Healthy Science/ Anti-stress Benefits of Ashwagandha

Anti-stress Benefits of Ashwagandha

  • Adaptogens are substances that increase the body’s resistance to stressors in the environment
  • Ashwagandha possesses anti-stress, immunomodulatory, and inflammation-resolving properties
  • Supplemental ashwagandha has been shown to help relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are substances that help reduce metabolic stress by increasing the body’s resistance to emotional, physical, and environmental stressors.1,2

They are molecules found in plants, herbs, and mushrooms that help bring the body back into homeostasis (a state of internal balance) by restoring normal physiological function during times of increased stress.1

Although the exact mechanisms behind the anti-stress effects of adaptogens are not fully understood, their stress-protective activities are believed to be associated with their influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and key mediators of the stress response.3-5

Adaptogens may also promote recovery following physical exhaustion, performance during stress, and cognitive functioning through their stimulatory effect on the central nervous system.2,6

Some examples of adaptogens with clinical benefits for stress, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and cognitive health include:

  • Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) 7-10
  • Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) 11-13 
  • Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) 14,15
  • Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) 16-18 

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on the anti-stress benefits of herbal ashwagandha. 

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha (withania somnifera) is a medicinal herb that has been used in the Ayurvedic system of traditional Indian medicine for centuries.19 It is one of the most researched adaptogens, with numerous studies suggesting it possesses anti-stress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and inflammation-resolving properties.20-25

The biologically active components behind ashwaghanda’s anti-stress effects are withanolides, a family of plant steroids that can be found in both the leaves and the root of the plant.19 

  • Withanolide glycosides support a healthy immune response and have been clinically shown to reduce everyday stress.26
  • Withaferin A is one of the most studied withanolides, and supports heart health, brain health, and a healthy immune response.27-31

Of all the purported biomedical properties of ashwagandha, its activity as an anxiolytic (a substance that helps reduce anxiety) is perhaps the most scientifically studied. 

Multiple lines of evidence suggest that ashwagandha exerts its anxiolytic effect by activating some of the same receptors targeted by anti-anxiety pharamaceuticals.32-35

In fact, one of the biologically active compounds in ashwagandha has been shown to reduce anxiety as effectively as benzodiazepines without the same unpleasant motor and cognitive side effects.36

Clinical Benefits for Stress and Anxiety 

Clinical studies on the effects of supplemental ashwagandha find that it can significantly reduce stress biomarkers and symptoms of anxiety. 

In one such study, subjects with a history of chronic stress underwent a battery of tests  before being randomly assigned to receive either 600 mg of highly-concentrated ashwagandha extract per day, or a placebo for 60 days.7 

At the end of the treatment period, further testing revealed that participants in the ashwagandha group exhibited a significant reduction in scores on all stress-assessment scales, and significantly lower cortisol levels than the placebo group.7 

  • These results suggest that supplementation with a highly-concentrated ashwagandha extract supports an individual’s resistance towards stress and can improve their self-assessed quality of life.7   

In a different clinical study examining the effects of ashwagandha on stress and anxiety, 58 participants were tested on a variety of stress measures before being randomly assigned to receive either 250 mg of ashwagandha, 600 mg of ashwagandha, or a placebo for 8 weeks.8 

At the end of the 8 weeks, individuals in the ashwagandha groups exhibited significant reductions in serum cortisol levels and perceptions of stress compared to the placebo group. Notably, individuals in both ashwagandha groups also reported significant improvements in sleep quality compared to the control group.8 

  • These results suggest that supplementation with either 250 or 600 mg of ashwagandha extract daily can help reduce cortisol levels, decrease self-perceived stress, and improve quality of sleep for those dealing with stress and anxiety.8  

In Closing 

Although studies demonstrating the stress-protective effects of ashwagandha are certainly promising, more information about its long-term effects on stress anxiety are needed. As such, it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding its efficacy as a long-term solution for stress management. 

However, the current research does suggest that daily ashwagandha supplementation can help reduce stress and anxiety for those living with heightened stress.7-10 Talk to your doctor or medical professional about whether there is a place in your daily healthy regimen for an adaptogen like ashwagandha.

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