Ashwagandha (scientific name Withania somnifera) is described as a wonder herb in Ayurveda, the Indian medicinal science. Modern research has shown its benefits in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, infertility, sexual dysfunction, brain degeneration, memory loss, and inflammation, and improving immunity, strength, stamina, endurance, and blood glucose control.
In this article, I will discuss Ashwagandha’s role in stress management.
In the good old days, stress arose from an attacking bear or tiger—a matter of life and death. So it was immediate and acute.
In modern times, stress is more prolonged and chronic, as it comes from financial worries, job responsibilities, relationship problems, exam pressures for students, and long-term health uncertainties such as cancer treatment, most of which are practically never-ending.
There are various ways of reducing stress such as yoga, exercise, and mindfulness. However, a simple nutritional way relies on how stress affects your body.
Imagine a flying cockroach in the room. Some people get nearly a heart attack—their stress levels go through the roof. Some others don’t even give a second look to the roach—they feel no stress. So it is not the stress itself but the perception of stress that affects us.
When your body considers a situation stressful, it reacts by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. They, in turn, temporarily shut down different body systems that are not needed for immediate survival such as bone formation, immunity, and muscle growth. After all, stronger bones in the future would be the least of your worries, if you are likely to die from the tiger (or cockroach!) attack in the next couple of minutes.
Thus, reducing stress means lowering the body’s stress hormone levels. Just like mind control exercises, certain herbs help in bringing down stress hormones.
Herbs that help in the management of stress are called Adaptogens. They help your body cope well with anxiety, reducing its damaging effects.
Ashwagandha is an herb used for thousands of years in India and is called Indian Ginseng. Both Ashwagandha and Ginseng are adaptogenic herbs, along with a few others such as Rhodiola and Schisandra.
Ashwagandha As An Adaptogen
- It reduces insulin resistance and blood glucose, which can help in type 2 diabetes.
- Lowered insulin resistance helps in reducing body fat, resulting in weight loss.
- The reduction in stress hormones lowers inflammation, increases something called immunoglobulins, and suppresses the levels of some chemicals called cytokines. This helps in increased immunity.
- Because of this improved immunity action, Ashwagandha is hypothesised to offer supportive or adjuvant help in cancer:
- Some small clinical trials have shown the benefits of ashwagandha for treating breast cancer.
- Another trial found that ashwagandha extract killed some cancer tumour cells.
- Ashwagandha is also found to help in blocking various ways cancer develops and grows.
- To know more, read from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, USA: The Truth about Ashwagandha and Cancer: Answers from an MSK Expert. Please understand that ashwagandha is not a treatment for any cancer. Continue your cancer treatment and discuss with your doctor whether you should add ashwagandha to your regimen. Only if she agrees, proceed with taking ashwagandha as an additional supplement; do not do so on your own. If you wish to consume it for preventive reasons, you may do so.
- A hormone called DHEA-sulphate or DHEAS counterbalances the effect of cortisol, the stress hormone. When the cortisol levels go up, the DHEAS levels go down and vice versa. DHEAS is a precursor to the male hormone testosterone and the female hormone oestrogen. The levels of these hormones start dropping after the age of 20 in our bodies, indirectly ageing the body, which is why DHEAS is called the longevity hormone:
- As Ashwagandha reduces the levels of cortisol, the DHEAS levels rise. So, Ashwagandha indirectly increases longevity.
- Increased levels of testosterone in men increase libido. So Ashwagandha acts as an aphrodisiac in men. Significantly, Ashwagandha improves testosterone levels only in men and not in women.
- Ashwagandha also improves the semen quality.
- Reducing stress levels in men, increasing antioxidant compounds, and increasing semen quality improves male fertility.
- Increased levels of oestrogen in women increase fertility and libido. So Ashwagandha acts as an aphrodisiac in women. In them, DHEAS increases bone density, reduces body fat, improves sexual function, and corrects some hormonal problems.
All these benefits accrue from Ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties.
Ashwagandha As A Medicine
Since we are discussing the stress-relieving benefits of Ashwagandha, let me cover some specific medicinal properties. Obviously, this does not mean you should substitute Ashwagandha for your medicines.
Ashwagandha has been used for more than 6,000 years in the Indian traditional medicine. So its effects and side effects are well known. It is considered a safe herb for consumption. Clinical trials have shown stable blood parameters, thyroid hormone levels, and normal liver function after consumption of Ashwagandha.
Anti-Anxiety Medicine, Lorazepam
Ashwagandha has effects similar to those of a medicine called lorazepam. Lorazepam is an anxiolytic, which means that it reduces anxiety and is also an anti-seizure medicine.
For technically-minded people, lorazepam is a benzodiazepine that acts on the brain. It produces its calming effect by increasing the effects of a certain natural chemical in the body called GABA. However, it has side effects such as drowsiness and loss of coordination.
Ashwagandha can give you similar benefits without the side effects of lorazepam.
Anti-Depressant Medicine, Imipramine
Ashwagandha also has effects similar to those of a medicine called imipramine, which is an anti-depressant and a mood stabiliser. It has side effects such as dry mouth and drowsiness.
Ashwagandha can give you similar benefits without the side effects.
How Much Ashwagandha You Should Take?
There are no studies on how much Ashwagandha one should take. However, most trials used between 500 mg and 1,000 mg of its extracts a day. Now, what is an extract?
This is where it gets confusing. So let me explain the logic, which is common for all herbal supplements.
Understanding Herb Potency and Standardisation
In the medicinal world, 100 mg of paracetamol is precisely that much worldwide. But herbs vary in their potency depending on the exact species, the time of harvesting, as well as the soil conditions. Their nutrient contents fluctuate based on the processing, too.
So herbs are normally specified as extracts (or processed versions) that are standardised in terms of their active ingredients. Ashwagandha’s benefits arise from its compounds called withanolides. So the norm is to specify how much withanolides your Ashwagandha powder is providing, and not the powder quantity itself.
Let us understand this with an example.
On the Internet, you may read websites advising 500 mg of Ashwagandha a day. That is incomplete information. The correct way would be to mention ‘500 mg of Ashwagandha powder standardised to 5% withanolides’. In other words, the advice is for 25 mg of withanolides (500 mg x 5% = 25 mg) a day. You may get it from any amount of powder. If the powder has less than 5% withanolides, then you need to take more. For example, you can take 1,000 mg of Ashwagandha powder containing 2.5% withanolides.
The exact wordings should be:
- Take 500 mg of Ashwagandha extract standardised to 5% withanolides; or
- Take 1,000 mg of Ashwagandha extract standardised to 2.5% withanolides.
Both mean the same. Sometimes, experts drop the latter part such as ‘standardised to 5% withanolides’. They do this because they expect you to understand that it is a standardised extract—a wrong assumption considering we are laypersons. Additionally, they assume that Ashwagandha powder or supplement exists only in one standardisation—5% withanolides.
I have seen Ashwagandha extracts with 2.5%, 5%, and 10% withanolides. What should you do if you encounter such a different standardisation? Change the amount accordingly; take 250 mg of 10% standardised Ashwagandha extract.
Preferably, divide it into two doses and take with meals.
As a broad rule, herbal supplements are to be consumed with food because that is when your digestive system is functioning at its best. Herbal nutrients, unlike chemical-based medicines, are bound to the plant organic matter and are best extracted by your digestive juices.
Who Should Avoid Ashwagandha
Certain categories of people should avoid Ashwagandha intake as its effects are not clear in these situations:
- Pregnant and lactating women;
- People suffering from autoimmune conditions because Ashwagandha boosts immunity;
- If you are undergoing surgery within two weeks;
- Those with thyroid disorders; and
- Individuals with hormone-sensitive prostate cancer since Ashwagandha increases testosterone levels.
- Ashwagandha helps increase strength, stamina, longevity, fertility, and libido, is a mood stabiliser for depression and nervous breakdown, and has calming effects on anxiety, hysteria, and insomnia. It reduces blood sugar, insulin resistance, and belly fat, and increases weight loss and immunity.
- All of these derive from its action as an adaptogen or stress reliever.
- Take 500 mg of Ashwagandha extract standardised to 5% withanolides, or equivalent, a day in two divided doses with meals.
To Read More
- Forbes: 7 Health Benefits of Ashwagandha, Backed By Science
- Cleveland Clinic: Adaptogens
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Ashwagandha
First published on: 26th August, 2023
Image Credit: diana.grytsku on Freepik