Health and wellbeing go hand in hand. While health refers to the state of the body, wellbeing relates to the mind, describing emotional balance and optimal cognitive function. Increasingly, people are using adaptogenic herbs to support wellbeing and achieve their mental health goals. Among the adaptogenic herbs, ashwagandha stands out for its long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine. There is a wealth of scientific evidence that attests to its benefits. Read on to learn more about ashwagandha.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is an herb sometimes referred to by its scientific name Withania somnifera, or by its nicknames winter cherry and Indian ginseng. It is a shrub that grows in India and Southeast Asia, easily identifiable by its yellow flowers. For centuries, practitioners of Ayurveda have used its roots and leaves to address symptoms of many conditions. The name ashwagandha comes from the Sanskrit word for "smell of the horse" and relates to the herb's powerful aroma and the belief that it enhances physical strength by acting as an adaptogen.
What Is Ayurvedic Medicine?
Ayurveda or Ayurvedic medicine is a natural healing tradition that dates back more than 3,000 years. It emerged in India, and its name means knowledge of life. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that problems with the body's condition or Prakriti occur when the forces that form it, known as doshas, become imbalanced. In India, Ayurveda is a trusted medical practice with practitioners receiving training from institutions approved by the government.
Treatments in Ayurvedic medicine do not typically include traditional western interventions like medication. Instead, practitioners recommend modifications to diet, massage, yoga, meditation, and Ayurvedic herbs like ashwagandha.
What Are Adaptogens?
Many believe that Ashwagandha belongs to a class of herbs known as adaptogenic herbs or adaptogens. An adaptogen is a type of herb thought to defend the body from the effects of stress. Still, generally, the specific method of action of various adaptogens is said to counteract some of the physical changes that occur when the body is under prolonged periods of stress.
People often take adaptogens to enhance physical performance. This is because adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha may help increase strength and boost endurance by minimizing the effects that physical exertion has on the body. There is also some evidence to suggest that adaptogens may enhance the results achieved from workouts. One study found that men who took 600 mg of the herb per day saw more significant muscle mass gains from a strength-training regimen after eight weeks than those who didn't.
Adaptogens' Benefits for Stress and Anxiety
Adaptogens aren't just for athletes and fitness buffs. Research indicates that adaptogenic herbs may reduce symptoms of mental stress and anxiety. In the case of ashwagandha, scientists speculate that the herb may lower levels of a chemical called cortisol, which becomes elevated in people suffering from chronic stress. In an 8-week clinical trial, people taking 250 to 600 mg of ashwagandha daily had significantly lower cortisol levels in blood samples. Another small study revealed that individuals taking 240 mg of the herb every day had fewer anxiety symptoms than those treated with a placebo.
Ashwagandha Promotes Mental Wellbeing
Although more research is needed, early findings indicate that ashwagandha may help ease the symptoms of a number of mental health disorders to promote well-being. They include:
- Bipolar disorder
People with these disorders may benefit from taking an ashwagandha supplement as a part of an overall treatment plan that includes therapy and prescription medications.
Adaptogens and Nootropics
Adaptogens have become one of the most popular types of nootropics. A nootropic is a supplement taken to alter the brain's activity positively. Sometimes, people call this practice "brain hacking." Some studies point out that ashwagandha is one adaptogenic herb that may work well as a nootropic by supporting executive function, shortening reaction time, boosting cognitive task performance and expanding attention span.
In one study, 50 adults who took 600 mg of ashwagandha every day for eight weeks saw improvements in memory, attention span, and the speed at which they processed complex information sets. Some scientists also believe that adaptogens like ashwagandha may act as an antioxidant and protect the brain from damage due to free radicals that have been linked to Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
May Support Sleep
Research also suggests that ashwagandha may help support sleep. This separates it from stimulants often used to enhance cognitive alertness function, which can interfere with sleep. One study revealed that seniors taking 600 mg of ashwagandha for 12 weeks could stay asleep better and feel more alert in the morning than those who didn't. A systematic review of clinical studies concluded that ashwagandha had a modest impact on sleep quality, particularly in people who struggled to sleep because of anxiety and stress.