If you are at all involved in the supplements and health food communities, then you’ve probably heard the murmurings of a relatively new “super herb”. First of all, let’s set the record straight – ashwagandha is only new in the sense that the Western Hemisphere is finally started to understand the many benefits of roots and herbs that have been used for centuries on the ancient continents.
Ashwagandha, which is the subject of this article, comes from Asia; it is an Ayurvedic herb root that is central to the Indian (Hindu, specifically) medical system that emphasizes the mind-body connection. In the West, we often only really consider the body independently of the mind. Ashwagandha, to this end, is known to possess stress-relieving properties that calm the persons using it. Here, we will find out just how you can use this super-herb to your benefit in your daily life.
Understanding Ashwagandha: The Basics
The official scientific name of ashwagandha is withania somnifera; of course, this is a recent Western delineation. Outside of the scientific community, it is called by names such as winter cherry, Indian ginseng and others endemic to the regions that use it. As for its plant genealogy, ashwagandha stems from the nightshade family of shrubs. Naturally, it grows in many parts of Africa, the Levant and India. It is most well-known in India, where the traditional medicine of Ayurveda thousand its usage as essential to the balancing of spirit, body and mind.
Today in the West (primarily), the ashwagandha herb is often mixed with other substances to produce powders and supplements. It is becoming more and more common to be able to find both the ashwagandha powder and the ashwagandha root extract in specialty nutrition stores, as well as several online vendors.
Among its other valued functions, ashwagandha also fits under the adaptogenic herb classification. This is because it fits the triumvirate of necessary conditions: the human body must be able to tolerate long-term use, it has to act specifically to assuage bodily stress, and it has to confer a slew of other highly-studied and beneficial attributes of the body. Let’s see exactly how this works in the next section.
The Human Body’s Stress Response
There are, indeed, several different methods for characterizing the stages of stress response as pertains to the human body; in this article, we will analyze the highly-regarded Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome Model. The three stages to be discussed below are:
- The Alarm Phase
- The Resistance Phase
- The Exhaustion Phase
The Alarm Stage
The so-called alarm stage is colloquially known as the fight-or-flight response; it tends to occur as a strong response to sudden and immediate stimuli – such as if you’re running from a pitbull, if an argument escalates and you’re about to get into a flight, or you have to break suddenly in traffic.
The biochemical progenitor of the alarm stage is an adrenaline spike that is concomitantly attended by spikes in your cortisol and epinephrine levels. Your nervous system makes these spikes known through a tingle in your limbs that may be reminiscent of lactic acid buildup.
All of this is happening because your brain is sending a signal to all the organs in your body to prepare energy and resources for the purposes of combating the stressor. Your organs will be suppressed as a result so that these resources can be gathered from them; your heart starts to beat much more quickly and your pupils will dilate as you either get into a running stance to flee, or a fighting stance for combat.
The Resistance State
This is the post-alarm phase, during which the environmental stimuli known as the stressor has subsided – in your body secretes stress hormones (primarily cortisol) in an attempt to restore balance. For obvious reasons, this is also termed the “coming down” stage; you may experience some forgetfulness and irritability during this recovery attempt since your body is still on high alert.
The Exhaustion State
There are two ways to get into the exhaustion State in the system: after an immediate stressor, and as a result of low-level, chronic stress meted out over a period of time. In the first example, you usually feel very tired to the point of exhaustion after an intense situation, which marks the conclusion of the resistance stage. In the second version, you will often experience several markers of the exhaustion phase. One of them is gastric distress due to the suppression of your digestive system. Another one is a compromise in your immune system, which is commensurate with the low levels of energy you feel.
How Ashwagandha Can Help – Stress Management and Wellness
Since ashwagandha is a so-called adaptogen, it reliably provides assistance to your body in all three stages of the stress response. The first activity is to elevate how much stress you can tolerate before this series of responses is activated; additionally it mitigates the effects of the alarm phase.
Once the alarm phase does activate, ashwagandha will help your body metabolize cortisol in the other stress hormones so that the body can expel them and help restore balance. It does this in part by infusing your system with the energy necessary to shorten the exhaustion phase.
The Effect of Ashwagandha on the Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands produce several stress hormones – the primary to or a gentleman and cortisol. It is cortisol, however, that can have a detrimental effect on your health as it builds up in your stress is not addressed. In fact, too much chronic stress may induce the adrenal gland to start producing aldosterone. Ashwagandha is long been known to support adrenal gland health in several ways:
- Ashwagandha directly elevates testosterone levels to support adrenal glands; it also has a secondary effect on the hormones produced by the thyroid gland, since the latter are affected by adrenal function. The thyroid has direct action on the heart, muscles and regulation of digestion.
- Ashwagandha also helps to preserve the presence of vitamin C in your adrenal glands. This crucial vitamin is necessary in the regulation of the stress hormone cortisol; if vitamin C depletes to quickly, then this function is abrogated and your stress response is thrown out of whack.
- The adaptogen ashwagandha facilitates communication between the pituitary, hypothalamus and adrenal glands. When this triumvirate of crucial glands are in a state of miscommunication, then your fight or flight response can become haphazard and unpredictable – you may respond to vigorously in situations that don’t require it.
Ashwagandha Other Effects
There are quite a few other positive benefits that involve ashwagandha – many of which have been known for centuries. There’s a lot of research that strongly suggests it has a significant and positive effect on sexual function for both men and women. Due to its mood-altering effects, it’s also known to help support brain function and even weight management – the latter, in many cases, is due to significant bodily stresses. Sleep is also a reported benefit from users.
Despite the many positive benefits of ashwagandha, if you have an overactive thyroid, cancer diagnosis, or pre-existing blood pressure conditions, then you should always consult a physician before you begin using ashwagandha or other non-prescribed medications and supplements.