Jackson Adams, 24, started taking ashwagandha supplements after hearing about the supposed benefits, like increased muscle growth and strength, which makes it popular in the fitness industry.
He continued using it for anxiety, stress relief, and better sleep. However, he noticed what he called a side effect of the herb; he felt detached and emotionally unresponsive.
“After taking it every day for a few months, the emotionally blunted feeling could definitely be noticed. I noticed this in not only my relationships with my friends and family but also my partner. It felt as if you would just experience less feelings,” said Adams, who lives in Australia.
Using a CapCut template from the video-editing tool on TikTok, Adams shared a clip of himself at the gym after taking ashwagandha. The video then cuts to a clip of Nate Jacobs, a Euphoria character who’s known for his erratic and violent behavior toward people in general, including the women he’s dating.
“I wouldn’t ever be overly happy or sad about anything — a sense of monotonousness, in a way,” Adams told BuzzFeed News. “I felt as if I was in a constant state of disassociation, being detached from feeling any form of extreme emotion.”
Adams isn’t the only one on the platform using Nate Jacobs as an example. In fact, the CapCut template has over been used 2.3 million times, with other users sharing their experience with ashwagandha.
Overall, #ashwagandha has over 660 million views on TikTok. In one of the top videos, which has 1.3 million views, a user describes the experience of taking ashwagandha.
“You feel empty/numb as if you’re depressed,” the video’s text reads. “Your heart wants you to feel emotions but your mind won’t let you. You can’t seem to cry no matter what it’s like your brains telling you no. You don’t feel strong emotions towards anybody or anything no matter how close.”
Others claim it can blunt feelings from a breakup or relationship drama.
Here’s what ashwagandha is and what experts say about its ability to cause emotional blunting, or an inability to feel either positive or negative emotions.
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is an herbal supplement derived from the roots of the plant Withania somnifera, which has been used for 6,000 years in certain cultures to reduce stress and enhance mental well-being. It’s sometimes called Indian ginseng.
A 2019 study suggested that ashwagandha was associated with a reduction in anxiety compared to a placebo (although the research was funded by the manufacturer of the ashwagandha extract used in the study).
Some research suggests that ashwagandha may help physical performance by helping to reduce muscle fatigue, damage, and soreness, as well as promote sleep during recovery.
Ata Bolika, 20, from Germany, started taking ashwagandha to increase performance and fitness. In fact, a lot of videos on TikTok discussing the use of ashwagandha take place at the gym.
“The reason why I started was the benefits of ashwagandha, where it increases your sleep quality and testosterone by minimizing the production of the stress hormone, cortisol,” Bolika told BuzzFeed News. “I personally didn’t experience any bad physical side effects. The only side effect is that you really don't feel stressed or emotional in moments you need, like in the gym.”
Like all herbal supplements, ashwagandha is not regulated by the FDA in the same way as prescription drugs. Supplements in general may not have the proper dose or ingredients as a manufacturer claims and have been known to contain ingredients or contaminants not listed on the label. And it’s always a good idea to tell your doctor if you are taking a supplement so that you don’t take too much or to make sure it won’t interact with other medications.
“From this human experience, ashwagandha products appear safe and well tolerated when taken at recommended doses. Occasionally, gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, or skin rashes have been reported,” said Amala Soumyanath, the director of the BENFRA Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center at Oregon Health & Science University.
“There have been a few recent reports of reversible liver injury following ashwagandha ingestion,” Soumyanath added. “Increasing the dose and duration of taking any botanical supplement increases the risks of experiencing less common side effects.”
Although it varies, studies on ashwagandha for physical fitness have used daily doses between 240 to 600 milligrams for a few weeks to several months.
Does ashwagandha make you less emotionally responsive?
“Personally [I] feel way more relaxed and pretty calm in stressful situations, like when I receive bad news, or someone ends a friendship, or even a relationship,” Bolika said. “Like people would say — a coldhearted person.”
Emotions like stress and anxiety are associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol; some research suggests that ashwagandha reduces levels of cortisol.
“While more confirmatory studies are needed, research in humans and preclinical models suggest that ashwagandha can improve sleep and reduce stress, anxiety, and depression,” Soumyanath said. “Stress, anxiety, and depression might be considered negative emotions, but none of the clinical human studies specifically reported a blunting of all emotions.”
Although cortisol is associated with emotional states, Soumyanath added, that association does not indicate cause and effect.
“Since elevated cortisol is part of a response to stress or anxiety, the lower cortisol may be due to the reduced stress/anxiety, rather than the other way around,” Soumyanath said. “Outside of the normal range, very high cortisol levels, such as hydrocortisone therapy, are associated with euphoria, while very low levels in adrenal insufficiency are linked to depression and anxiety.”
The feelings people describe could be due to a placebo effect, commenters point out.
“It is not common for people to experience emotional blunting when Ashwagandha is taken correctly,” said Ariana Medizade, a California-based pharmacist who is a medical advisory liaison for a company that sells supplements, including ashwagandha.
Feeling emotionally blunted isn’t the best goal
While fictional characters like Nate Jacobs might seem appealing — say, if you want to be someone who's never at risk for having their heart broken — in general, emotional blunting is not considered an ideal state of mind. Instead, it’s often seen in people with depression or other mental health conditions.
“Blunted emotions can affect your concentration, motivation, mood, sex drive, feeling of connection to your body and others, and create a feeling of emptiness,” said Dr. Leah Sharman, a research fellow at the University of Queensland who studies gender roles.
Societal pressure may prompt people to think they need to be stoic, strong, and in control at all times and reject behaviors that are considered “weak.”
However, these restrictions can cause difficulty in expressing and talking about emotions. In general, men are less likely to receive mental health treatment as a result of practices such as restricting emotions, Sharman said.
“Experiencing and identifying emotions assists with our ability to understand the world and ourselves,” Sharman said. “While short term these might be the qualities that they are trying to achieve, long term it is likely to negatively impact a person’s relationships with others and themselves.”
While it’s difficult to know how this might affect their ability to get mental health treatment, Sharman said, “If these are qualities they continue to strive for as an ideal, it may impact whether they ask for support.”