by Nilima Desai, MPH, RD
In today’s fast-paced world it seems like most people are under some type of stress. In fact, the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease Survey reports by the year 2020, stress-related conditions will be the second leading cause of disability.1 Stress is defined as, “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation”.2
It’s important to remember that not all stress is bad, but if the stress response isn’t dealt with properly, it can turn into chronic stress, which can have a negative impact on a person’s health. According to an article in Forbes, workplace stress alone accounts for up to $190 billion of the healthcare costs in the US.3 Chronic stress has been associated with a number of different health conditions such as depression, high blood pressure, and heart and metabolic disorders and can be an important predictor of health.4
Stress can be managed in a variety of ways. Understanding the cause of stress and utilizing different lifestyle modalities to manage it may produce beneficial health outcomes in the long run. Along with healthful nutrition, regular physical activity, good sleep, and hygiene, incorporating adaptogens in a person’s daily routine has been found to be beneficial in managing stress.4
Adaptogens are natural substances such as herbs that positively impact the body and help it adapt to stress. In times of increased stress, these herbs help to decrease cellular sensitivity to stressors, resulting in a balanced, eustress state (i.e. normal physiological stress).5 The proposed mechanism of action of adaptogens’ stress-protective ability has been linked to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and its ability to regulate several stress response mediators, such as, cortisol, nitric oxide, and c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase 1 (JNK1).5 There are several herbs with adaptogenic properties, but one of the most widely studied adaptogenic herbs is Withania somnifera, commonly known as ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha is also referred to as Indian ginseng or winter cherry.4,6 The name ashwagandha literally means “smell of horse” because the roots of the plant produce a strong aroma that smells like a horse.4 Traditionally, it is believed that consuming this herb will confer vitality and strength similar to that of a horse.4 Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries due to its various rejuvenating effects on the endocrine, neurological, reproductive, and immune systems.4 Several preclinical and clinical trials have shown ashwagandha to possess anti-inflammatory, antistress, antiarthritic, antioxidative, and neuroprotective properties.6
To evaluate the antistress effect of ashwagandha in an animal model, 100 mg/kg aqueous suspension of ashwagandha root was given to rats in a swimming performance test in cold water.6 The results indicated an increase in the swimming time along with increases in the corticosterone levels and phagocytic index.6 Based on these results, the researchers concluded ashwagandha demonstrates antistress properties.6
In a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial investigating the safety and efficacy of ashwagandha root for reducing stress and anxiety in adults suffering from chronic stress, the participants who consumed 600 mg/day of high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract for 60 days experienced significant reductions in stress-assessment scale scores (assessed individual’s resistance to stress) and cortisol levels compared to the placebo group.4 The participants did not experience any serious adverse events.4
The published literature examining ashwagandha’s effect on stress is limited in humans, but research to date provides support for this adaptogenic herb as a safe and effective approach to stress management support. Additional well-designed clinical trials will be valuable to add to the evidence base for ashwagandha’s stress adaptation efficacy.
- World Health Organization-mental health: a call for action by world health ministers. Ministerial round tables 2001-54th World Health Assembly.
- Merriam-Webster. Stress. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress. Accessed March 5, 2018.
- Stress. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2015/01/26/workplace-stress-responsible-for-up-to-190-billion-in-annual-u-s-heathcare-costs/#65f27709235a. Accessed March 5, 2018.
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwangadha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012;34(3):255-262.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Effects of adaptogens on the central nervous system and the molecular mechanisms associated with their stress-protective activity. Pharmaceuticals. 2010:3(1):188-224.
- Singh N, Bhalla M. An overview on ashwagandha: a rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011;8(5):208-213.
Nilima Desai, MPH, RD
Nilima Desai is Sr. Manager of Medical Marketing and Metagenics Institute. Nilima is a Registered Dietitian (RD) who received her undergraduate degree from California State University Long Beach in Nutrition and Dietetics and her Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from Loma Linda University. She has over 14 years of experience delivering medical nutrition therapy in the areas of diabetes, renal disease, weight management, and vegetarian nutrition. She also served on the board of the Renal Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics from 2012-2016 as the Membership Chair. In her free time she runs half marathons and shuttles her two kids to their activities.