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how does ashwagandha work ashwagandha supplement benefitsashwagandha research  Health benefits of ashwagandha ashwagandha for stress

Health benefits of Ashwagandha: hype VS facts

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Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub native to India, northern Africa, and the Middle East. According to ancient alternative medicine, its root contains chemicals that help calm the brain and resist physical and mental stress. Ashwagandha is popular all over the world with movie stars like Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow taking it, and experts predict it will see an annual growth rate of more than 11% between now and 2029[1]. But how exactly does Ashwagandha affect your body according to current studies on healthy humans? 


Do you fight or flight? 

When you perceive a threat, your body’s natural survival instinct gets activated; you can fight or flee. A physiological threat such as experiencing a robbery or a psychological one such as entering an office for a job interview ignites your body’s so-called stress system, preparing you to seek shelter or confront the problem[2]. Imagine a stranger confronting you in the car park regarding your car parking abilities. What do you do? Do you take a stand, defend yourself, and try and resolve the conflict? Or do you walk away from the stranger quietly, trying to blend in with the crowd at a shop nearby? Both of these responses help you survive by activating the body’s stress system, called the sympathetic nervous system. When that happens, the stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol flush your body[2]. Their job is to provide you with enough energy to respond to your stressful situation. The usual physiological responses include quick breathing, high heart rate and racing thoughts[3]. After the danger is long gone, your body usually returns to its normal state by activating the body’s anti-stress system called the parasympathetic nervous system[4]. You can take a look at this simple 1-minute 3D representation of what happens in your body when you’re feeling stressed.


Ashwagandha might help reduce the stress hormone

Studies on healthy humans show that Ashwagandha supplementation might have a stress-relieving effect[5,6,7]. The researchers measured Ashwagandha’s effect with questionnaires on stress and anxiety, while some also measured physical indicators, such as the level of cortisol in saliva or blood. A 2017 study was conducted in India to assess the efficacy of the Ashwagandha root in improving the general well-being of 52 participants[5]. Their cortisol levels lowered after 4 weeks of taking 300 mg of Ashwagandha supplementation. Another Indian study on 58 participants offered insight into dose response to Ashwagandha supplements[6]. The results showed that cortisol levels lowered after 8 weeks for participants who have taken 250 mg and 600 mg of Ashwagandha extract compared to placebo. Perceived anxiety, however, dropped only for the participants who were taking the higher Ashwagandha dosage. They concluded that the extract was beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety. In a study conducted by the Central Research Institute in India, they investigated the impact of Ashwagandha supplements on 98 chronically stressed participants and their physiological stress indicators such as fatigue[7]. Results showed that all anxiety and stress symptoms settled down after 30 days of taking 125 mg or 250 mg of Ashwagandha supplementation suggesting Ashwagandha could help alleviate chronic stress. So, is Ashwagandha for stress really useful? These findings suggest that Ashwagandha’s stress-relieving effects may occur via its moderating effect on the body’s stress path, however, studies first need to confirm that claim before it’s considered as the mechanism behind Ashwagandha’s benefits[8]. Despite some studies linking Ashwagandha to stress relief, findings are contradictory. The researchers of one of the most recent studies were unable to find any link between Ashwagandha supplementation and cortisol levels[9]. Therefore, any conclusion that Ashwagandha helps with stress and makes you feel better is limited for now. 


Ashwagandha might support the GABA brain system

How does Ashwagandha work? A popular theory when talking about Ashwagandha is that the brain’s relaxation system called the GABA system may be supported by Ashwagandha. The system acts as the perfect brake during stressful conditions[10,11] and is powered by your relaxation brain messenger, GABA.

GABA supplementation for 8 weeks improved well-being and sleep quality, helping participants feel less stressed[12]. Multiple studies also confirmed that the production of GABA highly increases the brain waves which are an indication of relaxation and better concentration[13]. A study from 2007 found that even natural techniques for relaxation such as yoga enhance GABA levels, making you more relaxed[14]. Ashwagandha research, however, only suggested that Ashwagandha is linked to the body's healthy production of GABA[15]. Therefore, it is impossible to conclude that Ashwagandha is linked to alleviating acute or chronic stress or talk about the health benefits of Ashwagandha.

A relaxation-boosting natural compound called L-theanine, however, has been scientifically proven to help you battle stress many times[16,17,18,19,20]. Imagine going travelling this summer. You book a plane ticket, get to the airport and you suddenly feel your body responding to your fear of flying. Do you fight or flight? Taking a high-quality theanine supplement can help you stand your ground in that kind of situation. brain feed’s theanine supplement will help you relax but still stay alert. It is extracted from green tea which increases GABA levels meaning you’re body’s relaxation system can work with full power while still maintaining your performance and clarity. Each capsule contains an evidence-based dose and the same amount of theanine found in 15-20 cups of green tea. 

To get to your go-to travel destination calmly, opt for brain feed’s theanine. New customers get 15% off their first purchase. 


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Ashwagandha supplement benefits

In 2012 a study was conducted in India at Ashwins Health Care and Research Centre on 61 participants[21]. Participants self-assessed their perceived stress while taking Ashwagandha supplements for 60 days. Results showed that Ashwagandha effectively improves your resistance towards stress and self-assessed quality of life. A 2017 study conducted in India on 52 participants also showed that participants’ self-assessed happiness increased after 4 weeks[5]. That suggests that Ashwagandha root extract improves mental well-being. There is a need for further Ashwagandha studies that focus directly on participants’ self-assessment of their well-being or happiness such as the 2017 study as it’s inaccurate to conclude that Ashwagandha improves well-being or life quality if researchers only study perceived stress or physical stress indicators. Therefore, only one study accurately assessed the effect of Ashwagandha on well-being in recent years meaning it would be unwise to conclude anything.

Another important limitation of Ashwagandha research is that the effects of Ashwagandha are measured after weeks of supplementation with Ashwagandha. One research measured participants’ self-assessed stress and anxiety after 15 days of supplementation[22], while usually, researchers measure the effects after 28, 30, 56 or 60 days[5,6,7,8]. That means findings only represent the long-term Ashwagandha effect which poses the question - Can Ashwagandha actually help you battle stress and helps you feel better or is that just a myth? 


The science behind the hype

One may wonder, why is Ashwagandha so popular if there’s a lack of evidence on the effects of the supplementation. One word: influencers. Social media is a great place to connect, and express yourself and provides a whole world of discovery. Have you ever found yourself searching for well-being tips or looking for honest product reviews?

Whilst there are some great resources out there, there is also a whole lot of misinformation. Paid influencers and celebrities with a huge following often speak on topics regarding different products[23]. However, social media posts that influence most people are usually made by people who specialise in a different kind of work instead of nutrition, neuroscience, psychology or research. This results in people being influenced by misinformation. For example, a new article on Healio just revealed that nearly 40% of posts about a health condition called liver cirrhosis on TikTok contain misinformation[24]. Lack of evidence on Ashwagandha effects and healthy dosage also encouraged Denmark to ban Ashwagandha products with Finland, Sweden and Poland following the trend at least to some extent[25]. 


While study findings are inconclusive for now, Ashwagandha may improve your health. If you’re still thinking of buying an Ashwagandha supplement be mindful of the dosage and your well-being.

References

[1] Ashwagandha Market, By Type (Powder, Capsules, and Others), By Application (Food & Beverages, Pharmaceutical Industry, and Dietary Supplements), By Distributional Channel (B2B and B2C), and By Region Forecast to 2030 (2022). Emergen Research. https://www.emergenresearch.com/industry-report/ashwagandha-market

[2] Bloomfield, M. A., McCutcheon, R. A., Kempton, M., Freeman, T. P., & Howes, O. (2019). The effects of psychosocial stress on dopaminergic function and the acute stress response. ELife, 8, e46797.

[3] Zingela, Z., Stroud, L., Cronje, J., Fink, M., & van Wyk, S. (2022). The psychological and subjective experience of catatonia: A qualitative study. BMC Psychology, 10(1), 173.

[4] Tindle J, Tadi P. (2022). Neuroanatomy, Parasympathetic Nervous System. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.

[5] Choudhary, D., Bhattacharyya, S., & Joshi, K. (2017). Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 22(1), 96–106. 

[6] Salve, J., Pate, S., Debnath, K., & Langade, D. (2019). Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus, 11(12), e6466.

[7] Auddy, B., Hazra, J., Mitra, A., Abedon, B., & Ghosal, S. (2008). A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. The Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association11(1),  50–56.

[8] Lopresti, A. L., Smith, S. J., Malvi, H., & Kodgule, R. (2019). An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract. Medicine, 98(37), e17186. 

[9] Lopresti, A. L., Drummond, P. D., & Smith, S. J. (2019). A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Study Examining the Hormonal and Vitality Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in Aging, Overweight Males. American Journal of Men’s Health, 13(2).

[10] Lydiard, R. B. (2003). The Role of GABA in Anxiety Disorders. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 64(suppl 3), 21–27.

[11] Rashmi, D., Zanan, R., John, S., Khandagale, K. & Nadaf, A. (2018). g-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA): Biosynthesis, Role, Commercial Production, and Applications. In A. Ur Rahman (Ed.), Studies in Natural Products Chemistry (Vol. 57, pp. 413-552). Elsevier.

(pp. 413–552). 

[12] Yoshida, S., Haramoto, M., Fukuda, T., Mizuno, H., Tanaka, A., Nishimura, M., & Nishihira, J. (2015). Optimization of a γ-aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Enrichment Process for Hokkaido White Rice and the Effects of GABA-enriched White Rice on Stress Relief in Humans. Journal of The Japanese Society for Food Science and Technology, 62(2), 95–103. 

[13] Abdou, A. M., Higashiguchi, S., Horie, K., Kim, M., Hatta, H., & Yokogoshi, H. (2006). Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. BioFactors, 26(3), 201–208. 

[14] Streeter, C. C., Jensen, J. E., Perlmutter, R. M., Cabral, H. J., Tian, H., Terhune, D. B., Ciraulo, D. A., & Renshaw, P. F. (2007). Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: A pilot study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(4), 419–426. 

[15] Speers, A. B., Cabey, K. A., Soumyanath, A., & Wright, K. M. (2021). Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on Stress and the Stress-Related Neuropsychiatric Disorders Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia. Current Neuropharmacology, 19(9), 1468–1495.

[16] Kimura, K., Ozeki, M., Juneja, L. R., & Ohira, H. (2007). L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological Psychology, 74(1), 39–45. 

[17] Unno, K., Tanida, N., Ishii, N., Yamamoto, H., Iguchi, K., Hoshino, M., Takeda, A., Ozawa, H., Ohkubo, T., Juneja, L. R., & Yamada, H. (2013). Anti-stress effect of theanine on students during pharmacy practice: Positive correlation among salivary α-amylase activity, trait anxiety and subjective stress. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 111, 128–135. 

[18] White, D. J., De Klerk, S., Woods, W., Gondalia, S., Noonan, C., & Scholey, A. B. (2016). Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an l-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. Nutrients, 8(1), Article 1.

[19] Hidese, S., Ogawa, S., Ota, M., Ishida, I., Yasukawa, Z., Ozeki, M., & Kunugi, H. (2019). Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients, 11(10), Article 10. 

[20] Lopes Sakamoto, F., Metzker Pereira Ribeiro, R., Amador Bueno, A., & Oliveira Santos, H. (2019). Psychotropic effects of L-theanine and its clinical properties: From the management of anxiety and stress to a potential use in schizophrenia. Pharmacological Research, 147, 104395.

[21] Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). 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 Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255–262. 

[22] Lopresti, A. L., Smith, S. J., Malvi, H., & Kodgule, R. (2019). An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract. Medicine, 98(37), e17186.

[23] Ashwagandha: what it is and why you need it for stress (2023). Get the Gloss. https://www.getthegloss.com/health/ashwagandha-what-it-is-and-why-you-need-it-now

[24] Hancocks, N. (2023). Growing concerns over safety of ashwagandha in EU member states. NutraIngridients. https://www.healio.com/news/gastroenterology/20230517/nearly-40-of-posts-about-cirrhosis-liver-disease-on-tiktok-contain-misinformation?utm_source=selligent&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=news&M_BT=24072692111542

[25] Nearly 40% of posts about cirrhosis, liver disease on TikTok contain misinformation (2023). Healio. https://www.nutraingredients.com/Article/2023/05/17/Growing-concerns-over-safety-of-ashwagandha-in-EU-member-states#

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