By Sara Lovelady
If you ever feel overwhelmed by the never-ending to-do list of modern life, there’s one herb you should know about: ashwagandha. The root of this well-studied herb has a long history of use in Ayurveda—the ancient Indian system of medicine—for restoring vigor and strength after the body has been depleted by stress.*
A premier adaptogenic herb
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen. This remarkable class of herbs actually increases an individual’s ability to maintain homeostasis, even when under physical, mental, or emotional stress.*
Unlike most herbs, which work in one direction, adaptogens work in all directions. Ephedra, for example, is a stimulant. No matter who takes ephedra, the herb will have a stimulating effect similar to caffeine. Its direction, in other words, is always up.
Adaptogens, however, can turn the dial up or down as needed. Like a thermostat that heats or cools the air to maintain a consistent temperature, adaptogens increase or decrease bodily activity to maintain homeostasis.* Their direction changes depending on the person.*
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha reads what your body needs and then fine tunes your system in response. If you feel fatigued, it will energize you.* If you are stressed out, it will calm you down.* If you need to concentrate, it will help you focus.* If you need to rest, it will relax you.* Sound too good to be true? Check out the research!
Researched benefits of ashwagandha
Several human clinical trials published over the past two decades provide scientific evidence that ashwagandha is effective for the relief of occasional stress.*
In 2000, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that after six weeks of treatment with 500mg of ashwagandha per day, 88.2 percent of participants felt relief from occasional stress, while only 50 percent of those taking the placebo did.* (In other words, it was almost twice as effective!)
Another double-blind study published in 2009 and lasting 12 weeks compared two different protocols for occasional stress. One group of participants received counseling about diet, learned deep-breathing exercises, and took a multivitamin plus 600 mg of ashwagandha per day. The other group received psychotherapy, learned the same breathing exercises, and took a placebo. At the end of the study, the ashwagandha group experienced a 56.5 percent reduction in stress, while the psychotherapy group experienced just a 30.5 percent decline.* (Again, ashwagandha was nearly two times as effective!) The folks taking ashwagandha also experienced more marked improvements in concentration, energy, social functioning, and overall quality of life.*
How ashwagandha works
The active constituents of ashwagandha are called withanolides. They work by decreasing levels of cortisol, a hormone released during stress, and increasing levels of DHEA, a hormone that supports a positive mood.*
These mechanisms of action were illustrated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in 2008 that compared stress symptoms and hormone levels among people taking either 125, 250, or 500 mg of Sensoril® (a standardized extract of ashwagandha) or a placebo. Sensoril® not only helped reduce feelings of occasional stress—as well as sleeplessness, forgetfulness, and irritability—it also reduced cortisol while increasing DHEA.*
Ashwagandha root extract is sold in capsules or tablets, or as a powder or tincture. The withanolide content is often standardized and indicated on the label and can vary from 1.5 percent to 10 percent.