Ashwagandha: Strange Shrub Helps Kill Anxiety and Stress Naturally?
Could the answer to today’s modern stresses be found in the roots of an ancient Indian shrub?
That’s what proponents of ashwagandha are banking on.
This plant-based remedy has been used for millennia as a treatment for a slew of concerns and conditions, from arthritis and insomnia to infertility and low libido.
The herb appears to act as an adaptogen, which means it may modify the body’s response to stress, both calming anxiety and adding a gentle boost of energy.
Sounds amazing, right?
There’s just one problem.
There’s very little good evidence in people to support these claims.
The Promise of Indian Ginseng…
Ashwagandha’s use as a therapeutic remedy goes back at least 4,000 years. The shrub, a member of the nightshade family, has long been a staple of Ayurvedic medicine, in which traditional Indian healers use a combination of diet, lifestyle, and herbal remedies to achieve optimal health.
These healers believed that ashwagandha could invigorate body and mind. No wonder it’s sometimes referred to as “Indian ginseng”.
These days, ashwagandha has gone a bit more mainstream, with proponents claiming that it can help the body adapt to stress and overcome anxiety. The herb is considered by some to be a useful tonic, especially in these hectic modern times.
If the research pans out, ashwagandha could be a real godsend for those of us who chronically feel frazzled.
But just how solid is the evidence?
Stress Buster – or Just a Bust?
Research suggests that ashwagandha contains chemicals that might help calm neuronal activity in the brain. It also appears to act as an adaptogen, helping the body withstand stress.
This may be at least partly because it affects an area of the brain and nervous system known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which regulates blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
That’s what laboratory and animal research suggests, anyway. When it comes to actual human studies, the evidence is promising – but not nearly so strong.
See, just a few studies show any real stress-busting benefits for the herb.
One study looked at the effects of ashwagandha on 39 people with anxiety disorders. After 6 weeks, those who took the herb showed more improvement than did those who took a placebo.1
More recently, a 2008 study examined the biological effects of an extract of ashwagandha on chronically stressed people. The researchers found those who took 125 mg of the herb daily had significantly lower levels of serum cortisol, serum C-reactive protein, pulse rate, and blood pressure, all of which are indicators of the body’s stress response.2
It’s promising research, no doubt.
But we’ll need much more before giving ashwagandha the seal of approval for an effective stress and anxiety remedy.
Less Pain, Better Fertility…
Although ashwagandha is best studied for its use in stress and anxiety, some research does suggest that it may have additional benefits.
A few studies have looked at the effects of the herb on osteoarthritis (OA): One study of 42 people with OA found that those who took a multi-herb, multi-mineral supplement that contained ashwagandha reported less pain and disability than those who took a placebo pill.3
Likewise, a larger study of 90 people with OA of the knee showed that those who took a supplement containing ashwagandha had lower levels of pain than those who took a placebo.4
And while more research is needed, there may be something to ashwagandha’s use as a traditional fertility booster. A 2011 study of 75 infertile men suggests that the herb may improve semen quality in those who take it regularly.5
Proceed with Caution…
While ashwagandha still needs more study before it can be recommended as a surefire stress buster, it appears to be relatively safe.
That said, there are still some precautions to consider before you hit up the shelves of your local health food store. First, high doses of the herb have been linked to nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, as well as more serious side effects such as an abnormal heart rhythm, breathing problems, low blood pressure, and kidney damage.
And ashwagandha isn’t right for everyone. You shouldn’t take it if you have thyroid problems or take thyroid medication, since large quantities of the herb may overstimulate the thyroid gland. Ashwagandha also isn’t advised for people with stomach ulcers or with autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
Plus, it’s best to avoid ashwagandha if you also take sedatives, anti-anxiety drugs or herbs (such as valerian and kava), and immunosuppressant drugs.
If you do decide to add ashwagandha to your supplement regimen, look for capsules of the powdered root and take between 1 and 6 grams a day. Give it time: You may need to wait 3 to 6 months before noticing results.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1 Andrade C, Aswath A, Chaturvedi SK, et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the anxiolytic efficacy of an ethanolic extract of withania somnifera. Indian J Psychiatry. 2000 Jul;42(3):295-301.
2 Auddy B, Hazra J, Mitra A, et al. A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. The Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association. 2008 Vol. 11, No. 1.
3 Kulkarni RR, Patki PS, Jog VP, et al. Treatment of osteoarthritis with a herbomineral formulation: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study. J Ethnopharmacol. 1991 May-Jun;33(1-2):91-5.
4 Chopra A, Lavin P, Patwardhan B, et al. A 32-week randomized, placebo-controlled clinical evaluation of RA-11, an Ayurvedic drug, on osteoarthritis of the knees. J Clin Rheumatol. 2004 Oct;10(5):236-45.
5 Mahdi AA, Shukla KK, Ahmad MK, et al. Withania somnifera Improves Semen Quality in Stress-Related Male Fertility. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 Sep 29.
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