By Melissa Blake, ND
Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) is an important Ayurvedic herb with a long history of use.1
Also known as “Indian winter cherry” or “Indian ginseng,” this beloved herb was traditionally made into a fine powder then mixed with water, milk, ghee, or honey and consumed to promote youth and longevity.1
As an herb with a wide range of potential benefits, ashwagandha has become a popular adaptogen found in many supplement formulas.
What is an adaptogen?
An adaptogen is a classification given to herbs that have a positive impact on the stress response. In other words, they help you adapt to, or cope with, stress. Ashwagandha is one of the most well-known and best-studied herbal adaptogens.
Studies in animals exposed to environmental stress (cold water) and physical stress (endurance swimming) were better equipped to handle the stress and less likely to experience stress-related consequences when taking ashwagandha.1 They were better able to adapt. Point: ashwagandha.
Being able to swim in cold water for a long time is a type of stress that is less relevant to humans; however, studies in humans have also highlighted ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties in ways that matter to us. Participants taking ashwagandha root extract for 60 days reported significant reduction in perceived stress and improvements in general health.2 These are important outcomes, because much of our day-to-day stress is related to our perception of it. If we perceive less stress, we have less stress. Ashwagandha scores again.
Studies have also linked ashwagandha with overall lower levels of cortisol.2 Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” works best when it is not too high and not too low. High levels of cortisol have been associated with food cravings and an increase in appetite.3
Did you say an increase in appetite?
Hmmm. Stress-eat, anyone?
Stress eating is an all too frequent way many people cope with high levels of stress, and indulging in too much steamed broccoli is not usually the problem! Stress eating is more often associated with high intake of calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods (cookies, potato chips, chocolate, you get the picture) and may contribute to weight gain. When you feel stressed, you also feel less like exercising. Can you relate? Double-wham.
A study evaluated the benefits of ashwagandha on various stress-related parameters, including food cravings and body weight. After 8 weeks, there was a significant reduction in perceived stress, improvement in self-reported well-being and happiness, fewer food cravings, and even a reduction in body weight.3 Ashwagandha for the win.
These results are especially important because they highlight how pervasive stress can be. Too much or poorly controlled stress has the potential to wreak havoc on every system in our bodies.2,3 Even short-term stress can negatively influence mood, sleep, and appetite levels.3 Poorly managed stress that occurs over a long period can decrease immune health.4 Improving the body’s ability to cope and reducing some of the negative consequences associated with stress is a pretty big deal.
Ashwagandha has a long history of use. Although animal studies outweigh human trials, evidence suggests this herb as a safe and effective way to support a healthy stress response. Talk to your healthcare provider about how you can include adaptogens such as ashwagandha into your personalized stress resilience plan.
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