Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a shrub native to India, Africa, and the Middle East. It has been used for at least 3,000 years in the Indian Ayurvedic system of healing as a rejuvenating tonic to improve both mental and physical health. It’s thought to be an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body adapt to environmental stressors.
Modern studies have shown that this ancient herb may help relieve stress and anxiety and promote sleep and male fertility. The primary active compounds in the ashwagandha are known as withanolides, which have shown antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Now, in a new study published in the journal Medicine, a team of Indian and American researchers has found that an extract of ashwagandha root standardized to contain 2.5% withanolides can help reduce stress and anxiety and improve quality of life in healthy adults.
For this double-blind, placebo-controlled study, a group of 54 healthy adults with mild to moderate symptoms of stress were randomly divided into two groups. One received a 500 mg once-daily dose of the standardized ashwagandha root extract (ARE) for 60 days, and the other received a daily placebo.
The subjects’ stress levels were evaluated using a number of tests, including perceived stress scale (PSS), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD-7), quality of life (QOL), and cognitive scores in the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB). The researchers also measured the subjects’ levels of salivary cortisol (the stress hormone), urinary serotonin, dopamine, serum levels of nitric oxide (NO), glutathione (GSH), and malondialdehyde (MDA) from baseline to end of the study.
At the end of the 60-day study period, analysis of the results showed that the PSS, GAD-7, and QOL scores of the participants in the ashwagandha group improved significantly as compared to those in the placebo group. The ashwagandha group also showed significant improvements in the multitasking, concentration, and decision taking-time aspects of the CANTAB analysis, as well as a greater reduction in salivary cortisol and increase in urinary serotonin than the placebo group.
“The results of the study suggest that ARE with 2.5% withanolides can effectively improve stress and anxiety by reducing cortisol and increasing serotonin in healthy individuals with mild to moderate symptoms,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “ARE significantly reduced cortisol levels and increased serotonin suggesting its mechanism of action through the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical) axis.” This adds further evidence to other studies that have suggested that ashwagandha’s anti-stress effects are due to its cortisol-reducing activity.
While these results are encouraging, the scientists stressed the need for further research. “The present study examined the effect of ARE for 60 days in a relatively small population of 54 participants. Studies in a larger population and longer duration of supplementation and follow-up after termination will also help to understand the sustained effects of ARE in relieving stress and anxiety,” the researchers wrote. “The physiological response to stress and anxiety involved multiple, interdependent pathways. Future studies including the effect of ARE on the HPA axis, inflammation, and other hormones would delineate the mechanism of action of the supplement.”