Two recent publications—and a growing number of botanical expertsquestion the quality of the science that has led to ashwagandha being banned in one country and sparked concerns over the safety of the herb in Europe.

Researchers from the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi report in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology that questionable science may have be behind attempts in several countries to ban ashwagandha. As they explain, people have used ashwagandha as a natural remedy for more than 3,000 years to treat many ailments, yet the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration (DVFA) banned the herb in 2023, and more European countries are considering a ban as well, calling for independent risk assessments on the safety of the herb when used in pregnancy.

The reason several countries are raising concerns about an herb that has such a long history of use: A report contends that ashwagandha-based products have potential negative impacts on human hormones and a purported ability to induce abortion. As explained in the article University of Mississippi Researchers Review Reasoning for Nordic Ashwagandha Ban, a 2020 study by Technical University of Denmark (DTU) suggested that ashwagandha could induce abortions and disrupt functions of sex hormones and the thyroid, and this triggered the ban in Denmark

Ole Miss researchers Ikhlas Khan and Amar Chittiboyina noted: "In an ideal world, regulatory decisions are based on technically sound, critically reviewed, and reproducible scientific data. This is not always the case in actuality; indeed, it might not always be possible with botanical research." Still, they set out to separate "good science from questionable science" to get an unbiased view of whether evidence actually supports a ban. Their conclusion: “When these kinds of decisions are made, they should be on solid science. We did not see solid evidence to come up with a decision that would ban ashwagandha. There is not much scientific evidence to prove that it is a dangerous thing.” Read their findings.

Now, a second report published in Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine titled Danish ban on Ashwagandha: Truth, evidence, ethics, and regulations dissects the science in the DTU report. The authors, from Savitribai Phule Pune University in India, note, "The ban on Ashwagandha by Denmark invites scientific scrutiny as this decision may have far reaching consequences. Therefore, as a scientific journal, it is our duty to take its due cognizance."

Speaking to ashwaganda's long history of use, the authors explain: "It is widely known for its health benefits and has attracted more attention during COVID-19 pandemic. It is readily available as a dietary supplement in many countries. It is recognized in several pharmacopoeia and authoritative compendiums worldwide, such as the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India, Indian Pharmacopoeia, British Pharmacopoeia, European Pharmacopoeia, United States Pharmacopoeia, American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Japanese Pharmacopoeia, Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China, and the World Health Organization's Monographs."

Looking at the DTU report, the authors contend: "The DTU report has several technical, scientific, and ethical pitfalls. This report does not seem to be peer-reviewed, the credentials of the authors, funding sources, and conflict of interests are not disclosed... Although the mandate from DVFA is on Ashwagandha roots, it draws conclusions from studies on whole plants, stems, leaves, fruits/berries clearly irrelevant to this case. Generally, the DTU report is far from a critical review or analysis and inconsistent with the methodology commonly practiced in food and pharmaceutical sciences making it substandard and misleading."

Experts at McGill University also explored the reasons for the ban. Analyzing the DTU report, author Maya McKeown notes "...the report does not present a clear case for ashwagandha’s effect on hormones and fertility. The cases mentioned by the authors are rare, and many studies are included in which no evidence of thyroid problems was found. As far as abortion is concerned, the report presents no clinical evidence of ashwagandha as an abortifacient. Reference is made to the World Health Association’s advice that people should not consume ashwagandha during pregnancy or breastfeeding because 'there is information that the root has been used as an abortifacient.'...The concerns brought up by the DTU’s report are significant but not backed by significant clinical evidence – especially the claims about ashwagandha inducing abortions.

How ashwaganda's safety came into question; setting the record straight

Providing the backstory on the abortifacient effects, the experts at Savitribai Phule Pune University explain: "The primary reference for the DTU report's conclusion on abortifacient effects is the World Health Organization's (WHO) Monograph on Selected Medicinal Plants on Ashwagandha (2009) that in turn refers to the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) Ashwagandha Root Monograph and Therapeutic Compendium (2000). However, this reference chain perpetuates citation distortion. The report does not correctly interpret the AHP monograph and support abortifacient effect; rather, it highlights Ashwagandha's traditional use to prevent miscarriage and stabilize pregnancies. The AHP editor has issued a clarification that defeats the DTU report's foundation."

That clarification, from AHP President Roy Upton, explains that AHP's 2000 review stated the following: “There are conflicting reports regarding the use of ashwagandha in pregnancy. Large but undefined doses have been reported to possess abortifacient activity (Chadha 1976; Svoboda 1992). Of several ayurvedic practitioners consulted, none reported having observed an abortifacient activity clinically. Conversely, ashwagandha has, traditionally and in modern ayurvedic practice, been used to prevent miscarriage and stabilize the fetus (Tirtha 1998).” 

Since 2000, Upton states, "a comprehensive review of the traditional and scientific literature and all accessible citations that made any mention of ashwagandha as an abortifacient was conducted. Additionally, the opinion of experienced Ayurvedic medicine practitioners from India and North America was solicited. Neither the Expert Advisory Council for the revision of BSH [American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook] (third edition), nor experts involved in the AHP revision, found any traditional or scientific documentation that ashwagandha possesses an abortifacient activity. The earlier cautions regarding the use of ashwagandha in pregnancy and its claimed use as an abortifacient were based on anecdotal reports from the ethnobotanical literature that provided no indication such an effect was evident. Furthermore, when such reports were made, the overwhelming majority referred to above-ground parts, which in Ayurveda were rarely used internally, not the root, the portion used almost exclusively. Similarly, a review of the traditional and scientific data reveals no pharmacological mechanisms that would indicate an abortifacient effect."

The Savitribai Phule Pune University researchers further note that BSH affirmed the reproductive safety of Ashwagandha in 2022 and reclassified its safety Class from 2d to 1 based on new studies. BSH Class 1 signifies that a plant is considered safe when used appropriately, they note. "It is generally well-tolerated and suitable for use in herbal products or remedies." Read their full report here.

No evidence of an abortifacient effect of ashwagandha root

In his statement, Upton concluded: "While adequate caution when using any substance during pregnancy is warranted, based on a critical and comprehensive review of the traditional and modern literature, as well as the opinion of the majority of experts, there is no evidence of an abortifacient effect of ashwagandha root." Read the full AHP statement here: AHP Responds to Claims of Ashwagandha Abortifacient.