KSM-66 ashwagandha is a brand that stands out as a leader in quality, guaranteeing a pure, full-spectrum root extract with the highest natural concentration of key actives available on the market today.
Tom Johnsson, co-founder and head of R&D at Swedish nutraceutical firm MedicineGarden, which supplies KSM-66 ashwagandha, explains the importance of using only roots as a supplement and why not all ashwagandha extracts are the same.
Apart from lower levels of withaferin A, withanone, and alkaloids, are there any distinct advantages of using the ashwagandha root compared to the leaves or stem?
“The obvious advantage of using the root is that it has been traditionally used for 5,000 years. All the knowledge we have is based on its use. We know it works and we know it is safe.
“I've been working with botanical supplements for over 30 years, and I learned the importance of staying true to nature and not to modify the ingredient too much because it will often change both the properties and the safety.
“The fact is that we know a lot about the roots but very little about the leaves. And we can see that the use of leaves in supplements has already led to problems. In the Danish risk assessment made in 2020, the authorities found risks with intake of high doses of ashwagandha leaves. Similar risks could not be found with well-defined root-extracts.”
The ashwagandha root has been used for thousands of years for the treatment of skin conditions. Do you think its topical use has been overlooked by authorities, who have focused on modern extraction methods, which may have contributed to recent negative health claims?
“Ashwagandha’s topical and internal use are two different things. I don't think authorities are interested in the topical use when it comes to safety; it’s all about possible side effects. And what is very clear is the authorities have not been able to show any negative effects on a well-defined root extract - only on high concentrations of plant parts other than the root.
“What's interesting is that you can also see an effect on skin when you take ashwagandha as a supplement, and the reason is the same: ashwagandha increases your resistance to stress, which indirectly affects your uptake of key nutrition and the normalisation of your hormones, which will help your skin.”
Do you think the focus on more holistic, natural remedies favoured by consumers has bought ashwagandha root’s health benefits further into the spotlight, and thus greater regulatory scrutiny?
“Yes, I believe that there are three reasons why some health authorities in Europe have expressed concern. First, it is a very new herb, basically unknown to [Western] authorities. That, plus rapid growth and a great variety in the quality of ashwagandha products have confused the authorities.
“Then we must be self-critical; there is not any good pharmacopeia, and the high-quality safety studies are mainly new. This means it has not been easy to find consistent, quality information about safety. That’s probably why the authorities have mixed up the root, leaf, and stem and come to the wrong conclusions about safety.
“In the US, ashwagandha was launched in 2013 by KSM and, from there, the popularity spread to Europe.
“I've been working with adaptogens since the 80s and I’ve always worked with clinically documented extracts. Without doubt, there are no adaptogens that have such loyal customers than the ashwagandha root.
“The reason is obvious: it makes a difference. Most people will feel calmer, less anxious, and have more energy and stamina in one to four weeks. It is just more potent than most other things you can find.”
Finally, in rushing to capitalise on ashwagandha demand, do you see companies producing inadequate products that may later be recalled thus tarnishing the root’s health-enhancing reputation?
“There are companies in the marketplace such as KSM-66 that have carried out not only efficacy studies but also safety studies. But there are others who don't know much about ashwagandha and are unintentionally doing harm to the industry.
“These companies have, for instance, heard that withaferin A has been used for indications like cancer. They see an interesting position and create a supplement from the leaf, which contains withaferin A, not knowing that this cytotoxic component should only be used short-term and not in a supplement for a healthy, stressed population.
“For the same reasons, some companies spike the extracts, not understanding that when they change the relations between the actives, they also change the safety profile.
“When you have something on the market that suddenly becomes popular, authorities will ask questions. Especially when that substance, in this case ashwagandha, comes onto the market with variations in quality and different plant parts. That will inevitably increase the risk that there will be side effects.
“We've been working with KSM-66 since 2017 and, today, it is the most sold botanical supplement in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. We haven't had one single report of side effects. But despite this, authorities repeatedly put out warnings because there have been incidences involving ashwagandha-based products.
“The warnings all have one thing in common – unspecific extracts often without a known dosage or extraction method. But because it's called ashwagandha, it’s all treated the same.
“KSM-66 was the first Indian company we ever worked with. What they did was better than we had ever seen anywhere else because they didn't just launch a product. They quality assured every step.
“They purchase land and convert it into organic farms. They developed a unique, environmentally friendly extraction method [based on] green chemistry, and they invest in science.
“But that wasn’t enough; they also invested in third-party certification that objectively shows quality, traceability, sustainability etc. KSM-66 did something that I never have seen before. They really did their homework before they went to market. That's unique and that stands for trust and credibility.
“I remember very clearly when I first met the owner, Kartikeya Baldwa, and asked him about all these achievements and he said: ‘Tom, we are from India, we come with a botanical unknown outside of India. If people should trust us, we must do everything right from the beginning. We must be better than anybody else’.”