Ashwagandha – What does it actually do?

Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is one of the most popular Ayurvedic herbs, known from ages to be a ‘power’ herb for virility, stamina, energy. But then again, and more recently, we come across Ashwagandha in most herbal/natural sleep formulations, and is advertised for calming and sleep, which seems rather contradictory doesn’t it? So if you have been confused by the bifurcation, the short answer is, Ashwagandha is neither an energizer or stimulant, nor a sedative and yet it does actually help with both and also a whole lot more!

Ashwagandha (Ashwa: Horse, Gandha: smell) is a evergreen shrub that gets its name from the peculiar odour of its flowers, that smell distinctly like the hide of a sweaty horse.

Although Ashwagandha is prevalently used in Ayurveda and traditional plant medicine for a multitude of illnesses and wellness disorders, its primary classification is an ‘Adaptogen’

An Adaptogen is an herb that ‘regulates’ and balances certain biological functionalities, and hence are most prevalently used to help manage and control stress. Adaptogens inherently help in reducing stress levels by regulating cortisol release and dopamine production. ‘Withanolides’ – the primary active compounds in Ashwagandha particularly act as bio regulators of the adrenal glands (where cortisol is produced and released from).

Now, we know cortisol as the ‘stress’ hormone, but cortisol does more than just that. It is the hormone that plays a role in our sleep-wake cycle, along with ‘melatonin’ – the sleep hormone.

As is evident, your body releases higher amounts of cortisol in the morning (considering of course, that your body is in a good, balanced, state of being) and as the day diminishes, so does the trickles of cortisol releasing from your adrenal glands, hence insinuating that tiredness and fatigue is probably correlated to waivering levels of cortisol and as the day comes to an end, your cortisol levels dwindle as melatonin release begins. Both these hormones work with a negative feedback loop with each other. Any stimulatory activity, for example a ‘stressor’ would then stimulate your adrenals to ‘peak’ levels of cortisol, because a ‘stressful’ stimulus indicates to the body a need for wakefulness and alertness.

So if its evening, and your just winding down from work, and your body’s clockwork is tuning down the cortisol, so that the melatonin can come in and take over, gently lulling you to a restful night of sleep… and then suddenly you have a ‘issue’ turn up at work, or an argument with your spouse, or an uncontrollable stress, like a flat tire on your way home…. Boom! Your cortisol levels shoot up…and as long as the cortisol is running through the veins it’s gonna make it hard for you to even out and get calm.

This system is set in place in our bodies as an evolutionary ‘survival’ mechanism. So that if we are being chased by a predator or are befallen by a calamity per chance, then we release cortisol and that makes us alert, and summons the body’s responses in order to deal with the calamity or issue until the threat is averted.

But, in our modern day lives, when stressors that trigger this flight or flight response are so prevalent that its almost an everyday thing, the regularity of cortisol spikes and its subsequent effects on melatonin release day after day after day, eventually affects your sleep-wake cycle, disrupts your sleep patterns and the overall biorythym of your  body. That results in an imbalance in all your hormonal systems. If your body is having cortisol spikes late into the night,  that results in lowered levels during the day when you NEED to be awake, in turn triggering more melatonin release during the day, and this just becomes your ‘cycle’ and eventually you experience lack of sleep, mental fatigue, brain fog, etc.

Adaptogens, such as Ashwagandha, attempt to bring balance back into this shaken up system, by going to the primary CCP (critical control point) – your Adrenal Glands.

By regulating your adrenal gland, Ashwagandha slowly tones down your cortisol release, and brings your sleep-wake cycle back into regularity.

So Ashwagandha is not a ‘stress- relieving’ herb in the way of working on your neuronal pathways, neither does it stifle cortisol production, it is more like a regulator that evens out cortisol release and by evening out your circadian rhythms, it kind of improves the quality of sleep as well as mental clarity, cognitive function etc.

The ideal dosage of Ashwagandha is 1000-2000 mgs per day, so if you want Ashwagandha to do what it’s supposed to do for you, you want to make sure you’re getting enough of it.

Additional benefits of Ashwagandha include improved circulation, enhances, endurance, benefits heart health, reduces inflammation, reducing the symptoms of arthritis, helps manage stress, and possibly even plays a role in increasing testosterone levels. In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha is considered a Rasayana, which means that it helps maintain youth, both mentally and physically.

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