True to its adaptogenic status, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) helps you cope with stress, by reducing the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and then by preventing it from sitting on cell surfaces and triggering a stress response. It could make you feel more energetic too, thanks to the antioxidant withanolides that boost blood circulation as well as stabilize glucose levels in the blood by improving glucose transport into certain cells.
Our bodies need to constantly adapt to ever-changing environments and situations. This involves knowing how to deal with both physical and mental stressors, ranging from cold temperatures to social phobias. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means it can help your body adapt – without targeting any one system or organ. It casts a wider net of benefits.
Most of the credit for ashwagandha’s benefits goes to a group of compounds called withanolides. Withanolides include withaferins and withanosides too. Then there are sitoindosides (modified withanolides) and alkaloids that contribute as well.
Why It’s So Great
1. Helps Reduce Stress
Stress being an external factor can’t always be helped, but the internal stress pathway – that is how your body reacts to stress – can be intervened upon and suppressed. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is the main player. So every stress-relieving activity you do – say, walking, meditating, or relaxing – focuses on bringing down cortisol levels. Ashwagandha works similarly to help your body deal better with stress.
- Going straight for the kill, ashwagandha’s withanolides mimic cortisol and do not allow it to sit on cell surfaces and to trigger a stress reaction.
- Then, they hinder cortisol production by keeping the HPA axis in check. The HPA axis or hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is a chain of hormonal reactions that starts with the brain area called the hypothalamus and ends with the cortisol-producing adrenal glands perched on the kidneys.
Withanolide A, sitoindosides, and acylsterylglucosides are the main anti-stress agents at work.
Even if your stress spirals into worry and anxiety, the glycowithanolides (modified withanolides) can step in to make sure that “happy” messages are able to reach your brain.
An offshoot benefit of reduced stress is reduced stress eating. So if you tend to binge-eat when under stress, ashwagandha could help you manage your cravings better.
2. Preserves Joint Mobility
Healthy joints have adequate fluid-filled spaces between the meeting bones and cushions of cartilage crowning the ends of the bones. This setup helps in shock absorption when you move, much like the shock absorbers in your car.
However, even among the healthiest of us, with age and repeated strain, a certain degree of wear and tear in the joints is inevitable. The body tries to repair it by producing more cartilage. Ashwagandha can be a big help in this process.
- It protects cartilage-producing cells and inhibits cartilage-degrading enzymes called collagenases. This in effect keeps your joint spaces from narrowing and your cartilage intact.
- It also prevents immune system cells called macrophages from switching to “attack mode” when they sense unusual bone friction. Withaferin A has been seen to be especially instrumental.
3. Helps Stabilize Blood Glucose
Since glucose is the main source of energy for your body, it’s essential that every step involved in processing and storing glucose in the body takes place smoothly. Ashwagandha can assist your body in ensuring this by working on multiple fronts.
- It stimulates the insulin receptors on your skeletal muscles and fat cells so that they accept insulin more easily. It also helps glucose transporters take the glucose across to the cells.
- Going a step further, withaferin A protects insulin-producing pancreatic cells from inflammatory damage – so you’ll have more insulin to steer the extra glucose away.
4. Helps Enhance Stamina
“I don’t need more energy,” said no one ever. One way to build up energy is through exercise. But what if you don’t have the stamina to exercise long? No, it’s not a sign of ill health, it just means you need some practice and a little help from ashwagandha.
- The math is simple here. With more hemoglobin and red blood cells to go around, thanks to ashwagandha’s withanolides, your body will feel more and more at ease during intense physical activity. For the same effort, your body will be able to deliver more oxygen to your muscles, giving you better performance.
- There’s more. Exhausting physical activity also releases highly reactive, muscle-damaging molecules called free radicals (oxidants) in the blood. But as your natural antioxidant store gets a boost from the antioxidant withanolides, your cells are protected from damage.
5. Helps Improve Sleep
Admit it: you may sleep fine, but when someone promises better sleep, you want it right away.
Knowing that ashwagandha’s species name “somnifera” is Latin for “sleep-inducing” should give you a hint of its sleep benefits. The main component responsible here is triethylene glycol (TEG), which, by the way, is not a withanolide.
The best part is that TEG does not affect the quality of your sleep but helps you drift into sleep more naturally and more often – which means you will be experiencing normal sleep, not drugged sleep.
Basically, it’s just helping your body gain better control over its natural sleep-wake rhythm.
6. Encourages Thyroid Function
Stress is not good for your thyroid because the stress hormone, cortisol, suppresses the production of thyroid hormones. Like we mentioned, ashwagandha can help your body bring cortisol under control, giving free rein to your thyroid to work at its best despite daily stress.
It’s important to realize that ashwagandha has the most to offer when consumed in its naturally packaged whole form, which also tends to be its safest mode of consumption. The same cannot be said for isolated active ingredients like withaferin A that may turn out to be toxic even at low doses.
So, have 3–12 gm of ashwagandha whole powder (root, leaf, or whole plant) every day with your meals. This amounts to 1–2 teaspoons or capsules a day. If you choose to have the powder once a day, have it with your breakfast.