The herb is commonly used in Ayurveda, an ancient medical science that originated in India at least 5,000 years ago.5 It emphasizes the importance of disease prevention through healthy lifestyle choices and natural remedies, rather than simply treating disease once it has developed. Morley has noticed an increased openness to Ayurvedic approaches in the U.S.
“Support for Ayurvedic practices may be increasing in Western medical settings because of its comprehensiveness and long history, which may lend a degree more comfort for both patients and providers, in the face of the cacophony of medical information available today, not all of which is good,” Nanavati said. He added that researchers have begun to elucidate the mechanisms of action of some of these therapies, which has “made it easier for clinicians and medical scientists to feel more comfortable using some of the Ayurvedic therapies.”
Another study, published earlier this year in Phytomedicine, explored the efficacy of an herb called Rhodiola rosea (commonly called roseroot) in treating major depressive disorder.6 Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial comparing the herb with the popular antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft) in 57 participants.
After 12 weeks, the roseroot group had 1.4 times the odds of improvement in depression scores, while the sertraline group had 1.9 the odds of improvement. While sertraline was more effective than roseroot, it resulted in twice the amount of adverse side effects — 63% vs. 30% — suggesting roseroot may be a useful option for some patients.
Plant-based medicines can certainly create side effects and have negative interactions with some medications, but the adverse effects may be milder than those of prescription drugs.7 For example, “ashwagandha has, to date, had very few side effects reported, and there are fewer immediate ramifications from taking it,” said Morley.
While those studies involved oral ingestion, others have found benefits of inhaling the aroma of plant extracts. Researchers at the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil tested the effects of the aroma of sweet orange essential oil among 40 healthy volunteers during a stressful task.8 While two control groups experienced increases in anxiety, the orange oil group did not.