Combating Stress: How the Adaptogen Ashwagandha Can Help Improve Mental Health
Stress is an inevitable part of life in our fast-paced and ever-changing world, but it doesn't have to control our mental health. Adaptogens are a powerful tool to help the body and mind better cope with emotional and physical stress, and offer the potential to unlock a healthier and more balanced life. Adaptogens are a group of plants that have been used for centuries for their ability to support overall health and well-being, particularly in adverse circumstances. Although plant adaptogens have a long history of use in different parts of the world, the term ‘adaptogen’ wasn’t coined until the 1940s by Dr. Nicolai V. Lazarev, a Soviet medical doctor and pharmacologist.
The concept of adaptogens grew out of an increased interest in using herbal medicinal plants to increase survival in harmful environments in the post World War II era. Lazarov introduced ‘adaptogen’ to describe compounds that increase resistance to stress. Adaptogens promote the body’s adaptation and resilience in response to different stressors—whether physical, chemical, or psychological—by regulating the body's release of the stress hormone cortisol. They not only can lower stress levels, they also help increase energy levels and mental acuity as well as reduce inflammation, a symptom of many chronic diseases.
There are several different types of adaptogens, each with their own unique benefits. Ashwagandha is one of the most popular adaptogens. It has been shown to reduce anxiety, improve brain function, and lower cortisol levels. Another powerful adaptogen is rhodiola rosea, which has been found to improve mood, reduce fatigue, and enhance mental performance. Ginseng is another well-known adaptogen that has been used for centuries to boost energy levels, improve cognitive function, and reduce stress. Other adaptogens include holy basil, eleuthero, and maca root. By understanding how adaptogens work in the body, we can better understand their potential benefits for our mental health.
How Do Adaptogens Help With Stress?
When we are stressed our body releases the hormone cortisol; and as cortisol levels rise, dopamine levels drop. These effects are temporary and the body’s fight-or-flight response eventually subsides. However, during a stressful period or when left unchecked, these imbalances can be damaging and have negative impacts on our physical and mental health. High levels of cortisol can lead to anxiety and depression. Adaptogens work by regulating the release of cortisol, helping to bring our bodies back into balance.
They also enhance the body’s ability to adapt to stress through activating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis controls the body’s response to stress and the release of cortisol. It’s also involved in the regulation of processes like digestion, immunity, mood, sexuality, and metabolism. By helping the body to adapt to physical and psychological stressors, adaptogens can modulate the HPA axis, balance hormones, nourish the brain, and reduce inflammation throughout the body. In addition, they have also been shown to help improve cognitive functions such as focus, memory recall, and alertness while providing a sense of calmness.
A Closer Look at the Benefits of Ashwagandha
The botanical name of the plant we know as ‘ashwagandha’ is Withania somnifera. It’s an evergreen shrub that grows in parts of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Ashwagandha is the Sanskrit name, reflecting its extensive use in the traditional medicine system of Ayurveda in India. You may also see it referred to as Indian Winter Cherry, Poison Gooseberry, or Indian Ginseng. Not only has it been used in Ayurveda, ashwagandha also has long been used in traditional African medical systems for its therapeutic properties. In traditional medicine, preparations made with ashwagandha are used to treat conditions ranging from arthritis and asthma to anxiety and neurological disorders. These uses derive from its adaptogenic, anti-stress, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Recent scientific research on the benefits of the leaf and root of ashwagandha have focused on its applications for brain disorders as well as stress relief. Recent studies suggest that ashwagandha is effective in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. It’s also widely accepted that ashwagandha is beneficial for reducing stress. “It is now well accepted that stress can cause functional and structural changes within the brain and has been implicated in the development of most neuropsychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression, and insomnia…Given the well-established relationship between stress and neuropsychiatric disorders, it is likely that [its] anti-stress activity plays a key role in its potential health benefits for depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and vice versa” (Speers et al 2021).
The benefits of ashwagandha lie in its regulation of cortisol levels in the body. Its active components, withanolides, have the potential to impact biochemical pathways in the brain, resulting in calming effects. Ashwagandha enhances the production of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that helps calm the mind and promote relaxation. In addition to calming the brain, ashwagandha also has neuroprotective properties that can help improve cognitive function and memory retention.
These benefits extend to other body systems. Ashwagandha may also have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, helping to reduce blood pressure and protect against damage from heart disease; and it's also known to improve sleep quality—which is essential for mental wellness. Ashgawandha can promote overall well-being by reducing stress and anxiety, promoting relaxation, and improving cognitive function. By incorporating it into your daily routine and taking it properly, you can harness its powerful stress-reducing properties and improve your overall mental health.
How to Take Adaptogens for Stress Management
While adaptogens are a powerful tool for managing stress and improving mental health, it's important to know how to take them properly. Some individuals may experience mild gastrointestinal discomfort, such as nausea or diarrhea, when taking adaptogens. Additionally, adaptogens may interact with certain medications, so it is important to consult with a healthcare provider before adding them to your regimen. It’s also important to note that while adaptogens may help alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety, they should not be used as a substitute for professional medical treatment.
Once you have the all clear, first and foremost, it's essential to choose high-quality adaptogenic supplements from reputable sources. It's also important to take adaptogens consistently, as they work best when taken regularly over a period of time. You can take adaptogens in a variety of forms, including capsules, powders, and teas. Some adaptogens, like ashwagandha, work best when taken in the evening to promote relaxation and better sleep. Others, like rhodiola, are best taken in the morning to improve focus and energy. Finally, it's important to remember that adaptogens are not a magic cure-all for stress and mental health issues. They work best when combined with other healthy habits like exercise, a balanced diet, and good sleep hygiene.
With the increasing demands of modern life, stress has become a common factor that affects our overall well-being. As more and more research emerges, it is becoming increasingly clear that adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha can provide a powerful and holistic approach to combating stress and enhancing mental health. Ashwagandha is a powerful tool to help the body and mind better cope with emotional and physical stress, a leading cause of many mental health disorders. If you’re looking for a safe and easy way to experience the benefits of ashwagandha, have a look at our warming Chai Balance Superfood Blend. And remember, with the right combination of a healthy diet and a focus on self-care, we can develop a more balanced lifestyle and learn to handle stressors more effectively.
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Panossian, Alexander G et al. “Evolution of the adaptogenic concept from traditional use to medical systems: Pharmacology of stress- and aging-related diseases.” Medicinal research reviews vol. 41,1 (2021): 630-703. doi:10.1002/med.21743
Panossian, Alexander, and Georg Wikman. “Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity.” Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 3,1 188-224. 19 Jan. 2010, doi:10.3390/ph3010188
Speers, Alex B et al. “Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on Stress and the Stress- Related Neuropsychiatric Disorders Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia.” Current neuropharmacology vol. 19,9 (2021): 1468-1495. doi:10.2174/1570159X19666210712151556
Todorova, Velislava et al. “Plant Adaptogens-History and Future Perspectives.” Nutrients vol. 13,8 2861. 20 Aug. 2021, doi:10.3390/nu13082861