Ashwagandha Background & Benefits
Ashwagandha is Sanskrit for "smell of the horse". This name refers to two characteristics of the herb; one is that the fresh roots emit the smell of a horse. The second reason is that there is a commonly held belief that a person consuming extracts of ashwagandha may develop strength and vitality similar to that of a horse.
Ashwagandha's botanical name is Withania somnifera, and it's also known by several other names including Indian Ginseng and Winter Cherry.
The ashwagandha plant is a small shrub with yellow flowers that's native to India and North Africa. Extracts or powder from the plant's root, and sometimes leaves, are used for medicinal purposes.
Ashwagandha is one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda, a form of traditional medicine based on Indian principles of healing. It has been used for over 3,000 years to relieve stress, improve energy and help with thinking and concentration.
Many of ashwagandha's health benefits are attributed to its high concentration of naturally occurring compounds called withanolides. Since their discovery in 1965, over 900 different types of withanolides have been discovered. Withanolides exhibit a remarkable and diverse biological activity, for example by reducing inflammation across multiple key inflammatory pathways.
Ashwagandha root contains around 40 withanolides, plus a variety of other compounds including 12 alkaloids, several flavonoids and another group of compounds called sitoindosides.
Ashwagandha is referred to as an adaptogen, meaning, it helps the body adapt to, or manage stress.
Stress is a condition arising from external physical or mental overload. It can make a person feel embattled, nervous, anxious or otherwise less capable of full and normal response to environmental demands. Persistent stress can result in both psychological and physical ailments such as depression or high blood pressure. In addition, elevated stress hormones create a physiological change that makes the body store more energy - to get the body ready for the next stressful event - the result is increased appetite and increased storage of fat, resulting in weight gain.
Stress is part of the normal human condition. In terms of evolution, the stress response is a survival mechanism that enabled our primitive ancestors to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The physiological response to a perceived threat triggers a near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses that help someone fight off the threat or flee to safety. The stress response is often referred to as "fight or flight".
Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.
There are multiple hormones involved in the body's stress response, starting with the rapid release of adrenaline. It is the rapid release of adrenaline in stressful situations that allows people to do things like jump out of the way of an oncoming car without even thinking about it.
After the immediate release of adrenaline, a series of other hormones are released with the end result being the release of cortisol from the adrenal gland. Cortisol is the hormone that keeps the body in a state of stress for longer periods of time.
Ashwagandha is clinically proven to reduce cortisol levels when someone is under stress, hence reducing chronic stress. By reducing cortisol levels, ashwagandha not only reduces the feeling of stress, but it also creates related benefits such as reduced stress-induced weight gain, improved sleep and better cognition and memory.
Uses of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha has gained huge popularity over recent years. Ashwagandha is featured in a wide variety of products including supplements, superfood powders, gummies and even chocolate!
The most common reason people take ashwagandha is to help them through times of stress. It is also used to assist with sleep, to help with stress-induced overeating, and to assist women through hormone-induced mood changes such as PMT and menopause.
White, P. T., et al. Natural Withanolides in the Treatment of Chronic Diseases. Adv Exp Med Biol.928:329-373; 2016.
Choudhary, D. et. al. Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment with Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine 1-11; 2016.
Chandrasekhar, K., et al. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. Jul - Sep 2012. Vol 34. Issue 3.
Kelgane, S. B., Efficacy and Tolerability of Ashwagandha Root Extract in the Elderly for Improvement of General Well-being and Sleep: A Prospective, Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Study. Cureus. 2020 Feb; 12(2): e7083.