immune system. Maybe they are fatigued, getting sick often, and have little appetite; perhaps they are recovering from something very depleting like some cancer therapies. Taking Astragalus can help them regain a feeling of vitality.
There’s one caution specific to Astragalus, though there isn’t universal agreement among herbalists on this — discontinue use during an acute infection, including fever or other signs that you are actively sick. I tend to follow this recommendation, using Astragalus as a preventative, and turning to other herbs more appropriate to an active infection.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Another rooty, adaptogenic herb, this plant comes from the Ayurvedic and Unani traditions in India and south Asia. Common forms are powdered herb in capsules, a liquid extract (tincture) or again, root pieces that can be made into tea. A traditional preparation is to cook it in milk and administer to kids who are not thriving or to help revive and rebuild anyone who is emaciated. Ashwagandha is suited for people who may be worn out, not sleeping well, stressed and chronically worried and could use help finding balance and support to relax and feel less anxious and get better quality sleep. They may have chronic pain, achy joints or other inflammatory conditions, and Ashwaghanda will be very helpful.
The only special caution with this plant is that it is in the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, which also includes tomatoes, peppers and potatoes so, for anyone with a sensitivity to those, this is not the herb for you.
So could you take these two herbs together?
Strictly based on what is known about safety and interactions, I would not have any worries about combining these herbs. In fact, adaptogens are commonly blended together in formulas and I wouldn’t be surprised if you came across a product that had both of these herbs in it.
Of course to get the very best answer, it could be helpful to have a formal consult with an herbalist. They could look at your whole health picture, including things like your nutrition, and current medications, lifestyle and what you are hoping to accomplish with herbs. They could help you sort out if you have a need for all of the actions in these two plants, or if there is an even better match.
One final note on the magnificent adaptogens—these plants are not necessarily meant to be taken long term. It varies some, from person to person, but I typically recommend 2-3 months use to start. During that time it is essential that you also work on any root causes—such as shortcutting sleep or relying on unhealthy convenience foods—that are most likely contributing to a rundown feeling or other imbalance you are feeling. After eight weeks, take a break for a week, and assess how you feel. You may choose to continue, but then again, you may be off and running in a healthier direction and no longer need them, or it may be appropriate to shift to a different adaptogen.
I hope this answered your question. If you enjoy our blog, please share it and encourage your friends to come on over and Ask The Herbalists.
Tara Thomas, MS Herbal Medicine, is a Clinical Herbalist in Seattle, WA.