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. Reduces Stress
Stress being an external factor can’t always be helped, but the internal stress pathway can be intervened and suppressed.
Going straight for the kill, ashwagandha’s withanolides strive to normalize the stress hormone cortisol. They have two strategies at play here:
- First, they mimic cortisol, not allowing it to sit on cell surfaces and 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 kidney-perched adrenal glands producing cortisol.
Withanolide A, sitoindosides, and acylsterylglucosides are the main anti-stress agents at work.
Even when stress spirals into 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. Those who tend to stress eat may be able to manage their cravings better with ashwagandha.
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. When you have arthritis, this setup is compromised.
Ashwagandha helps keep your joint spaces from narrowing and your cartilage intact. It protects cartilage-producing cells and inhibits cartilage-degrading enzymes called collagenases.
It also prevents immune system cells called macrophages from switching to “attack mode” when they sense unusual bone friction, thus, reducing pain and swelling in troubled joints. Withaferin A has been seen to be especially instrumental.
3. Stabilizes Blood Glucose
When your body struggles to respond to insulin because of abnormally high blood glucose, you probably have or are at risk of type 2 diabetes. Given the chronic nature of this condition, a lifestyle change like having ashwagandha is warranted.
Ashwagandha helps your skeletal muscles and fat cells use glucose from your blood more efficiently, in effect, improving insulin sensitivity and reducing blood glucose. Going a step further, withaferin A protects insulin-producing pancreatic cells from inflammatory damage – so you’ll have more insulin!
When speaking of high blood sugar, body stiffness must be mentioned. The problem stems from extra sugar molecules being added to the spaces between cells, restricting movement. Ashwagandha may be able to keep this from happening.
4. Enhances Stamina
The math is simple here. With more haemoglobin 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.
Exhaustive physical activity releases highly reactive, muscle-damaging molecules called free radicals in the blood. Protecting the muscles in your heart wall from free radicals, withanolides tilt the antioxidants/oxidants balance in favor of antioxidants. Healthy tissues always have more antioxidants than oxidants.
5. Improves Sleep
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.
TEG does not affect the quality of your sleep but helps you drift into sleep more naturally and more often. So, if falling asleep at night is an everyday struggle for you, it makes sense to start having ashwagandha powder (root, leaves, or whole) on a regular basis.
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 bring cortisol under control, giving free rein to your thyroid to work at its best.
It’s important to realize that medicinal herbs like ashwagandha have the most to offer when consumed in their naturally-packaged whole form, which also tends to be their 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.
If you’re looking to manage your blood glucose levels in particular, have the leaf powder.