Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng, is an adaptogenic plant with herbal/medicinal properties in humans. Adaptogens are substances that modulate our response to stress (i.e. help the body cope with external and internal stressors).
Ashwagandha is native to African countries and the Middle East, but is now cultivated in the United States as well. The plant belongs to the same family as the tomato, bearing a red fruit about the size of a peanut. It has been used in traditional medicine (ayurveda) for centuries as a means of boosting the immune system.
In recent decades, modern medical research has grown significantly on the therapeutic effects of ashwagandha supplementation. Thus far, evidence is rather compelling that this herb has myriad beneficial properties in humans.
In particular, it appears useful for fighting stress, anxiety, illness, and may also promote cognition. That being said, some research has even gone so far as to suggest ashwagandha is effective for treatment of neurodegenerative disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Read on as this article goes in depth on how ashwagandha works, its research-backed benefits, how it may help reduce anxiety, how to dose it, and any potential side effects and safety concerns to be aware of.
How Ashwagandha Works
Ashwagandha itself contains a variety of medicinal chemicals, such as alkaloids, choline, saponins and steroidal lactones (withanolides and withaferins). Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with these chemicals, this article will explain their importance herein.
In Western medicine, the root of the plant is the largest focus for research as it is the most abundant in choline and steroidal lactones. In fact, the first known withanolide – Withaferin-A – was isolated from ashwagandha root, and since then much research has been conducted on this specific chemical. Withaferin-A has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antidepressant, antioxidant, and immune enhancing properties in humans.
The mechanisms behind how Withaferin-A enacts these properties are quite complex on a molecular level. To put it quite simply, Withaferin-A either increases or decreases expression of certain proteins and enzymes in cells, which has downstream ramifications for health and longevity.
For example, decreasing/inhibiting proteins that go onto create inflammation and pain in the body is how many pain over-the-counter painkillers work. Refer to the diagram below for specifics of which proteins and enzymes Withaferin-A interacts with.
**Note: CSC = Cancer Stem Cells; Apoptotic = Programmed Cell Death (not a “bad” thing, unlike necrosis)
Continuing on, choline is a water-soluble vitamin that is crucial for the formation of acetylcholine, and appears to be responsible for ashwagandha’s nootropic properties. Acetylcholine acts as a neurotransmitter in our brains and plays a large role in arousal, motivation, cognition, and memory enhancement.
As you can see, the Withanolide A and choline found in ashwagandha root possess quite a bounty of beneficial properties in humans, to say the least. The other chemicals found in Ashwagandha have beneficial properties such as being antispasmodic and expectorant agents, but these aren’t benefits that really apply to anxiety and stress relief (or other nootropic effects).
Stress Hormones Explained
As aforementioned, ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb and helps us cope with stress (whether it’s physical or emotional). Research has found that ashwagandha is a significant inhibitor of stress hormone production (especially cortisol). To illustrate why this is so important to our health and longevity, the following section will breakdown what stress hormones are and their physiological role in our bodies.
The term “stress hormones” is often used in research literature in reference to glucocorticoids (primarily cortisol), glucagon and catecholamines (specifically epinephrine/adrenaline). These hormones are secreted, quite plainly, in response to stress. Keep in mind that not all forms of stress are necessarily “bad” (which would be more appropriately called distress).
Glucocorticoids are a class of steroid hormones produced in the adrenal glands that regulate metabolism, development, immune function, and cognition/alertness. The primary glucocorticoid produced in humans is the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is an essential hormone necessary to sustain life, but like with many other hormones, producing too much (or too little) of it can wreak havoc on the body.
Cortisol is often implicated in the process of tissue atrophy (loss/breakdown) since it mainly acts as a catabolic hormone with regards to its metabolic functions. During periods of undernourishment/fasting, cortisol acts to maintain normal blood glucose concentrations in the body by initiating a process called gluconeogenesis.
Often times the gluconeogenic process breaks down proteins in tissues throughout the body in order to utilize amino acids for energy. Therefore, people who produce large amounts of cortisol on a chronic basis may feel weak and lethargic (which can lead to other issues such as anxiety and depression). We will discuss cortisol more later on in this article as it has significant tie-in with ashwagandha supplementation and anxiety.
Continuing on, glucagon is a peptide hormone produced in the pancreas that functions basically in reverse to insulin (e.g. it stimulates the release of glucose from the liver into the bloodstream when blood sugar drops). Similarly to cortisol, glucagon influences gluconeogenesis and also glycogenolysis.
The final hormone in this triad is epinephrine/adrenaline (sometimes referred to as the “fight-or-flight” hormone). This hormone is produced in the central nervous system and adrenal glands and acts on pretty much all tissues in the body by binding adrenergic receptors. As with cortisol and glucagon, epinephrine stimulates glycogenolysis in the liver (and muscle).
As you can see, the main thing these primary stress hormones have in common is they serve to break down tissue and substrates in the body (i.e. they’re highly catabolic). Thus, inhibition of stress hormones can help protect the body against atrophy, depressed immune function, decreased metabolic rate, anxiety, etc.
Benefits of Taking Ashwagandha
The main thing to take away from the previous mechanistic/scientific mumbo jumbo is that ashwagandha has a rather wide spectrum of evidence-based benefits. Over-the-counter ashwagandha supplements are growing in popularity thanks to these findings, with many users experiencing significant decreases in anxiety as well as increases in cognition and wellbeing.
To summarize, the most pertinent research-backed benefits of ashwagandha supplementation include:
- Natural anxiety and stress-reducing properties
- Potent anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties
- Promotes calmness/relaxation
- Appears to boost the immune system and fight illness (especially when stressed)
- Strongly inhibits cortisol/stress hormone production
Use of Ashwagandha for Improving Anxiety Symptoms
A variety of literature exists that suggests ashwagandha is a potent over-the-counter medication for reducing anxiety and enhancing mood. Ashwagandha acts through a variety of mechanisms to reduce anxiety, with the most pertinent ways being increased production of acetylcholine and decreased cortisol production.
As touched on earlier, choline is the precursor to acetylcholine. While no dietary recommended daily allowance has been set for choline, it is suggested that the typical Western diet lacks nominal amounts of this crucial vitamin. In fact, choline supplements have become quite popular in recent years in light of the fact that most of us lack appropriate amounts via diet.
Moreover, Withaferin-A is a cholinesterase inhibitor. Cholinesterase is the enzyme responsible for breaking down choline, which in turn reduces acetylcholine production. Thus, by inhibiting this enzyme, acetylcholine production in our body increases.
Lastly, by fighting excess cortisol production, ashwagandha can greatly enhance mood and reduce anxiety. In fact, the underlying mechanism to panic attacks comes from rushes of cortisol secretion by the adrenal glands. Make no mistake that some cortisol production is necessary for health and longevity, but overproduction of it is a major implication of chronic anxiety.
With this in mind, do not replace any of your current anxiety medications with ashwagandha until you’ve consulted with your licensed physician. Ideally, ashwagandha use should be monitored by the physician/specialist you work with if you’re using it for anxiety.
The Ashwagandha dosage you should use will depend on the purpose for which you want to use it. It is recommended to supplement with ashwagandha root, since most of the research in this article is based on the chemicals found in that region of the plant. The dosage suggestions are as follows:
The Dosage For Reducing Anxiety and Inhibiting Cortisol Production: 250mg taken one to four times daily, prior to meals.
For Enhanced Cognition and Neuroprotection: 150-200mg taken one to two times daily, prior to meals.
For Immune Function, Anti-inflammatory, and Antioxidant Properties: 100-150mg taken once per day, prior to a meal
Safety and Potential Side Effects
Ashwagandha tends to be a well-tolerated, safe over-the-counter supplement, but due to its natural emetic and diuretic properties, use should be monitored carefully.
Ashwagandha use may induce certain side effects such as:
- Frequent urination
- Gastrointestinal distress
Most of these side effects will be rather uncommon unless using upwards of 5+ grams of ashwagandha root per day. If you begin to feel undesirable side effects after taking ashwagandha root, simply stop further use and they will go away. You can then try using a lower dose and see how you respond.
Ashwagandha is a unique over-the-counter option for fighting anxiety, and its extended benefits are quite compelling as well. It appears worthwhile for cognitive enhancement and improved neuroprotection, but more research is needed to conclusively dictate its efficacy.
From a holistic health and wellbeing point of view, ashwagandha is arguably one of the most potent adaptogenic herbs available. By fighting tumors/cancer, inflammation, oxidative stress, and invasive species in the body, ashwagandha is a superb option to enhance longevity and stay healthy internally.