My dad is pretty old school. Picture a guy who grew up on a farm, and became an accountant, now approaching his mid-70s…that’s my dad. He sees anxiety or stress as momentary, temporary events, typically work related. Nothing to get too worked up about. The other day we were noting the rise in anti-anxiety medication, and I was surprised at how interested he was in discussing the reasons why this might be happening.
The way I explained it is that our brain is like old computer hardware trying to work in an era of ipads. It is set up for dial up internet and floppy disks, when the world has moved to high speed fiber, and cloud-based software. When it tries to adapt, it is doing so with software installed decades ago, and the program just gets confused and overwhelmed.
So what our brain does, is to rely on mechanisms it has been using for a very long time. You see if our brain told us every bit of information it was receiving we would be unable to function. In a way, this is close to what Autism is like. Instead what our brain has adapted to do, is to make us aware of whatever event is shouting the loudest.
But isn’t this a good thing? That we are able to quiet excess noise and stimuli, and just focus on what is important?
Well that all depends on what your brain deems as being important.
You see those of us alive today are descendants of the humans who had the best genes for survival. Some of those genetic advantages enabled us to perceive threats quicker than the now deceased lineages.
Think of it this way, if your brain convinced you that the rustle in the bush was a rabbit, but it was really a lion, you’d be dead.
If your brain jumps into action to protect you from a rustle which could be a lion, but is really a rabbit, no harm done.
So part of what our brain does, is to make perceived threats shout the loudest, to capture our attention and jolt us into action.
The problem we have in our modern world, is that our poor brain, this old computer with archaic software, is being bombarded with what it perceives as threats.
Work deadlines, children screaming, sirens, home invasions, disease epidemics, marriage dynamics, driving in traffic, navigating complex social interactions, the news available 24/7 at the tip of your fingers, the ding ding ding of instant messages…our ancient hardware is confused.
What then ends up happening, is we stay in this state of heightened awareness, ready to tip into fight or flight at any moment. And tipping into fight or flight at any moment is exactly what we end up doing.
We move in and out of fight or flight multiple times during the day. Increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones.
And all this anxiety increases our risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as dementia and some cancers.
The frontline of defence in the fight again anxiety is therapy. Just like upgrading computer software, therapy is about rewiring your brain to assess risk more reliably, and to calm that fight or flight reflex.
However, sometimes when we are in these heightened states, it is hard to be receptive to therapy. In these cases a little support for your brain might be useful.
This is where Ashwagandha has started to pop up in medical literature.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen. We’ve discussed adaptogens in more detail in their own article. However, in short, they are natural compounds which help your body stay calm, and be more resilient against the effects of the stress response.
Botanically known as Withania somnifera, Ashwagandha is Sanskrit for “smell of the horse,” an ode to its scent and action in the body.
So how does Ashwagandha work?
One of its mechanisms is to decrease blood sugar levels in the body. Our blood sugar levels and stress hormone production are closely linked, so it is very important to manage blood sugar levels well when we suffer from stress and anxiety.
In some human studies, supplementation with Ashwagandha was found to lower the stress hormone Cortisol by 30% in acutely stressed individuals. This is not just beneficial for mental health, but physical health as well, as elevated cortisol can lead to increase fat storage, especially around the tummy. This is a known risk factor for heart disease.
Perhaps most astounding is the ability for Ashwagandha to block the stress response or anxiety pathway. Essentially teaching our brain to quickly identify something as non-threatening.
A recent study in humans saw a 69% decrease in anxiety over a 60 day period, compared with 11% reduction in the placebo (non-Ashwagandha) group. In a separate study 88% of people in the group taking an Ashwagandha supplement reported a decrease in anxiety over 6 weeks.
It is generally agreed that 6 weeks is the minimum time needed to see significant changes in anxiety, so it would be good to see longer term follow up in studies such as the ones we just looked at.
Due to the sometimes debilitating nature of anxiety, depression is often seen hand in hand with it. Preliminary studies on Ashwagandha in human trials have also noted a decrease in depressive symptoms. Which is a promising result.
And it is not just useful as an anti-anxiety.
Ashwagandha has also shown benefits for reducing inflammation, cholesterol, and triglycerides, as well as increasing muscle mass and strength, brain function, and memory.
It may also increase fertility in men.
Because of its ability to dampen the stress response, and increase resilience, it will help to boost energy which is typically lost to the heightened anxiety.
There are contraindications though.
As with any drug, the benefits come with caution for some people. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding do not take Ashwagandha. It may increase the risk of miscarriage, and the effects are unknown with breastfeeding.
Have a chat with your family doctor if you have an auto-immune disease such as type 1 diabetes or lupus. Ashwagandha works on increasing immune system function, which can exacerbate symptoms in an auto-immune disease.
The drug also increases thyroid hormone production, so if you have a history of an overactive thyroid, or are on medication for an under-active thyroid it is best to chat with your doctor, or avoid Ashwagandha entirely.
If you have minor underactive thyroid which is yet to be medicated, Ashwagandha may improve your symptoms and is safe to take.
As Ashwagandha works to decrease blood sugar levels and blood pressure, it is important to exercise caution if you have low blood sugar or low blood pressure. If you are on blood pressure medication for high blood pressure it is worth being monitored by your doctor to see if your blood pressure medication needs decreasing over time if you choose to take Ashwagandha.
Okay – how does one get Ashwagandha?
Dosage is typically 300–500 mg of the Ashwagandha root extract, taken with food. You can have this all in one go, or with each meal throughout the day.
Capsule form is the easiest, and you want to look for a pure Ashwagandha formula, rather than one mixed with added extras which just decrease the potency.
Our organic Ashwagandha comes in a 500mg capsule and can be added to your daily pack.