Aswhagandha for Stress and Anxiety
With the harried, fast-paced lives so many of us lead, we all wish there was a magic pill we could take to nip stress and anxiety in the bud. All it takes is a quick Google search to find an array of products - from teas to candles - that promise to do just that. But the science is sketchy for many items marketed for anxiety relief, and few have a history of achieving results.
An exception to this rule is ashwagandha, a root that has served as a tonic for stress-induced disorders for more than 3,000 years. Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that grows in dry regions of India, parts of Middle East, northern Africa, and more mild climates worldwide.
Considered one of the most important herbs in traditional Chinese medicine and the ancient Indian system of Ayurvedic medicine, Eastern cultures have used the roots and reddish-orange fruit of ashwagandha for a variety of ailments, from fever, constipation and skin infections, to nervous breakdowns and exhaustion from physical and mental strain.
Also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, ashwagandha belongs to the same nightshade family as tomatoes and peppers and is a robust plant capable of surviving in the extreme ends of high and low temperatures. Its name means “the smell of a horse” in Sanskrit, which refers to the odor of horse sweat that comes from its roots and its reputation for giving those who ingest it the vigor and strength of a stallion. Its bioactive chemicals include withanolides (steroidal lactones), alkaloids, and saponins. Though its leaves, seeds, and fruit have all been used medicinally, ashwagandha is most revered for its roots, which are typically dried and ground into a powdery herb.
A Stress Fighter by Nature
Ashwagandha contains compounds that are known as an adaptogen. These are a class of natural substances that may support the body’s natural adaptive response to the effects of stress and toxins found in the environment. Adaptogens are also known for helping to regulate hormones that promote the normal function of bodily processes, such as the function of endocrine organs, including the thyroid and the adrenal glands.
During stressful periods or bouts of frustration, the body responds with a release of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for a “fight-or-flight” response, a physiological and neurological change that, as the term describes, allows the body to better stand and fight against a perceived or actual threat, or run away (flight).
In the animal kingdom, the fight-or-flight response is crucial to the predator-prey dynamic, as well as social structures among pack animals and during mating season for a number of species. As society has advanced, the need to run away or fight against challenges is nearly absent many people’s lives. However, work, debt, family life, traffic, disease, and relationships are common challenges that can provoke the fight-or-flight response. The issue with modern life is that many of the listed examples are inescapable and affect us for decades and most of our lives.
Being exposed to high levels of cortisol and adrenaline over an extended period of time is associated with many ailments, from digestive problems to mental health disorders, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and suicide. While ashwagandha is not understood to prevent or cure stress or any potential disease linked to chronic exposure to stress, this herb, when combined with other methods of dealing with stress, may help to lessen the short and long term impact of stress.
What Studies Show
Preliminary lab studies have found that ashwagandha may have a calming effect on the body by lowering the levels of the stress hormone cortisol produced by the adrenals, as well as regulating the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which stimulates brain cells and nerves. The herb has also been shown to mimic the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which slows down activity between neurons to relax the brain.
Additionally, ashwagandha also contains antioxidants that scavenge for free radicals created by stress and anxiety. Ashwagandha may also support the immune system and help to regulate the inflammatory response. Some people may also find that the herb is beneficial when applied to the hair.
Proponents of ashwagandha have touted its capabilities for not only managing chronic stress and anxiety, but also fighting fatigue and sleeplessness, sharpening mental focus and clarity, and helping to maintain a normal mood, energy levels, and feelings of vitality.
While studies have found a variety of therapeutic effects (and no toxicity) associated with using ashwagandha, much of this research has been conducted using animals or human cell cultures. More clinical trials are needed to understand its impact on humans and support claims about its potential benefits.
Several clinical trials have explored how ashwagandha may help with managing stress, anxiety, and depression. Significant studies include:
- A small controlled study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry examined the effects of ashwagandha in patients with generalized anxiety disorder. After six weeks, those who took 250 milligrams of the root extract twice daily experienced fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those taking a placebo.
- A 2009 study published in PLOS One found evidence that ashwagandha, when combined with deep breathing and diet, may reduce symptoms of anxiety as effectively as standardized psychotherapy. In a 12-week controlled study, 75 participants with anxiety were divided into two groups, with the experimental group receiving 300 milligrams of ashwagandha twice daily, along with dietary counseling, a multivitamin, and deep breathing techniques. When the study concluded, those in the experimental group exhibited considerably lower anxiety scores than those in the control group, along with greater benefits in concentration, social functioning, vitality, and quality of life.
- A 2012 randomized, controlled study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that people with a history of chronic stress who took 300 milligrams of an ashwagandha root extract twice daily exhibited lower cortisol levels and better resistance toward stress than the placebo group.
Researchers have observed that ashwagandha has more of an anxiolytic effect on forms of chronic stress, such as social anxiety, than it does on anxiety not related to stress. They have also noted that ashwagandha poses no adverse reactions compared to medications for anxiety, which are known to cause side effects such as drowsiness, sleeplessness, loss of sexual desire, and increased appetite.
How to Take It
Curious to see if ashwagandha can help take the edge off of your stress and anxiety? You can find the herb in powdered, dried, or fresh root form. The recommended dosage is 1–2 teaspoons of the powder or 3–6 grams of the dried root per day for optimal results. You needs may vary. For example, if you're looking to take ashwagandha to help support sleep, rest, and relaxation, your dosage needs may change.
Ashwagandha is also available as a capsule or liquid extract in dosages starting at 300-500 milligrams.
Though it tastes slightly bitter, mixing ashwagandha with tea, a smoothie or some almond milk and honey makes it more palatable. It’s best to take it with meals and avoid consuming large quantities, which can cause stomach upset, diarrhea, or vomiting.
Whether adding ashwagandha to your food or taking it as a supplement, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor about the proper usage and never use it as a replacement for recommended medication.
Experts warn against taking the herb if you are pregnant, suffer from severe gastric irritation or ulcers, have a sensitivity to nightshade plants or take drugs such as sedatives or immunosuppressants.
Don’t expect to get immediate relief by trying ashwagandha. It’s a tonic, not medicine, which means you may only notice a difference after taking it regularly for a few weeks. Adaptogens are slow-acting, but eventually they may help you feel more calm and centered than ever before.