Stress-Eat the Proper Way with Ashwagandha

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Medically reviewed by:
Dr. Jennifer Hughes, MD

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Ashwagandha is a small, bushy plant native to India, the Middle East, and some regions of Africa.

As a staple of the ancient Indian healing tradition known as Ayurvedic medicine, this herb has been used for upwards of three millennia.

Where people relied on anecdotal evidence and spiritual/religious beliefs in the past to keep ashwagandha a part of the medical establishment of the day, we can now probe this plant from a more modern, objective lens.

Sure enough, ashwagandha is making good on many of its long-time supporters’ claims, especially in the area of stress management.

How Does Ashwagandha Help with Stress?

Ashwagandha has been strongly suggested in multiple research findings to have stress-fighting effects on key hormones as well as the nervous system.

Numerous studies and randomized clinical trials have been conducted in search of the connection between Ashwagandha and stress , and as of this writing, the body of evidence has emphasized interactions between ashwagandha and stress hormones, insulin, and the stress response neural pathway as key mechanisms.

Ashwagandha May Suppress Cortisol

This randomized, double-blind trial conducted by the D.Y Patil University School of Medicine in Mumbai reported lower cortisol levels in study participants who were given 250mg/day and 600mg/day of ashwagandha.

Other than consistent and clinically significant reductions in this stress hormone, researchers also noted that sleep quality improved.

Interestingly, a contemporary finding from the Indian Red Cross Society that used the same outcome measure (the Perceived Stress Scale) found that obese study participants under chronic stress reported a reduction in food cravings as well as stress.

How ashwagandha suppresses cortisol: This stress hormone is produced by three structures you’ve already heard mentioned, though maybe not as a single unit: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA).

Put simply, the pituitary and adrenal glands communicate with the area of the brain known as the hypothalamus and each other to synthesize and release the stress hormone cortisol.

Researchers are still determining the exact nature of this mechanism, but for now, they have confidently established that ashwagandha can inhibit HPA activity.

It’s important to note that cortisol isn’t the only hormone affected by the HPA, and that in some findings like this one from Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, testosterone levels increased slightly in male participants.

Ashwagandha Influences Insulin Sensitivity

Chronic stress is also associated with increased insulin levels, which can eventually lead to insulin resistance.

When your tissues begin resisting insulin—the hormone that ferries glucose into them—all kinds of troubles follow soon after as sugar accumulates in the bloodstream, including diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, and more.

These issues feed into stress, stress feeds into these issues, and around the loop goes.

Fittingly, ashwagandha has been shown to decrease insulin spikes (your body’s response to insulin resistance) in this study.

This effect was observed in rat participants, and the insulin resistance was induced by fructose, not stress, so this path still needs a lot of clearing before any serious treatment potential can be gleaned.

If it’s true, this means that ashwagandha can fight not one, but two of the most powerful hormones associated with stress.

Fighting Stress at the Neural Level

According to this study by California State University and UC Irvine, ashwagandha can potently stimulate a type of nerve receptor labeled GABAp1.

Researchers still have a lot of clarifying to do, because they haven’t yet identified which active components of ashwagandha promote this effect.

Still, since GABAp1 insufficiency is positively correlated with stress, this finding offers a glimpse at a brighter future for ashwagandha supplements.

Dosage and Safety Information

Most experimenters have wavered around the 250-650mg/day range when testing the effects of ashwagandha on human or animal participants.

The bell curve of effectiveness tends to peak toward the upper end of that range, but since ashwagandha has not yet been FDA approved, supplementers don’t have standardized dosage recommendations to work with.

A Snapshot of Ashwagandha’s Safety Profile

The vast majority of ashwagandha trials and studies report little to no adverse effects among participants taking the herb at the above dosage levels.

When side effects do occur—usually with doses that well exceed the above range—they often take the following forms:

  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness

Since side effects are so rare and mild, a form of the herb known as ashwaghandha KSM-66 was able to achieve GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status, a self-affirmed credential that legally enables its use in supplement form.

Speaking of, the best way to access the stress-fighting powers of this ancient herb is with supplements, but conventional dieting and lifestyle changes are also highly important as part of a stress-fighting regimen.

Getting the Most from Your Anti-Stress Program

This UCLA spread serves as an excellent plain-speak introduction to the world of eating for stress management, highlighting such stress-fighting nutrients as:

  • Vitamin C (citrus fruits)
  • Complex carbs (fruit, veggies, whole grains)
  • Omega fatty acids (salmon, nuts, flaxseed)
  • Magnesium (spinach, almonds, salmon)

Through various mechanisms, these nutrients can mirror the cortisol-fighting ability of ashwagandha, boost serotonin, and more.

You’re not likely to come across ashwagandha itself, however, which is where supplements come in.

Supplement Highlight: NOW Ashwagandha

Now Ashwagandha 450 mg Veg Capsules
  • Description

    Vegetarian-friendly ashwagandha supplement for supporting general wellness, immune health, and stress management.

  • Ingredients

    Ashwagandha Extract (Withania somnifera) (Root), Rice Flour, Hypromellose (cellulose capsule) and Stearic Acid (vegetable source).

Providing 450mg of pure ashwagandha per vegan capsule, NOW’s ashwagandha extract is a simple, powerful, and safe option for your stress management routine.

This product may also support immune health by seeking out and neutralizing free radicals.

Shoppers can choose between 90 or 180 non-GMO, dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan capsules.

Lifestyle Changes

Finally, the third pillar of a truly comprehensive stress-fighting program requires a closer look at your day-to-day habits.

Stress is connected to sleep, diet, exercise, work, family/social life, and more.

Some of these elements are more malleable than others in terms of how much control we have over them, but getting a full eight hours of sleep regularly, following a healthy diet, exercising, and learning to manage your time wisely can provide a boost to your dietary changes.

Just like the multi-faceted approach of the life-affirming ashwagandha plant, conquering stress in a lasting manner is a team effort.

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