You have probably heard of ashwagandha before as it's taken the world by storm in recent years. But what is it? Ashwagandha is a popular herb that has been used for centuries for its scientifically proven health benefits. The herb is traditionally used to treat mental stress, which I will talk about more in-depth as we go, increases libido, and improves sleep. For more information on the other uses and benefits of Ashwagandha, read our Complete Guide to Ashwagandha supplements.
So, what is stress?
When we encounter stress, our body produces stress hormones that trigger a fight or flight response and activate our immune system. This helps us respond quickly to dangerous situations.
Sometimes, this stress response can be useful: it can help us push through fear or pain so we can run a marathon or deliver a speech. Our stress hormones will usually go back to normal quickly once the stressful event is over, and there won’t be any lasting effects.
However, too much stress can cause negative effects. It can leave us in a permanent state of fight or flight, leaving us overwhelmed or unable to cope. Long term, this can affect our physical and mental health.
If the stress is long-lasting, you may notice your sleep and memory are affected, your eating habits change, or you feel less inclined to exercise.
Some research has also linked long-term stress to gastrointestinal conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or stomach ulcers, as well as conditions like cardiovascular disease.
Ashwagandha and stress
Whilst some of us are yet to learn of the health benefits of ashwagandha, it has been used for thousands of years in India to not only manage stress-related conditions but, to also help with chronic fatigue, insomnia, and adrenal fatigue to name a few.
Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine) views ashwagandha as one of the most prized rejuvenating herbs, which is thought to nourish the mind and enhance energy, making them perfect for when we are feeling weak and exhausted.
Ashwagandha is also an adaptogen which, as the name suggests, means it helps us adapt to modern-day stressors.
What are adaptogens?
Classed as a modern-day ‘adaptogen’, ashwagandha adapts to the needs of the body, helping to support it and reduce negative changes during times of emotional and physical stress by strengthening the endocrine and nervous systems.
Ashwagandha’s ability to help the body adapt to stress is reflected by its ability to thrive in very dry conditions in poor-quality soils. Most plants would suffer from severe stress in such an environment but, ashwagandha can thrive! A growing number of studies have begun to emerge around this powerful herb with an impressive variety of health benefits.
Here are the top 3 wellbeing benefits of ashwagandha:
1. Lowers stress hormones and calms anxiety
Stress normally causes a surge in the adrenal hormones - adrenaline and cortisol – both of which increase alertness (sometimes known as ‘fight or flight’ which is what we referred to under ‘what is stress’). Ashwagandha tackles this surge in hormones as it acts directly on the trigger of stress by regulating the imbalanced cortisol level and nourishing the adrenal glands. It acts directly by regulating the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, from the adrenal glands.
Several studies highlight this advantage, observing ashwagandha’s ability to decrease participants’ stress and anxiety levels significantly. Out of five human trials that were testing the effects of the herb versus a placebo on the stress and anxiety levels of the subjects, all five tests demonstrated a significant benefit of using ashwagandha. One of the tests, in particular, was measured using an anxiety scale, scores decreased by 56.5% in the ashwagandha group and decreased by 30.5% for psychotherapy group (1)
2. Sharpens focus and memory
Ashwagandha may help improve cognition, memory and the ability to perform motor responses after instruction. Small studies have found that, compared to a placebo, ashwagandha significantly improved participants’ reaction times during cognition and psychomotor tests (which measure the ability to respond to instructions and perform an indicated action) (2)
One study even found that ashwagandha significantly improved participants’ attention spans, as well as their immediate and general memory across a variety of tests (3).
3. Improve sleep quality
Many people take ashwagandha to promote restful sleep, and some evidence suggests it may help with sleep issues.
For example, a study in 50 adults ages 65–80 found that taking 600mg of ashwagandha every day for 12 weeks significantly improved their sleep quality and mental alertness upon waking up compared with a placebo treatment (4). As we all know, stress and sleep are closely linked. Stress can adversely affect sleep quality and duration, while insufficient sleep can increase stress levels. Both stress and a lack of sleep can lead to lasting physical and mental health problems. Therefore, it is important that we look after our body and our mind by trying to improve our sleep quality.
How to take ashwagandha
Although ashwagandha can help lower stress levels in some cases, if you are continuously feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, it’s imperative that you speak to an expert. You can find helpful contact details on the Mind charity page which offers amazing help and support for people who need it.