A three-part series on which to consider and which to avoid
Within the past two years it's safe to say we have all experienced an assortment of stresses whether it be from work, family, health, and or societal issues - it has not been easy. We know that chronic stress can negatively impact our health, mood and energy-but what can we do about it? This quandary is where the 2.4 million dollar largely unregulated herbal supplement industry can either provide us with hope and possible benefits or sell us on empty promises.
For at least 6 thousand years, traditional medical practices throughout Asia, Africa, Central and South America have been utilizing herbal remedies including many you may recently have heard of termed Adaptogens. Adaptogens are a class of metabolic regulators which increase the ability of our bodies to adapt to environmental factors and decrease the effects accumulated from these stressors. While that may sound like a mouthful, adaptogens can help our bodies better deal with the stressors of our modern hectic lives. As such, the use of adaptogens has been gaining popularity in mainstream and western society over the past several years-and for good reason.
Out of the hundreds of options within the herbal supplement industry, we have chosen three adaptogenic herbs that show promise in many areas and which we will discuss at length in this three-part series. We will begin this month with the adaptogen Ashwagandha.
An evergreen bush named Withania Somnifera, popularly known as Ashwagandha has been documented back to 6000 BC around the regions of India, Africa, and the middle east. Traditionally this adaptogenic herb was used for a variety of reasons to promote longevity, increase fertility in both men and women, and to improve the body's resilience to stress. In recent clinical studies. Ashwagandha has been shown to improve hormone balance, mood, mental performance (motivation, attention, alertness), and motor skills. Although this may sound too good to be true, we will review the research with you now, and let you decide for yourself whether this is something you’d like to try.
The main compound behind Ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties is linked with the withanolides present in the root. Withanolides are a group of naturally occurring steroidal lactones found within plants. Ashwagandha directly stimulates the thyroid gland to produce the two thyroid hormones, which shows promise in subsequently decreasing cortisol and has far reaching effects on the production of several hormones. *Important note that yes, this means that anyone with hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) should NOT take ashwagandha and that anyone with hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) may want to consider this herbal supplement AFTER consulting with your primary MD.
Ashwagandha and Testosterone
Men often report taking ashwagandha in an effort to improve testosterone. Studies show promise in this area in that cortisol and testosterone have an indirect relationship with one another. Ashwagandha may itself help to improve testosterone, and furthermore, ashwagandha has shown promise in directly stimulating the production of testosterone in recent studies-so there may be a one-two punch here so to speak.
Ashwagandha and Estrogen Hormones
Women can also benefit from this adaptogen. As Ashwagandha works to increase serotonin levels and regulate estradiol, and progesterone, it has been suggested that ashwagandha can be a safe and effective option to regulate menstrual cycles and decrease symptoms of PMS.
Ashwagandha can also be helpful for women during the perimenopausal transition when many are experiencing the consequences of fluctuating hormone levels and resulting mood disturbances. Ashwagandha can increase your resistance to stress by working with your hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA-axis) to reduce levels of cortisol and stress.
Ashwagandha - Mood and Cognition
Withanolides work to improve how well serotonin (the feel-good hormone) binds with GABA receptors (in the brain) to improve mood, cognition, motivation, attention, anxiety, alertness, which is why it has been gaining popularity among overworked and stressed out individuals.
The improvements in motor function and skill could be related to ashwaganda’s synergistic qualities on improving cholinergic and adrenergic neurotransmitter signaling. Improvements here will increase acetylcholine levels in the brain to assist the brain to efficiently store memory. This is why Ashwagandha has been shown to be effective amongst mentally exhausted individuals.
Ashwagandha Dosage Recommendations
Studies have shown that small doses of 50-100mg 1-2 x daily can have a positive impact on reduction of anxiety and chronic stress symptoms. Many studies have shown greater effects of ashwagandha when taking 250 mg x 2 times/day. Depending on which outcome you are looking for, recommended dosages may vary. In the interest of always starting with and using the lowest effective dose of any supplement or medication, you can start with 50-100 mg daily and assess whether this dose seems to be effective for you. Those not seeing improvement with that starting dosage may increase to 250mg x 1-2 daily. There are no standardized cycle procedures for Ashwagandha, acute and chronic use have both shown to provide benefits.
Ashwagandha, Interactions and Caution with Other Medical Conditions
- As noted above, anyone with a hyperactive thyroid should not take ashwagandha.
- Those with Type 2 diabetes and any other medical condition should as always discuss any supplements you are considering taking with your doctor and disclose all supplement use with any new doctor.
- As with all herbal supplements, it is ALWAYS a good rule of thumb to disclose your use of or plan to start a new supplement with your medical doctor before starting-especially if you are currently taking medication for blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep, gastrointestinal issues, autoimmune disease, and a thyroid disorder, as there is insufficient evidence on Ashwagandha’s interactions with other drugs.
- Any females with already high androgen levels, including those with PCOS, should not take Ashwagandha, as it could potentially worsen the issue by stimulating more androgen production.
Takeaway for Ashwagandha
Looking through the multiple studies published on ashwagandha throughout recent years, ashwagandha seems to provide promising and positive effects on a healthy individual's body by minimizing levels of cortisol, reducing effects of stress, and on hormone levels in both men and women. Finally, studies consistently show ashwagandha to be generally safe with no major adverse effects in healthy individuals.
We hope you enjoyed this month’s rundown on the adaptogen Ashwagandha. Next month we will discuss the potential benefits and effects of Rhodiola Rosea. As always, please reach out to us anytime with questions or comments about this article or any other topic of nutrition you are interested in learning more about.