Why your 'Relax' Genes Love Ashwagandha

Key Mechanisms Affecting Stress

Stress and anxiety can present with overlapping symptoms, such as emotional challenges, fatigue, irritability, and sleep problems. While stress is typically caused by external factors - and is often an acute condition - anxiety can persist over long periods of time, even without an obvious trigger.

There are a variety of risk factors that contribute to the development of stress and anxiety, including genetics, stressful life events, inflammation, substance misuse, and the anatomy of the brain regions that are involved in processing fear. Together, these elements interact to alter key signalling pathways in the brain, and may ultimately contribute to these symptoms.

Ashwagandha and Stress

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 anxiety and stress1–4

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 'hormone of happiness’ that helps stabilise your mood.

On a molecular level, it has been proposed that Ashwagandha may influence these key mood regulators indirectly - for example, through its effects upon the immune system.

In lab-grown cells, Ashwagandha has been shown to prevent the expression of the genes CCL2 and CCL57. The proteins produced by CCL2 and CLL5 are critical chemokines, which are small signalling molecules that are activated in response to inflammation; specifically, CCL2 and CCL5 are linked to various inflammatory diseases. By limiting their activity, Ashwagandha can mitigate the progression of inflammation, a known factor in stress and anxiety.

Ashwagandha's Impact Beyond Stress-Busting

Scientists are also studying Ashwagandha for its potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities. It has even been suggested as a potential complementary therapy for COVID-198.

Its potential ability to interact with so many of the body’s systems (including the neurological, immune, and reproductive systems) and its rejuvenating properties have led it to be crowned a ‘royal herb’ 2.

The 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.

Further Reading

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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).
  6. Bhatnagar, M., Sharma, D. & Salvi, M. Neuroprotective effects of withania somnifera dunal.: A possible mechanism. Neurochem. Res. 34, 1975–1983 (2009).
  7. 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).
  8. 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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