Here’s what experts say about using Ashwagandha as a stress treatment

It will come as no surprise to learn that as a society we are very stressed. In fact, the American Psychological Association found that 27% of Americans report being too stressed to function.

So it’s easy to see why any product that is said to help with stress is appealing to potential buyers. While there are claims about many supplements and pills helping you feel a sense of calm, one in particular has received attention online and in the natural health field: ashwagandha.

“(Ashwagandha is) an herb that grows in regions of South and Central Asia, including India, where it is used in Ayurvedic medicine,” said Dr. Susan Blackford, a physician of internal and integrative medicine at Duke Integrative Medicine. Center in North Carolina.

The Latin name for the shrub is Withania somnifera. In Latin, somnifera means soporific, Blackford said, which speaks to one of its uses. Ashwagandha also claims to help with issues beyond sleep and stress, including anxiety and depression.

So, is it real? Here’s what experts say:

Some ashwagandha supplements can help with stress and other problems.

“There are a lot of other ways[people]use it, but I would say in integrative medicine we probably use it mostly for stress,” Blackford said.

This is because ashwagandha is an adaptogen, meaning it “improves the body’s resilience to stress,” she added.

Amala Soumyanath, the director of the Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University, explained that this can refer to multiple types of stress: psychological stress, physical stress (such as from an infection), and more. “These adaptogens would have a very wide range of effects,” Soumyanath noted.

Blackford added that it’s not entirely known how ashwagandha affects stress, but it appears to work with GABA-A and GABA-B receptors, which are “known for producing calming effects” in the body. And of course a calmer character also affects someone’s anxiety and sleep. So it’s easy to see how ashwagandha could potentially have an effect on all of these issues.

Soumyanath said preclinical and clinical studies have looked at ashwagandha as a treatment. A 2019 study of 60 adults found that people who took ashwagandha daily had a reduction in morning cortisol levels, according to Blackford. But it’s worth noting that with just 60 people, the sample size of this study is very small.

“I would say that … there is fairly solid clinical evidence for effects on stress and sleep,” Soumyanath said. “There is a lot of preclinical evidence for its efficacy in anxiety, but perhaps less as clinical evidence.”

In other words, more research needs to be done on ashwagandha’s efficacy in helping to manage anxiety before more informed conclusions can be drawn.

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It is important to inform your doctor if you are going to take ashwagandha – or any medication for that matter.

Only specific Ashwagandha products have been researched – not everything on the shelf.

There’s a big caveat to all of this: While there’s promising evidence of ashwagandha’s effectiveness for certain issues, these studies tend to focus on a specific ashwagandha product makeup, Soumyanath said.

This means that not every supplement containing ashwagandha is created equal. “Because products are variable, we cannot necessarily assume that every product on the shelf will have the same effects,” explains Soumyanath.

“If you look on the shelf, you will see a whole range of different ashwagandha products for sale,” Soumyanath said, noting that these products use different types of extracts, which affects their efficacy.

“Sometimes it’s just the powdered root, sometimes it’s an extract of the powdered root, sometimes the extract is made with water, sometimes it’s made with an alcohol mixture, sometimes the extract is made from (the) root and leaf,” said she. continued. In other words, there are many formulations and not all of these extracts have been studied or proven to be effective.

Your first thought might be to find the products that to have studied, but Soumyanath said dietary supplements aren’t necessarily standardized. The manufacturer may change its manufacturing process at any time, which will affect future batches of the product.

Instead, Soumyanath said, you can compare products that use different formulations, such as dried root versus an extract, and see what works for you. “In general, products containing extracts are stronger because the extract concentrates some of the ingredients of the botanical species,” she said.

Additionally, Blackford said, you can look at, which compares available products.

“It doesn’t say whether or not it’s useful, it says ‘does it contain what it should contain and does it contain contaminants that you should be concerned about,'” Blackford said. “So it’s kind of a watchdog group to make sure what you’re taking is safe.”

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Close-up of dried ashwagandha roots used for herbal tea on September 2. 25, 2018, at Bunjako Island, Mpigi District, Uganda.

Exactly what makes an effective ashwagandha supplement is still being studied.

Soumyanath said she and other researchers are trying to determine the parameters needed to guarantee that ashwagandha is effective.

“A lot of research is still needed to link the chemical profile of an ashwagandha plant to its biological activity so that better nutritional supplements can be designed that contain the right components in the right dosage – but so far we don’t have that information, said Soumyanath.

“I think the take-home messages within all those caveats of the variability… it’s a very useful botanical and it’s generally considered safe, but individual products may or may not produce results such as stress and anxiety reduction, she said.

Make sure you are aware of the possible side effects.

When it comes to ashwagandha, there are usually no side effects, Blackford said, and when there are, they’re usually short-lived. “It can cause headaches, can cause drowsiness…and it can cause an upset stomach.”

“There have been very rare reports of liver toxicity,” Soumyanath noted.

And while side effects aren’t common, it’s still important to let your healthcare provider know about any supplements or medications you’re taking, Soumyanath said.

Ashwagandha also affects other systems; it can also lower your blood pressure and blood sugar and raise hormone levels, Blackford said. “So it probably won’t be dramatic, but if you’re on any medications for blood pressure, blood sugar, or thyroid, be aware that you want to get that checked.”

In addition, from a Western medicine standpoint, Blackford said, the use of ashwagandha is not recommended during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. “We just don’t have enough data to establish its safety,” she explained.

Soumyanath added that it’s important to follow the recommended dosage – “don’t assume that taking more will always be better for you.”

Like any drug, be responsible when using ashwagandha. “Don’t assume natural is safe,” Soumyanath said. Taking too much of the supplement or using it for an extended period of time may increase your chance of side effects.

Finally, when it comes to stress relief, Blackford said ashwagandha isn’t her go-to. “If someone comes to me with stress and anxiety, I first look at which factors contribute to this.

Think about your stress management skills, your sleeping habits (sleep is important for stress reduction, Blackford added), your movement patterns (another stress reliever), and your connection to your community.

(Ashwagandha is) only one tool. I always get a little concerned when people focus on one thing, whether it’s … one approach, one herb, one drug,” Blackford said. “If we focus on one thing like that, we’ll lose the totality of all other influencing factors and won’t get meaningful long-term change.”

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