Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb used for anxiety and stress relief. Also known as Indian ginseng, this plant is classified as an evergreen bush that is native to Africa, India, and the Middle East.
Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine have been using ashwagandha for anxiety for thousands of years to help repair the communication channels between the brain and the adrenal glands.
Ashwagandha may help prevent or decrease stress responses (anxious thoughts, rumination, hyper-alertness, and more) for non-life-threatening stressors.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is an herb, that actually translates to “smells like horse.” Unsurprisingly, when consumed on its own, ashwagandha has a slightly bitter taste that is described as earthy.
This is why ashwagandha is often blended with other herbs, plants, and ingredients.
It’s commonly found in supplements and food products, such as teas, cocoas, coffees, and nut butters. It complements sweet flavors, so you’ll often see it paired with honey, medjool dates, or other nutrient-dense sweeteners.
What are adaptogens?
While ashwagandha is just one in a long list of adaptogens — or a class of plants that may help the body regulate stress and stress responses — adaptogens are any plant that helps the body repair connections between the brain and the adrenal glands, regulating stress responses to non-life-threatening situations.
These herbs and mushrooms have been used for thousands of years to treat stress, anxiety, insomnia, attention disorders, and more.
How do adaptogens work?
Adaptogens work to repair the pathways between the brain and the adrenal glands. These pathways, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), may glitch during or after prolonged stress or anxiety.
When we’re faced with stressors, the body springs into fight-or-flight mode. This mode is meant to keep us alive in the face of danger, sending signals to the adrenals to release cortisol and adrenaline — allowing us to fight an aggressor or run away from it.
Yet, we don’t need huge doses of adrenaline and cortisol to fight off work-induced anxiety, bustling city traffic and deadlines, or a miscommunication with our child’s babysitter.
Nevertheless, our brains don’t sense the difference between an actual life-or-death scenario and a non-life-threatening stressor. When the brain sends constant signals to the adrenal glands to respond to stressors with hormone release, these pathways may become damaged.
The adrenal glands may not get those signals in time and end up releasing stress hormones too late; the body may also struggle to realign itself or flush excess cortisol from its systems.
Adaptogens may help to repair these connections between the brain and the adrenal glands (as well as connections to other glands). When the body is able to regulate cortisol and adrenaline more effectively, we don’t end up with lingering stress hormones floating through our systems.
Our brains may also be able to resist sending signals to the adrenal glands in response to non-life-threatening stressors.
Types of Adaptogens
Ashwagandha is only one adaptogen, though it may be one of the most well-known!
Other adaptogens may include mushrooms such as reishi, cordyceps, and lion’s mane; turmeric, rhodiola, ginseng, and cardamom are popular adaptogen herbs.
You’ll usually find products with adaptogen blends that are formulated to target certain types of stressors or certain anxiety-related conditions, such as insomnia, fatigue, depression, and more.
Though it might be tempting to create your own blend of adaptogens, it may be safer (and more cost-effective) to find a product that already has a pre-measured blend — such as adaptogenic nut butter.
There is a long list of adaptogenic mushrooms and herbs, though ashwagandha is possibly the most popular — and for good reason! It boasts several anxiety-and-stress-reducing benefits and may help alleviate some of the medical conditions associated with both anxiety and stress.
Some of the most common reasons to take ashwagandha are to ease stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, reduce depressive episodes and insomnia, and decrease inflammation.
Eases Stress and Anxiety
Since ashwagandha is an adaptogen, one of its main benefits is to ease stress and anxiety.
But does taking ashwagandha for anxiety actually work? Or is it just another health and wellness fad?
This herb is hardly a fad as it has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 3,000 years. And it’s not just popular in the far east either.
Studies have shown that Ashwagandha, administered over the course of 60 days, was able to significantly reduce the cortisol levels of participants, compared to a placebo group. In a 2009 naturopathic care for anxiety trial, 75 participants were administered ashwagandha and followed for eight or more weeks; according to the study:
“Significant differences between groups were also observed in mental health, concentration, fatigue, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life with the NC group exhibiting greater clinical benefit. No serious adverse reactions were observed in either group.”
Lowers Blood Pressure
There’s also some evidence that this herb may also reduce blood pressure.
Stress is one of the major contributing factors to high blood pressure. When we get stressed, our heartbeats speed up, and our blood vessels constrict, creating high blood pressure.
This is completely normal and our bodies are equipped to return to baseline without major health consequences, unless stress causes high blood pressure too often.
Adaptogens — especially ashwagandha — may help prevent our adrenal system from overreacting to non-life-threatening stressors. This in turn may lower stress-related high blood pressure.
This herb may also reduce inflammation, which is one of the causes of high blood pressure.
If you suffer from high blood pressure, it’s important to talk to your doctor before taking ashwagandha, as this adaptogen is not always appropriate for some patients.
Reduces Depressive Episodes
Ashwagandha may also help alleviate the symptoms of depression, particularly major depressive disorder (MDD).
High levels of cortisol release are associated with MDD.
In a 2012 randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study, researchers found that, “a high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual's resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
A 2019 randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial found the effects of a standardized extract of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on depression and anxiety symptoms in persons with schizophrenia, “WSE may hold promise in the treatment of depression and anxiety symptoms in schizophrenia.” The conclusion did also note that more research needs to be completed on this topic for clinical efficacy.
Encourages Deep Sleep
Our bodies cannot release sleep hormones, such as melatonin, when our bodies are in fight-or-flight mode. In fact, all non-essential functions may cease stress responses (including digestion).
Since ashwagandha may help repair the HPA axis and prevent the adrenal glands from releasing stress hormones in non-life-threatening situations, our bodies may perform parasympathetic nervous functions, including sleep functions. Melatonin may be released, allowing us to drift off to sleep easier.
Ashwagandha also contains triethylene glycol, which is a chemical that may help promote sleep.
In a 2019 double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study, researchers found, “Ashwagandha root extract is a natural compound with sleep-inducing potential, well-tolerated and improves sleep quality and sleep onset latency in patients with insomnia at a dose of 300 mg extract twice daily.”
The study did note that more research needs to be completed to understand its efficacy in treating insomnia.
Taking Ashwagandha for Anxiety
There are two popular ways to take ashwagandha for anxiety. While this herb is often used in recipes, it’s most commonly available in prepackaged foods and supplements.
Since ashwagandha has a bitter taste, most people prefer to consume it pre-blended in a supplement or prepackaged food.
Ashwagandha supplements are available in both capsule and droplet form. You may also be able to find blends that include other adaptogens, such as reishi or cordyceps.
Blending supplements together may lead to uncomfortable side effects, so always talk to your doctor before combining adaptogen supplements.
While supplements are a great way to “supplement” your ashwagandha intake, the body may not be able to absorb them as easily as adaptogens in food form.
One of the safest ways to try adaptogens is in food. Since ashwagandha is an herb, it may be added to food and beverages.
You’ll find ashwagandha in cocoa, seasoning, and nut butter, such as Retreat Foods’ adaptogenic nut butter blends.
In addition to ashwagandha, you’ll find other adaptogens, such as cordyceps, chaga, reishi, ginseng, turmeric, shitake, lion's mane, turkey tail, and rhodiola. Anti-inflammatories include cardamom, rosemary oil, cinnamon, cacao, and nutmeg.
It’s sweetened with Medjool date paste, which is a sweetener that has less of an impact on blood sugar and may lead to fewer blood sugar spikes.
Is ashwagandha safe?
Yes! Taking ashwagandha for anxiety is safe.
A 2012 randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root found that this herb, “safely and effectively improves an individual's resistance towards stress.”
It also found that adverse effects were mild.
That being said, it is important to talk to your doctor before using naturopathic ingredients to treat anxiety — especially if you suffer from diabetes or high blood pressure. Anyone who is pregnant or planning to become pregnant or nursing should talk to their doctors before trying ashwagandha.