By Dr. Shellie L. Rosen, PhD, DOM, L.Ac.
Ashwagandha (withania somnifera dunal) is a medicinal plant that has been used in indigenous medicine for more than 3,000 years. The ancient medicines of India (Ayurveda) and Greece (Unani) list ashwagandha in numerous traditional formulas to address longevity, rejuvenation, healing, and stress.
Ashwagandha helps balance stress’s physiological and psychological effects that lead to pain, inflammation, and emotional dysregulation (including anxiety and depression). Underlying stress patterns are often at the root of chronic illness and mental imbalances. Regular stress from trauma, distressing thoughts, or challenging life circumstances can lead to disease. Ashwagandha is known for its ability to calm the mind; however, it affects a whole-body response to stress via hormone systems, which naturally induces a more relaxed state while also preserving energy.
The endocrine, nervous, and immune systems that interact and respond to stress are called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. The HPA axis provides the body with constant energy to face stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released through the HPA axis during a stressful event (such as low blood sugar) to alert the body to a potential crisis. Excessively stressful thought patterns and lifestyles can lead to chronic stress and persistently elevated cortisol levels. Excess cortisol burns through the body’s energy stores while simultaneously making rest difficult. Cortisol hormones place the mind and body in a hyper-aroused state to respond to crises. Reversing this aroused state at bedtime is challenging, which results in insomnia.
Ashwagandha is considered adaptogenic because it has components that foster increased energy along with properties that nurture and calm the nervous system. When the body adapts to stress efficiently, fewer cortisol hormones release into the blood. The Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association published a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in 2008 that showed ashwagandha significantly reduced serum cortisol levels and helped manage stress compared to placebo in subjects experiencing higher stress levels.
The best forms of ashwagandha are organic, whole food-derived, and standardized to at least 5 percent withanolides (a group of naturally-occurring steroids). Look for labels that mention root extractions containing withanolide A, the chemical clinically tested to reduce stress and support immunity. Leaf extractions contain withaferin A, a cytotoxin used for various clinical purposes, such as treating cancer cells. If your aim is stress management, look for supplements in powder, capsule, or liquid extract forms that state a withanolide concentration between 5 percent and 10 percent. Depending on withanolide concentration, an initial dose can range from 300 mg to 500 mg.
Start slowly with ashwagandha. Some users report side effects such as nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, and diarrhea. These side effects may also be due to an allergic reaction. Always purchase from reputable places to ensure that the label represents the chemistry within the container. In the case of ashwagandha, side effects are rare from well-crafted brands but common with imposter formulations. Add other adaptogenic herbs such as rhodiola, eleuthero, or holy basil to achieve a broader range of benefits. You may also find that you gain more from blends than from taking ashwagandha alone.
May the force of ashwagandha help to balance your stress response. Abundant Blessings! Shellie L. Rosen, PhD, DOM, L.Ac.