Ashwagandha is an herbal adaptogen with a history of use dating back thousands of years in the Ayurvedic tradition of the Indian subcontinent. With increasing popularity due to its repute as a stress relieving remedy, ashwagandha research is exploding. However, most individuals are unaware of this herb’s traditional history and how it works. The ashwagandha plant is a botanical that is classified as a rasayana. To Ayurvedic practitioners this means that it invigorates the mind and body and contributes to healthy aging by promoting a healthy lifespan. Often called Indian ginseng, ashwagandha falls into the category of adaptogens, meaning that it helps the body adapt to stressful situations and contribute to overall balance. Traditionally, this balancing property is what lends to its ability to support health. It’s also why ashwagandha is a great choice for supporting the body’s response to stress as well as helping with conditions that are aggravated by stress. A primary effect of ashwagandha is to lower the elevated levels of cortisol often associated with stress.
The Connection Between Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol is a hormone that the body produces in response to stress. Known as the “stress hormone”, cortisol impacts several systems of the body. During stressful situations, the body initiates the “fight or flight” response to deal with the effects of the stressor. Putting the body into survival mode, this response is largely mediated by the cortisol hormone.
When the body experiences stress, cortisol production increases. This puts the body’s systems on high alert to deal with the stressful challenge. Cortisol influences the immune system, the nervous system, the lungs and respiration, the heart and cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system and others with the end goal being to gear these systems towards dealing with the stressor.
The stress hormone cortisol response is designed to be a short-term response that enables the body quickly to return to balance. When stressful situations are acute and short in duration, cortisol levels return to normal following the elimination of the stressor. However, since many of us are in a constant state of stress, cortisol levels are chronically elevated. This means that levels never quite return to their baseline. If cortisol levels stay elevated over the long-term, the body is in a constant state of increased vigilance since it remains in “fight or flight mode”. While this is helpful in the short-term, the long-term consequences of elevated cortisol are harmful to the body and leads to long-term damage and, ultimately, a state of exhaustion. In this state, the body becomes unable to deal with the effects of stress.
How to Lower Cortisol
The good news is that there are things that one can do to deal with elevated cortisol levels. Lifestyle changes and practices such as meditation, yoga and other relaxation exercises can be useful. Also useful are herbal adaptogens including ashwagandha. Research studies show that ashwagandha can help the body deal with stress, nervous tension, and its downstream effects. Studies indicate that ashwagandha reduces elevated levels of cortisol, helping with stress relief.
In fact, a clinical study using an extract of ashwagandha known as Sensoril® found positive benefits on blood levels of the hormone cortisol. The double-blind, placebo-controlled trial included 130 men and women with an average age of 40 who were experiencing elevated levels of stress. Participants were divided into a placebo arm, as well as three groups taking either 125 mg, 250 mg, or 500 mg of the ashwagandha extract daily before a meal. The researchers measured cortisol levels at the beginning of the trial as well as after 60 days of treatment. Cortisol levels showed a slight increase in the placebo group after 60 days, but levels in all three treatment groups declined significantly, with ashwagandha benefits including reductions of 15%, 24%, and 31% over time in the individuals taking the herb. Importantly, the results of the study show that an ashwagandha dosage as low as 125 mg of the extract lowered cortisol substantially in a period of 60 days.
Lower Stress, Better Sleep
Research is increasingly highlighting the link between stress and poor sleep. Unfortunately, what is clear from the science is the negative impact stress has on sleep. Moreover, this is a vicious cycle that more Americans are experiencing on a daily basis since not only does stress have an impact on sleep, but not sleeping well exacerbates how we experience the effects of stress. Sleep is a time the body uses to heal and repair organs and unwind from the effects of the day. Since an ever-increasing number of Americans are experiencing chronic stress with elevated levels of cortisol, their sleep is severely disrupted, not allowing the body the time it needs to repair and rejuvenate itself.
A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that American adults report sleeping an average of 6.7 hours per night, less than the minimum number of hours recommended for restorative sleep (generally 7-9 hours). Over 40% of these respondents also complained of stress causing them to lie awake at night, resulting in poor sleep quality.
Research shows that those who get at least 8 hours of sleep per night have significantly fewer stress symptoms than those sleeping less than 8 hours. While many of the practices that are known to reduce stress also help improve sleep, the good news is that ashwagandha can be a tool to support healthy sleep as well as relieve the effects of sleep on the body. While there is a defined link between cortisol and stress, there is also a substantial link between elevated cortisol and sleep issues.
The same clinical study on the ashwagandha supplement detailed above found significant benefits for common stress symptoms in addition to lowering serum cortisol levels. The researchers found that ashwagandha benefits included reduced fatigue and tiredness, less anxiety and worry, and increased attention and the ability to concentrate. Ashwagandha also reduced sleeplessness, allowing the users to experience improved sleep and less irritability overall. Thus, ashwagandha has holistic and broad benefits for the symptoms of stress and sleeplessness and is an ideal herbal solution for these common issues.
Chronic stress is increasing in prevalence due to our fast-paced lifestyles and the unique challenges we face in today’s world. Research is finding that an ancient herb used for thousands of years may hold a key for helping with stress relief, relieve anxiousness, and sleep better so our body is able to heal and rejuvenate itself. Ashwagandha is gaining a reputation for being a useful herb with healing properties and an ability to allow us to feel relaxed and refreshed.
- Paul S et al. Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal (Ashwagandha): A comprehensive review on ethnopharmacology, pharmacotherapeutics, biomedicinal and toxicological aspects. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy (143) 2021.
- Auddy B et al. 2008. A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. JANA (11)1.
- Stress and Sleep. American Psychological Association. Accessed at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep