Why your Brain Loves Ashwagandha
KEY MECHANISMS AFFECTING THE BODY’S RESPONSE TO STRESS
Our brains are hard-wired to detect threats - it’s what has kept us alive since humans first evolved two millions years ago. But the stresses of modern life are increasingly triggering those fight-flight responses.
When feeling ‘under threat’, the hormone cortisol spikes and inflammation rises in the brain’s amygdala - the structure that detects and responds to stresses, and is core to whether you feel relaxed or on edge.
We’re designed to allow for short bursts of these responses - the sudden sighting of a lion appearing on the wilderness - but it’s damaging when these reactions keep firing over days, months and longer.
Ashwagandha and Relaxation
While the herb Ashwagandha, also known by its scientific name as Withania somnifera, has been hailed over the centuries for promoting “youthful vigour”, it has most recently attracted scientific interest for its adaptogenic qualities - helping the body to adapt to stress with a healthier response.
Indeed, several double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have demonstrated that Ashwagandha can improve symptoms of ffeeling on edge1–4.
Ashwagandha's Nutrigenomic Role
Research has found that Ashwagandha can lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and stimulate the activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA5, as well as serotonin6, the so-called 'happy-hormone’.
And it could also help mitigate the progression of inflammation - a factor that can impact brain balance.
The rejuvenating properties have led Ashwagandha to be crowned a ‘royal herb’.2
The Royal - but Horsey - Herb
- In Sanskrit ‘Ashwagandha’ roughly means ‘smell of horse’ - perhaps more so due to faith in its ability to impart the vitality of a stallion, rather than the fresh roots being said to have an equine scent about them!
- In Ayurvedic tradition, Ashwagandha is considered one of the preeminent Rasayana herbs - those which are prized for rejuvenating qualities.
- Ashwagandha is also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng, though it is actually part of the nightshade family.
- Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J. & Anishetty, S. 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. 34, 255–262 (2012).
- Lopresti, A. L., Smith, S. J., Malvi, H., Kodgule, R. & Wane, D. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Med. (United States) 98, (2019).
- Andrade, C., Aswath, A., Chaturvedi, S. K., Srinivasa, M. & Raguram, R. A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the anxiolytic efficacy ff an ethanolic extract of withania somnifera. Indian J. Psychiatry 42, 295–301 (2000).
- Auddy, B., Hazra, J., Mitra, A., Abedon, B. & Ghosal, S. A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. J. Am. Nutraceutical Assoc. 11, 50–56 (2008).
- Candelario, M. et al. Direct evidence for GABAergic activity of Withania somnifera on mammalian ionotropic GABAA and GABAρ receptors. J. Ethnopharmacol. 171, 264–272 (2015).
- Bhatnagar, M., Sharma, D. & Salvi, M. Neuroprotective effects of withania somnifera dunal.: A possible mechanism. Neurochem. Res. 34, 1975–1983 (2009).
- Grunz-Borgmann, E., Mossine, V., Fritsche, K. & Parrish, A. R. Ashwagandha attenuates TNF-α- and LPS-induced NF-κB activation and CCL2 and CCL5 gene expression in NRK-52E cells. BMC Complement. Altern. Med. 2015 151 15, 1–8 (2015).
- Saggam, A. et al. Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal: Opportunity for Clinical Repurposing in COVID-19 Management. Frontiers in Pharmacology vol. 12 (2021).
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