Lori Alton via NaturalHealth365 – For many, the past few years – marked by lockdowns, isolation, financial insecurity, and personal loss – have been challenging. So it’s not surprising that rates of anxiety and depression are ticking up nationwide. According to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of adults with anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms jumped from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent in the period between August 2020 and February of 2021 alone. (In other words – if you’ve been feeling anxious, “down in the dumps,” or generally stressed out, you have plenty of company).
Fortunately, a South Asian herb known as ashwagandha may offer natural relief. Ashwagandha, botanically known as Withania somnifera, is treasured in the Ayurvedic healing system as a “rasayana” – a substance believed to stimulate body functions, slow aging, promote health, and support longevity. Ashwagandha’s benefits also include calming and mood-lifting effects, making it a useful ally in these troubled times.
Ashwagandha Benefits Include Improving the Body’s Ability to Cope With Prolonged Stress
Chronic stress causes a litany of unhealthy consequences, including cognitive deficiencies, impaired regulation of blood sugar and blood fats, suppression of the immune system, and disturbed levels of DHEA (needed for healthy production of sex hormones). Stress also causes elevated cortisol levels (which is known as the “stress hormone”). Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can lead to unhealthy conditions such as high blood sugar and increased levels of abdominal fat.
Ashwagandha is currently used in Ayurveda to reduce chronic stress, support the immune system, arrest premature aging and boost resistance to adverse environmental factors. Modern research has supported this ancient wisdom, and many scientists categorize ashwagandha as an adaptogen or a substance that helps the body deal with physical and emotional stress. (While “adaptogen” may lack the beauty of the word “rasayana,” the meaning is quite similar. By the way, other herbal adaptogens include Rhodiola Rosea, Panax ginseng, cordyceps, and astragalus).
Let’s look at some of the ways in which ashwagandha earns its classification as a rasayana/adaptogen.
Ashwagandha Is Investigated for Its Potential to Lower Cortisol and Promote Calm and Well-Being
Studies show that ashwagandha may have the ability to lower cortisol levels. In one controlled, double-blind study of adults with chronic stress, participants were given either 125 mg or 250 mg of ashwagandha extract a day for 60 days. (A control group received a non-active placebo).
The scientists found that the ashwagandha groups had greater reductions in cortisol levels when compared with the control group. In fact, some participants in the higher-dose group displayed decreases of up to 30 percent! Significantly, the ashwagandha groups also experienced improved well-being and substantial reductions in anxiety symptoms – along with physical benefits such as lower levels of inflammatory C-reactive protein, decreased pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.
The scientists reported that the participants also experienced fewer manifestations of anxiety – such as fatigue, sleeplessness, sweating, headache, muscle pain, dry mouth, palpitations, and feelings of impending doom. And, in a separate study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, researchers noted that participants who took 300 mg of ashwagandha extract a day reported a stunning 69 percent decrease in insomnia and anxiety. Incidentally, ashwagandha is a source of tryptophan, an amino acid that supports a stable mood and refreshing sleep.
Ashwagandha Benefits May Include Improved Brain Function and Sharper Memory
Ashwagandha contains a group of naturally-occurring steroids called withanolides. These antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds have been shown to protect against brain cell degeneration by reducing the production of harmful reactive oxygen species (free radicals). In animal studies, withanolides helped to reverse behavioral deficits, promote brain cell growth, and reduce amyloid plaque deposits in the brain.
Human studies are limited, but several have supported ashwagandha’s ability to improve cognition and memory. For example, one controlled study showed that 500 mg of ashwagandha extract a day improved reaction time and task performance in healthy men – while another demonstrated that 600 mg a day significantly improved participants’ memory, task performance, and attention.
Ashwagandha Helps with Blood Sugar Control
In addition to contributing to deposits of unhealthy abdominal fat, elevated cortisol levels can cause high blood sugar. Ashwagandha, which is rich in blood sugar-lowering phenolic compounds and flavonoids, may help to address this problem. Maintaining stable blood sugar helps to discourage binge eating and food cravings, thereby helping to ward off overeating. Good blood sugar control may also help reduce disturbing mood swings.
Preliminary test-tube and animal studies support ashwagandha’s blood sugar-lowering effects. Some clinical trials suggest that ashwagandha can reduce blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity in levels in humans.
If you would like to try supplementing with ashwagandha, experts recommend choosing a high-quality formulation standardized to contain 1 to 10 percent withanolides. Natural healers typically advise servings of 300 mg to 1,500 mg a day – but consult your qualified integrative physician before trying ashwagandha. (Of course, if your worry and distress are difficult to control, or if your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, discuss the situation with your trusted health professional).
Ashwagandha seems to have both calming and energizing effects, with aficionados reporting that it can improve sleep quality, promote feelings of contentment, and help mental focus. So maybe it’s time to give this soothing herb a try!
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