Health Benefits of Ashwagandha for Your Body & Mind
Ashwagandha benefits both the body and mind in remarkable ways, serving as a well-rounded natural herb for modern wellness.
Stress. Inflammation. Free radicals. Cell damage. Carcinogenic compounds.The inevitable side-effects of modern living? Maybe.
But it may surprise you to know that the “Indian winter cherry” can provide, long-term healing, preventative, and therapeutic benefits the body and mind need.
You may know this herb better as “ashwagandha”. And while we’re taught that chemicals with long names can be extraneous and synthetic, in this case, the convoluted name for the Withania Somniferaherb is an ode to its ancient Ayurvedic roots.
So it’s no surprise that ashwagandha, a small shrub with yellow flowers, has been used alongside the natural healing principles of Indian medicine for thousands of years.
Using the leaves and roots in extract or powder form, ashwagandha is one of those holistic, total-body healers, addressing interconnected issues like:
- stress and inflammation
- energy levels
- sleep and emotional health
- focus and concentration
- muscle rejuvenation and healing cell damage
- blood sugar
- anxiety and depression
- high cortisol levels (related to oxidative stress)
- high cholesterol and triglycerides
…and so much more.
Tall claims? Not in this case. Ashwagandha is one of those rare but emerging solutions in natural and alternative medicine that is constantly being studied. Ongoing clinical trials both legitimize the herb and highlight the extent of its healing potential.
So far, the “potential” has scientists and holistic practitioners in agreement: Ashwagandha works for a surprising variety of body and mind health “issues”.
The Nature of Stress
Stress is an insidious and often “silent killer”. It creeps up on us, over time, and its effects are felt when enough of the same responses have accumulated over and over again.
In essence, stress is a habit. When you respond to stimuli that you judge as being threatening to your well-being in the same ways, it eventually builds an association between the situation and the response. A track is created in the brain, a pathway that you practice over time.
Stress responses and our reactions trigger a series of chemical and autonomic cell reactions within the body.
Spikes in levels of cortisol, literal “brain freeze”, elevated heart levels, an inability to think through the situation calmly or rationally, sudden anxiety or rage — these are all harbingers of stress. But let’s not paint it with a bad brush: Stress is a necessary thing. It’s the brain’s evolutionary mechanism to respond to situations of danger. The fight-or-flight response kicks into high gear, draining blood from the reasoning, conscious prefrontal cortex.
What takes over? That would be the amygdala, the center of the body’s emotional responses, a process known colloquially as the “amygdala hijack”.The problem with stress in our modern life, however, is two-fold: First off, post-industrial and knowledge-based societies just don’t experience lives that are filled with organic, nature-based stress.
In other words, you’re not hunting for your food, you’re not running from that bear and you’re not in major survival mode all the time (unless you’ve voluntarily chosen a life in the Montana backwoods).
So if stress evolved to be a necessary and even good thing, why get rid of it? While our collective circumstances have rapidly evolved, the body’s evolutionary responses haven’t yet caught up.
The result is that you can end up feeling the same sense of “danger” in situations where this flared up response is simply not necessary.
Some stress is necessary. But we’re feeling too much stress and too much of the time.
Inflammation and oxidative stress
Inflammation and oxidative stress are interdependent. The occurrence of each is linked to a number of chronic diseases and conditions.
- Oxidative stress: an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals cause chemical reactions called oxidation; while reactive agents are not always bad, the imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants can lead to a disruption of cell signaling and even molecular damage.
- Inflammation: your body’s first response. A defense mechanism, inflammation is essentially the body’s method of protecting itself from illness, infection, or injury. Throughout the process, white blood cells, immune cells, and cytokines are produced. The area could also become red, heated and swollen (short-term inflammatory response). Over time, inflammation can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
Inflammation and oxidative stress are all about reactions and imbalances. They’re both processes that are can trigger each other.
Yes, oxidative stress can trigger inflammation if these chain reactions are harmful or cause cell death. And inflammation can induce oxidative stress further because the inflammation can release very reactive cells under the pretext of killing “invading” agents.
The troublesome thing, however, is that the body is essentially reacting against itself in this case.
What are the consequences of these interdependent events in the body?
- If low-grade chronic inflammation and oxidative stress appear in the body at the same time, it can trigger chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, alcoholic liver disease, and chronic kidney disease.
- Oxidative stress, on its own, is subtle but serious — depending on the balance between reactive agents and antioxidant “defense”, this type of stress can cause mutation in the cells (cancer) and cell death.
So what about ashwagandha?
As a naturally-occurring shrub, ashwagandha has properties that make it non-toxic (especially the root extract) and a highly effective “adaptogen“, meant to help the body manage stress.
It works exceptionally well when paired with:
- Terminalia Arjunafor physical performance (additive)
- Curcumin or silymarin from milk thistle, especially for its antioxidant effects
- ERK/p38 inhibitors, which have anti-cancer properties, for chemotherapeutic effects
- SSRI drugs, in aiding to reduce an obsessive or compulsive behavioral issue (for reducing obsession)
- GABAergic anxiolytics (including alcohol) to essentially “stimulate neurotransmitter synthesis and more naturally effect and even adjust brain chemistry in the absence of many of the side effects experienced with drugs”
Besides this, natural properties of ashwagandha have also been seen to:
- Reduce C-reactive protein (an inflammatory biomarker for cardiovascular disease and arterial plaque)
- Greatly decrease cortisol by up to 30% in otherwise healthy adults who chronically experience stress
- Increase the effects of anxiolytic in the context of chronic stress
- Greatly boost the performance of energy output in those who do strength training and weight lifting
- Produce a 10% decrease in the levels of total cholesterol
- Enhance anaerobic running capacity through supplementation of 500mg for intermittent sprinting exercises
- Decrease blood sugar (4.7%), blood pressure (1.6% systolic and 5.6% diastolic), and produce calming effects over the total body, reducing the body’s resting pulse rate
- Bring about a “very high” increase in sperm quality as well as boosting levels of testosterone in men
- Produce a notable increase (17.3% over 60 days) in HDL-C, the “good” cholesterol that protects the heart
Dosage and Quality
Convinced that you need to be incorporating ashwagandha into your everyday supplementation routine? Good. Because now you’ll need to find the right dosage for you.
Ashwagandha is not one of those “too good to be true” natural supplements. Its effects have been attested to for thousands of years and the results are proving consistent in studies across the board.
So what about dosage? Well, there are a couple of things to note.
First off, for all its “good” points, ashwagandha comes with its own set of warnings. Because it’s been seen to cause a decrease in FSH (or follicle luteinizing hormone), it’s not recommended during pregnancy. Large doses can actually cause an abortion.
You should also try and avoid alcohol and strong sedatives while taking ashwagandha and decrease your dosage if you’re taking anti-anxiety drugs.
All that being said, wildcrafted, biodynamic and organic supplement products are the highest in terms of quality and potency as these have often been tested for optimal levels of medicinal compounds.
So, where possible, choose ashwagandha that comes from a tested and high-quality source. You should also note that, while dosages are varied based on your own specific case, it’s best that you start slowly and work your way up.
Typical dosing is 3-6 g/day of the dried root and 300-500 mg/day of the extract. Depending on your needs, you’re safe to take up to 1,250 mg/day.
You can incorporate ashwagandha in the form of capsules, liquid extracts, powders, and tablets. If you’re working with a holistic medicinal practitioner, a doctor or naturopath, you can gain access to special, high-potency standardized extracts.