Ashwagandha is an herbal adaptogen with potent anti-stress and anti-anxiety properties. It has been used traditionally for thousands of years, and its benefits have been demonstrated in double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (1). Read on to learn more about what ashwagandha is, and how it can help combat stress and anxiety.
A small evergreen shrub native to India, Ashwagandha has been used medicinally for millennia (2). Traditional use has come down to us from Ayurveda, a healing tradition which originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. In Aryurveda, ashwagandha is known as a rasayana (powerful rejuvenator), thought to impart the strength and stamina of a stallion. As an adaptogen, it helps the body cope with the psychological and physiological effects of stress.
Ashwagandha (specifically the KSM-66 extract), is the most effective herbal adaptogen I have come across for dealing with anxiety and stress.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety for years, ashwagandha is now a valued staple in my daily supplement stack.
While this article focuses on the anti-anxiety and anti-stress benefits of ashwagandha, the herb possesses many other benefits as well. Ashwagandha has demonstrated anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, neuroprotective, cardioprotective, and anti-diabetic properties.
In terms of combating stress and anxiety, ashwagandha exerts its benefits through two main mechanisms:
- Enhancing GABA signalling
- Reducing cortisol levels
This combination of GABA-enhancing and cortisol-reducing activity is what allows ashwagandha to treat both the mental and physical symptoms of stress.
GABA is our main inhibitory neurotransmitter, which binds to and activates the GABA receptors. Enhancing GABA activity is associated with anti-anxiety, relaxing effects (3) (4).
Ashwagandha acts on GABA receptors to exert many of its anti-anxiety benefits (5). In fact, ashwagandha has been shown in studies to be as effective as some benzodiazepine drugs at reducing anxiety (6). Due to this GABA activity, ashwagandha also increases the effects of other GABAergic drugs, such as alcohol.
A broad range of conditions can be benefited from enhancing GABA activity, including insomnia, anxiety, seizures and muscle spasms (7). Importantly, ashwagandha is able to exert its benefits without the side-effects, tolerance and addiction issues associated with other GABAergics such as benzodiazepines and alcohol (8).
Whereas ashwagandha enhances GABA to help rid the mind of stress and anxiety, it reduces cortisol activity to ease stress on the body.
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the body in response to stress, and chronic stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels. While some cortisol is necessary for normal function, elevated levels over time cause a range of damaging effects from increasing fat and decreasing muscle mass to damaging brain cells and suppressing immune function (9)(10).
Ashwagandha has been shown to reliably and significantly reduce serum cortisol levels (10). This allows the parasympathetic nervous system to activate, enabling your body to repair and ‘rejuvenate’. This aligns with ashwagandha’s traditional use in Ayurvedic medicine. In fact, ashwagandha is such an effective rejuvenator it has been shown to reduce body fat, while increasing lean body (muscle) mass and physical strength (11).
Three main options are available for ashwagandha supplementation:
- Raw Ashwagandha powder
- KSM-66 extract
- Sensoril extract
In order to ensure potency and simplify dosing, extracts of ashwagandha are generally preferred. Both KSM-66 and Sensoril are standardized, proprietary extracts with extensive research behind them. Each contains a set quantity and ratio of withanolides, the active constituents of the herb.
KSM-66 is the preferred option for daily use in healthy people. Made from only ashwagandha roots, it remains true to Ayurvedic tradition in which leaves are excluded from ingestion. Standardized to contain less than 0.1% Withaferin A, a cytotoxic but cancer-fighting withanolide, it is virtually non-toxic (12). Typical dosage for KSM-66 is 300mg twice a day, for a total of 600mg per day (1).
Sensoril ashwagandha extract differs from KSM-66 primarily in that withanolides are extracted from both the leaves and roots to produce it. This strays from tradition, however it does yield a higher percentage of total withanolides and Withaferin A. This makes Sensoril the more potent option with greater anti-tumor properties, but also gives it a greater potential for toxicity (11). Those experiencing extreme stress, and those fighting cancer may find Sensoril to be the best short-term option. Typical dosage for Sensoril is 125mg twice a day, for a total of 250mg per day (13).
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum X. Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. 2012;34(3):255-262. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022.
- Pratte MA, Nanavati KB, Young V, Morley CP. An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2014;20(12):901-908. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0177.
- Griebel G, Holmes A. 50 years of hurdles and hope in anxiolytic drug discovery. Nature reviews Drug discovery. 2013;12(9):667-687. doi:10.1038/nrd4075.
- Foster AC, Kemp JA. “Glutamate- and GABA-based CNS therapeutics”. Curr Opin Pharmacol. 2006;6 (1): 7–17. doi:1016/j.coph.2005.11.005. PMID16
- Kumar A, Kalonia H. Effect of Withania somnifera on Sleep-Wake Cycle in Sleep-Disturbed Rats: Possible GABAergic Mechanism. Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. 2008;70(6):806-810. doi:10.4103/0250-474X.49130.
- Savage K, Firth J, Stough C, Sarris J. GABA-modulating phytomedicines for anxiety: A systematic review of preclinical and clinical evidence. Phytotherapy Research. 2017;32(1):3-18. doi:10.1002/ptr.5940.
- Candelario M, Cuellar E, Reyes-Ruiz JM, et al. Direct evidence for GABAergic activity of Withania somnifera on mammalian ionotropic GABAA and GABAρ receptors. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2015;171(1):264-272. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2015.05.058.
- Raut AA, Rege NN, Tadvi FM, et al. Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. 2012;3(3):111-114. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.100168.
- McAuley MT, Kenny RA, Kirkwood TB, Wilkinson DJ, Jones JJ, Miller VM. A mathematical model of aging-related and cortisol induced hippocampal dysfunction. BMC Neuroscience. 2009;10:26. doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-26.
- Choudhary D, Bhattacharyya S, Joshi K. 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. 2017;22(1):96-106. doi:10.1177/2156587216641830.
- Wankhede S, Langade D, Joshi K, Sinha SR, Bhattacharyya S. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2015;12:43. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9.
- Wadhwa R, Singh R, Gao R, et al. Water Extract of Ashwagandha Leaves Has Anticancer Activity: Identification of an Active Component and Its Mechanism of Action. El-Shemy HA, ed. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(10):e77189. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077189.
- 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 Neutraceut Assoc 2008;11:50–56