By Andrea Wien
In our ongoing search for natural and plant-based solutions to everything from digestion to anxiety, we’re reaching across cultures and time for the answers. Adaptogens, a category of plants and herbs that help expand the body’s ability to respond to stress, while enhancing and supporting other biological processes, is the latest topic to join the public conversation. Despite being new to many in the west, adaptogens have been used in Chinese and Aryuvedic medicine for centuries. Today, you’ll find adaptogens popping up across the food, health, and wellness industry in drinks, beauty products, or simple in supplement for. These days, no adaptogen is more popular than ashwagandha. We’re taking a look at what ashwagandha is and how it can support various aspects of your health.
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also called Indian Ginseng, is a plant that belongs to a family of Ayurvedic herbs known as adaptogens. An adaptogen is an herb or plant helps the body regulate stress by supporting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the central stress response system.
In Sanskrit, “ashwa” means “horse” and “gandha” means “smell” or “essential characteristic.” Ashwagandha is said to gives us the ability to withstand the ever-increasing demands of life much in the same way horses use valued for their tremendous stamina and ability to handle increasing workloads.
Still, while ashwagandha is a valuable herb, it should not be used as a blanket treatment for stress and there are important factors to consider before using it.
What is it for?
“Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, uses ashwagandha for two main purposes,” explains Divya Alter, chef and owner of Divya’s Kitchen, an Ayurvedic restaurant in New York City. “The first is as a “rasayana,” or an herb that slows aging and removes imbalances. The second is as a “balya,” an herb that helps build stamina through physical, mental, emotional and sexual strength.”
Ayurvedic medicine focuses on balancing the three different doshas — Vata, Pitta and Kapha – of the body. These doshas represent the biological energies that are present throughout the body and mind. Divya says that ashwagandha is used for balancing Vata and Kapha, which clears and opens the microcirculatory channels in the body to allow for proper lubrication and circulation.
In the West, ashwagandha’s uses are wide ranging, though most people take it to lessen anxiety, increase energy, combat stress and improve sexual health. Research has also shown it to be protective against certain cancers and useful for improving cognition and memory-related decline in conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Overall, it has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, making it effective against systemic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
How do you take it?
The most common way to take ashwagandha is in supplement form, either as a pill or a powder. However, ashwagandha creams, oils, tinctures and tonics are also readily available.
“It’s always best to consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner to see if ashwagandha is right for you to take now, and in what form,” Divya says. “Ayurveda rarely recommends taking single herbs. Rather, it uses a synergistic approach of taking several herbs together.”
A number of supplements offer ashwagandha as a part of a larger blend of supportive herbs.
How does ashwagandha support your mood?
Ashwagandha simulates the effects of GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that promotes calmness and has been shown to stimulate nerve growth. It’s known as a nootropic herb, or one that supports the brain and healthy cognitive function.
“Because ashwagandha can gradually help reverse the negative effects of stress, reduce anxiety and depression without causing drowsiness and enhance sexual potency, it’s highly mood supportive,” Divya adds.
How does ashwagandha help with stress?
Ashwagandha works to decrease stress by acting on the body’s cortisol response. Cortisol is a stress hormone, but it’s also critical for optimal health and follows an important daily rhythm. It’s higher in the morning to get you out of bed and decreases as the day goes on, hitting its low point at night so you can sleep.
However, people experiencing chronic stress have increased levels of cortisol throughout the day, switching them into a perpetual state of fight-or-flight. Over time, high levels of cortisol can cause the adrenals to “burn out,” leading to an inability to produce cortisol in the appropriate levels. This leads to crash-like symptoms, which can include fatigue, depression, weight loss and low blood pressure.
“Scientific studies show that ashwagandha helps maintain normal levels of cortisol, working to reset the chemistry of our brain and body to help us cope. When combined in an Ayurvedic formula, ashwagandha can help us have a balanced response to stressful situations. It also calms our nervous and endocrine system, pacifying our stress response,” says Divya.
Which health benefits of ashwagandha are proven?
Ayurveda has studied and promoted ashwagandha’s benefits for over 3,000 years. The anecdotal evidence to support its efficacy is rooted in the knowledge of experience. Still, gold standard scientific studies surrounding ashwagandha’s effects are few and small. More research is needed before we can conclusively say ashwagandha is foolproof for the long list of conditions its purported to support.
That said, the initial research shows that ashwagandha is proven to work in varying degrees of effectiveness for these conditions:
- High cholesterol
- Increased physical performance
- Fertility, including sperm quality and mobility
- Cognition and memory-related decline
Is there anyone who shouldn’t take it?
As with all herbs, ashwagandha may interact with other medications, so it’s important to consult a doctor before starting to take it.
Ashwagandha is in the nightshade family, so Divya says people who are allergic to nightshades, including tomato, eggplant, pepper and potato may have an issue with ashwagandha. However, because it’s often the ashwagandha root that is used for healing and not the fruit, it may be better tolerated amongst this population.
“Ashwagandha is also a very heating herb,” Divya says. “If you are of high Pitta (fiery) constitution or have accumulated acidic toxins, taking ashwagandha alone in tablet or powder form will be too heating; you may feel hot flashes and irritation in your stomach or liver.”
Those who are pregnant and children should never take ashwagandha without consulting with a doctor.
Herbs are powerful medicines and should be treated as such, but in the right dosage and usage, ashwagandha can be an incredibly supportive part of your wellness routine.