Is the Ayurvedic supplement ashwagandha the key to managing stress? Read on for more health benefits of this adaptogen.
Stress is a fixture of modern life, and anxiety and burnout can sabotage both our minds and our bodies. Even if you don’t feel stressed, your body may be relying on stress hormones to get you through more than you know.
Ancient medicine has long relied on medicinal herbs for stress relief. The substances used are referred to as adaptogens, as they help the body to adapt to stress. Ashwagandha is arguably the most popular of these adaptogens and can help to improve well-being and assist the body to cope with stress.
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It’s been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda, an ancient system of medicine practiced in India and is making a pretty big comeback thanks to modern research.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is a plant scientifically referred to as Withania somnifera and naturally grows in the arid climates of Africa, India, and the Middle East.
Ashwagandha is also a member of the Solanaceae family – a nightshade. If you’re familiar with nightshades, then you know they’re typically rich in health benefits for most people.
Modern animal and human studies show that ashwagandha indeed holds numerous benefits and uses for modern day wellness. However, for people who have autoimmunity, it can lead to inflammation and leaky gut problems thanks to the presence of alkaloids.
So, should people with autoimmune disease avoid ashwagandha? The answer is complicated. Ashwagandha can stimulate and suppress the immune system, so it may be good for your autoimmunity. Research in animals shows that ashwagandha can decrease the inflammation behind the disease, and can also reduce oxidation. (1)
However, ashwagandha isn’t always the answer. If you’re sensitive to nightshades, for example, it might actually worsen inflammation or gut symptoms.
7 Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
While this plant can’t relieve all aspects of a chaotic life, it’s certainly a place to start, and a good amount of research backs this up. Here are the top seven benefits of ashwagandha.
1. Reduces Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Whether you’re stressed from a big work project, a full load of family commitments, or a string of bad life events that have kicked you when you’re down, the internal response is the same.
The adrenal glands produce cortisol, a stress hormone that helps the body deal with stressful situations. But it can’t distinguish between stress that can be resolved or chronic stress that seems to be perpetually stuck without a resolution.
Regardless of the type of stress you’re fighting, ashwagandha can help the body to better cope with the physical and mental symptoms of stress. It has a strong anti-anxiety effect and can support the central nervous system in times of “fight or flight” stress. (2, 3)
Specifically, ashwagandha can reduce cortisol levels by nearly 30 percent, resulting in fewer stress symptoms due to a reduction in the stress hormone. (4) That same study also found that ashwagandha led to a significantly improved self-assessed quality of life.
2. Balances the Immune System
The immune system is controlled by several mechanisms in the body which, when stressed, can be prone to underfunctioning (reduced immunity) or overfunctioning (self-attack in autoimmunity).
In order to truly maintain health and balance, we need a modulated immune system that destroys the right things (and knows when they’re there) and protects “self” above all else.
Autoimmune disease occurs when cells in the immune system get sensitized to the self and mistakenly mount an attack against certain organs, tissues, joints, or body systems. There are more than a hundred autoimmune diseases, each with their own specific immune malfunctions.
Ashwagandha can both suppress and stimulate the immune system, meaning that it helps to modulate how the immune system functions. (8) It can improve the number of white blood cells and help to mount an attack against an actual viral or bacterial invader, while at the same time, it can protect the body from potential self-attack.
3. Supports Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
Stress is about more than just a mental feeling of pressure or anxiety. It sets off a chain of physical reactions in the body, one of which is elevated glucose or blood sugar.
4. Boosts Thyroid Function
Ashwagandha is frequently recommended for people who are dealing with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s disease. This is because it can help to stimulate the production of T4, the primary thyroid hormone, and normalize TSH, the hormone that comes from the pituitary gland and instructs the thyroid to produce more T4. (13)
Basically, ashwagandha helps to improve the underlying communication that regulates thyroid production, boosting the ability to get the job done when a thyroid has been suppressed or underfunctioning.
Because ashwagandha stimulates thyroid hormone production, it would not aid in cases of hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease, where the body is already dealing with too much thyroid hormone.
5. Promotes Fertility in Men
Health can take a hit from stress in many ways and reproductive ability, in particular, can be affected. In men, ashwagandha can help to improve both testosterone levels as well as sperm count and motility. (14, 15, 16)
Sperm is highly responsive to oxidative stress and the antioxidant levels in ashwagandha are protective of sperm quality, leading to improved rates of pregnancy in those trying to conceive. (17)
6. Protects Neurological Health
Stress in all forms can have long-term consequences for brain and mental health, especially when it comes to risk factors for neurodegenerative and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases. Ashwagandha has a protective effect on brain cells and keeps them from free radical damage associated with aging and diseases of aging. (18, 19)
Ashwagandha can also improve memory, attention span, and processing skills independent of Alzheimer’s or neurodegenerative disorders. (20) It can even improve the brain’s ability to learn, making it good for young and old alike. (21)
7. Promotes Women’s Health
Ashwagandha has a number of health benefits for women specifically, and not just in helping to decrease stress levels.
It can boost sexual function in women, and can also help to control fibroids. (22, 23) Animal studies also show it might address hormone instability and imbalance in PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), which is a leading cause of infertility in women. (24)
Ashwagandha is also helpful for menopause and the host of unpleasant symptoms that can come along with. It can help to regulate hormone balance, leading to a decrease in things like hot flashes, anxiety, irritability, sleep problems, and mood swings. (25)
Cautions for Ashwagandha and Who Should Avoid It
Ashwagandha shows promise for numerous stress and hormone-related conditions, but that still doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.
Since ashwagandha is a nightshade, there is a chance for sensitivity in individuals who react poorly to other Solanaceae foods. However, a supplement contains much less than a dietary source of nightshade, so it is not always clinically contraindicated.
As mentioned above, ashwagandha can boost low thyroid function and modulate the immune system, two factors that make it an effective way to address certain chronic or autoimmune disorders.
It is not for people with an overactive thyroid or Graves’ disease, and it should also be avoided in women who are pregnant.
If you take antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or anything else that has a cognitive effect, always check with your doctor to rule out interactions.
How to Take Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha often comes in a capsule or powder form, taken in varying doses depending on the purpose. The average recommended dose is between 300 and 500 milligrams of root extract, which should be taken first thing in the morning if taken in a single dose, or in the morning and evening if in divided doses. (26)
Ashwagandha can help the body cope with stress, but it doesn’t correct the actual causes of stress. Don’t rely on an herb to continue living a lifestyle that is maxing out your stress capacity.
Pairing ashwagandha with stress-reducing self-care is the only way to find long-term relief from the physical and mental effects of chronic stress.
You can find ashwagandha at most health food stores, from health practitioners, and online. Be sure to look for a root extract, not leaf, and double check other ingredients to look out for fillers.
Work with your doctor to determine the right dose for you, as some products recommend wildly different intake amounts, with some research showing that as much as 1,250 milligrams daily, in divided doses, is highly effective. (27)
Ashwagandha is a potent herb with numerous medicinal and therapeutic properties. In many ways, it helps the body cope with stress and can reduce anxiety, depression, thyroid problems, and even lead to better blood sugar levels.
As always, check with your doctor before starting any new supplements and look out for signs of your own sensitivity.
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