Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb that supports mood, hormone health, as well as mental and physical stamina, especially during times of stress. 

With an impressive history of use dating back more than 6,000 years, Ashwagandha is one of the most widely utilized herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. This plant belongs to a class of herbs called “adaptogens.” Far more than a trendy buzzword, adaptogens are perhaps the most important botanicals in traditional herbalism, as they uniquely boost the capacity of our nervous systems and endocrine glands to maintain homeostasis (balance), even during times of intense emotional or physical stress. 

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at exactly what adaptogens are and the many health benefits of Ashwagandha.

What are adaptogens?

There are two parts to this word: ADAPT (which means to change something to help it function better amidst the current circumstances) and GEN (a substance that generates). Adaptogens help to generate a greater sense of resilience, and help us to adapt to the stressors in our lives by preventing full-on hormonal chaos when things go awry. 

The wonderful thing about adaptogenic herbs is that they’re food-like roots and generally non-toxic, even in large doses, and they produce a non-specific response (meaning they provide broad, general support in resisting a host of different stressors including physical, chemical, or biological agents). Most importantly, they have a normalizing and regulating effect on the ‘HPA axis,’ which is essentially our built-in ‘alarm system’ that becomes activated when the brain senses any kind of stress as a threat to our organism.

HPA stands for hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenals, but is also referred to as the HPAOT axis which further encompasses the ovaries (or gonads) and thyroid. The inclusion of these last two explains why stress can affect everything from our metabolism and weight to our sex hormone balance. 

As soon as the brain (the hypothalamus, aka the guardian of our alarm system) recognizes that stress is afoot, it sends a message throughout this entire axis, asking the pituitary gland for help and the adrenals to do their part (often by increasing stress hormones like cortisol in an attempt to combat inflammation). As stress becomes chronic, the ovaries and thyroid get the message too, which comes in the form of down-regulating the function of these two, as reproduction and metabolism are not of utmost importance during times of intense stress. 

In fact, in the face of stressors, the body wants to conserve its energy and resources in order to increase its chance of survival. Having pristine hormone balance for reproductive purposes becomes less and less important when the body is consistently under stress and needs its resources to go elsewhere. As advanced as we are in our current society, our bodies still work in quite a primal way, and even if those ‘stressors’ are coming from work, deadlines, and poor sleep instead of being chased by a tiger, our bodies essentially function as though the latter were true! Our adrenals, thyroid, and ovaries don’t know the difference — stress is stress, and adaptogens help us have a *far* greater capacity to shoulder those stressors *without* all of these crucial endocrine glands within the axis becoming so activated and affected. Because of our hectic lives and lack of stress, these herbs are more important than ever.

How does Ashwagandha work as an adaptogen?

One way that Ashwagandha helps us relate to the adrenal piece of the “stress alarm system” — is by modulating the HPA axis. This herb helps to significantly reduce our cortisol and anxiety levels. Because cortisol levels are lowered and the adrenals aren’t quite as activated as they’d normally be in the context of life stress, Ashwagandha also helps us to achieve deeper, more restorative sleep. 

Ashwagandha helps to control other mediators of stress beyond cortisol alone. This herb can actually stimulate our heat shock proteins (the same biochemical magic that happens in a sauna!) in order to enhance the repair of damaged proteins when the body is under oxidative stress. It can also help prevent immune suppression when we’re taxed and depleted. Traditionally, this plant medicine is also used to bolster energy levels, stamina, and athletic performance.

When we talk about the potential benefits of Ashwagandha, is it mostly anecdotal evidence through longstanding use in Eastern medicine, or are there any clinical trials (even prelim) that exist?

While we have plenty of anecdotal evidence through those 6,000+ years of use in Ayurvedic medicine, modern literature is starting to explore the use and potential benefits of this plant.

One study found that Ashwagandha may help directly modulate biochemical mediators of stress, including those heat shock proteins I mentioned (Hsp70), cortisol, and stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1). In this 8-week trial, 60 male and female participants with a high baseline perceived stress scale score were randomized to receive a low (250mg), medium (600mg), or placebo dose of Ashwagandha daily or eight weeks. A significant reduction in stress stores was observed with both the low and medium-dosage groups, and cortisol was reduced in each group as well. Compared to the placebo group, those taking Ashwagandha experienced a significant improvement in sleep quality.

And, remember how stress can affect your thyroid, by eventually down regulating thyroid hormone production (since it’s at the end of that HPAOT axis?) The body is smart, and would rather conserve energy when possible, thus we can experience a significant decrease in thyroid metabolism when experiencing long periods of stress. In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, 50 participants with subclinical hypothyroidism as evidence by elevated TSH (4.5-10) received either 600mg Ashwagandha or a placebo pill for eight weeks. After 8 full weeks of treatment, those receiving Ashwagandha experienced significantly improved serum TSH, T3, and T4 thyroid hormone levels compared to the placebo group. 

A literature review exploring the therapeutic use of this herb found that Ashwagandha possesses anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, antioxidant, and immunomodulatory benefits. The immune piece is key, as our immune system is one of the first things that can take a hit when we’re experiencing times of stress.

Finally, a 2021 review concluded that Ashwagandha may help manage depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health-related and neurological issues.

What are some of the ways to consume Ashwagandha? Are any thought to be better than others?

The therapeutic part of this plant is the root, so that’s first and foremost — you want to ensure you’re consuming the root instead of the leaves. This is not a plant that tinctures well, and it’s traditionally consumed in powder form, cooked into food or drinks (think ‘Golden Milk’ with Turmeric and Ashwagandha before bed) for full and proper absorption.

While powder is best, you may also take this plant through powder that has been packed into capsules for ease, as the taste can be quite strong for first-timers. You can find Ashwagandha in our comprehensive adaptogen formula, Adrenal Recovery. You want to look for something that contains the whole plant, instead of one standardized extract. While scientists believe ‘withanolides’ are the active ingredient within this plant, the truth is they’re most likely just *one* active ingredient among thousands of other plant compounds that simply haven’t been isolated and studied from this plant just yet.

Therapeutic plant compounds exist in a matrix among many different phytochemicals and polyphenols, and you want to consume the full range of the plant in its whole form, as close to the source as you can get. That’s not to say you’re not getting a benefit from that standardized extract, just that you’re also missing out on many other potentially healthful substances within the root that are tossed aside when it’s processed in this way. Gummies are a last resort, as to get the required dosage, they’re most likely using a standardized extract instead of the whole herb.

Is there a “best time” to take Ashwagandha, and if so, why?

When trying this herb for the first time, it’s best to take it in the morning and see how you feel. While Ashwagandha is not just an adaptogen, but also a “nervine,” (meaning it has sedative or calming effects on the nervous system), for a very small number of folks, it may make them feel initially a bit more energetic. It’s best to give it a try earlier in the day in order to gauge your response. If you feel calm and at ease, you may switch to taking it at night before bed in order to deepen your sleep and support recovery from exercise.

Is there anything to keep in mind about taking Ashwagandha as far as any potential side effects or reasons not to?

When taken as directed, even in doses up to 1,000mg per day, Ashwagandha is generally safe and well tolerated with few side effects. The most common side effects include upset stomach, diarrhea, and headache. If you experience any of these side effects, stop taking the herb and talk to your doctor; you may need to go with a lower dose, or it may not be the right herb for you if it doesn’t agree with your digestive system. Because Ashwagandha may help to increase sluggish thyroid function and support hormone conversion, those with hyperthyroidism should speak with their physicians first. Of course, as with all herbs, Ashwagandha may not be suitable for everyone, so it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional before taking it.

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