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You may have heard of Ashwagandha, an herb that naturally improves our resistance to stress. You've likely read that it's an adaptogen, that it combats oxidative stress, and that it's extremely rich in withanolides. So, like many of us, you're probably wondering… just what the heck does all of that mean? How does Ashwagandha help with stress? What, exactly, does it do? Well, stay tuned. We're about to reveal the science behind this Ayurvedic herb and discover its possibly stress-busting secrets.
What is stress?
First thing's first. To learn how Ashwagandha may work on stress, we need to understand what stress really is. Hold on – everyone knows what stress is, right? Kind of, though not exactly. Stress is our natural reaction to things we perceive as threats. It's meant to give us an immediate boost in our abilities, enabling us to handle threatening situations1. Sound familiar? You may know it as the “fight-or-flight” response. When we're faced with a threat, our brains release high dosages of cortisol, a hormone that accelerates energy production in our cells2. This makes us stronger, faster and smarter. But there's a catch: this power-up is only designed to last a short time.
Think about it. Back when people still lived in caves, a threat was something with sharp teeth and a big appetite. Our ancestors had two choices – run or fight. Either way, it was over pretty quickly. But, for us modern humans, it's not always that simple. Now, we have to deal with threats that don't go away. With threats that are constant, our programmed response doesn't shut off like it's supposed to. Enter chronic stress, the stress we all know and don't love. When we're exposed to stress for extended periods of time, the effects are flipped upside-down. Instead of energy, we get nervousness, sullen mood and occasional fatigue, lack of focus, and all the other symptoms the word 'stress' brings to mind1. This is because chronic stress is believed to trigger oxidative stress, a chemical imbalance in our cells2.
What is oxidative stress?
Let's rewind a little. Remember biology class? That time you looked at cells under a microscope? Bonus points for anyone who can tell me what 'mitochondria' are. Bingo! Mitochondria are the power plants of living cells. Their job is to metabolize oxygen and turn it into raw energy, or ATP. Now, here's something you may not know. When these power plants make energy, the process generates molecules called 'free radicals' as byproducts2. These free radicals include hydrogen peroxide, superoxide and hydroxyl radical, all of which are toxic to our cells3.
Uh oh. That sounds dangerous, doesn't it? Well, it usually isn't. At normal levels, these molecules aren't a problem because they're easily dealt with by our cells' antioxidant defenses3. In fact, they even play a key role in the immune system by acting as signals for repair agents4.
Our cells are designed to maintain a careful balance between these free radicals and the means to neutralize them. Oxidative stress is what happens when, for some reason, that balance is shifted3. In the case of chronic stress, one reason is the steroid hormone, cortisol. Like we talked about earlier, cortisol accelerates the production of energy in cells. The way it does this is by putting the cells' mitochondria (power plants) into overdrive. For a short period, this creates a surge of energy that's meant to help us overcome a threat.
But, like most machines, push the mitochondria too hard and something's bound to give. When the natural stress response doesn't subside, the brain's continued release of cortisol overloads the mitochondria2. This results in the production of more free radicals than the cells' defenses can handle, causing the cells to lose their ability to function over time2. That is bad. With our cells practically falling apart, it's no wonder we feel so… well, stressed.
How might Ashwagandha help?
Ashwagandha is a potent source of withanolides, botanical compounds believed to be instrumental in addressing occasional stress. What can withanolides do? Two things. Firstly, they're believed to govern the brain's release of cortisol under stress. A study in 2008 revealed that Ashwagandha extract could reduce cortisol levels by as much as 48%5. That's huge! Another study in 2012 supported these findings, posting similar results6.
But that's not all. Secondly, withanolides may strengthen our body's defenses against free radicals, protecting our cells from oxidative stress. In a study performed in 2014, researchers showed that human brain cells pre-treated with withanolides were 20-30% more resistant to damage from oxidative stress7. With the combined potential benefits of healthy cortisol management and oxidative stress resistance, Ashwagandha extract is a supplement that many swear is the secret to dealing with stress.
Cool! Anything else I should know?
Ashwagandha's roots have the highest concentration of withanolides, so look for supplements made with root extract. Also, Withaferin A is the least effective withanolide compound, so try to avoid supplements that contain more than 1% of this. For quality ingredients and favorable possibilities, standardized KSM-66 root extract is your best bet. This is the extract used to make our popular Ashwagandha Gold.
If Ashwagandha works for you, spread the word! We could all use a little less stress.
- “Chronic stress puts your health at risk” Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
- Aschbacher, K., O’Donovan, A., Wolkowitz, O. M., Dhabhar, F. S., Su, Y., & Epel, E. (2013). “Good stress, bad stress and oxidative stress: Insights from anticipatory cortisol reactivity.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(9), 1698-1708.
- Salim, S. (2014). “Oxidative Stress and Psychological Disorders.” Current Neuropharmacology CN, 12(2), 140-147.
- Fransen, M., Nordgren, M., Wang, B., & Apanasets, O. (2012). “Role of peroxisomes in ROS/RNSmetabolism: Implications for human disease.” Biochimica Et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular Basis of Disease, 1822(9), 1363-1373.
- Mahdi, A. A., Shukla, K. K., Ahmad, M. K., Rajender, S., Shankhwar, S. N., Singh, V., & Dalela, D. (2011). “Withania somnifera Improves Semen Quality in Stress-Related Male Fertility.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011.
- Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). “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 J Psychol Med Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255.
- Shah, N., Singh, R., Sarangi, U., Saxena, N., Chaudhary, A., Kaur, G., . . . Wadhwa, R. (2015). “Combinations of Ashwagandha Leaf Extracts Protect Brain-Derived Cells against Oxidative Stress and Induce Differentiation.” PLoS ONE, 10(3).