Behavioral Health

Does Ashwagandha Actually Relieve Stress?

The herb Ashwagandha is seeing a recent bump in interest for a number of health issues and concerns, including stress. Our behavioral health experts weigh in on how effective it is.

Mar. 21, 2023 5   min read

An Asian woman looks at a green medicine bottle

Stress exists in some form for everyone in daily life. However, data from the American Psychological Association shows the number of adults who say they experience increased stress has steadily increased in the last five years.

To reduce stress, people turn to different things – some healthy and some unhealthy. Recently, people have begun to show more interest in using ashwagandha as a method of stress relief.

We asked Alexey Breuss, a pre-doctoral intern in behavioral health with Rochester Regional Health, about ashwagandha and its uses in managing behavioral health.

Origins and known side effects

Found natively in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that is also known by the name winter cherry.

Ashwagandha root powder is used in herbal medicine for a variety of treatments, including relieving stress, reducing anxiety, enhancing brain and nervous system function, and improving memory.

Ashwagandha is available over the counter in several forms, including root powder, capsules, gummies, and beverages.

There are no significant side effects of ashwagandha; the herb is considered generally safe, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. If someone ingests a higher dose, they might experience some side effects such as upper gastrointestinal issues, nausea, or vomiting.

Studies suggest pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha due to increased risk of abortion if higher doses are ingested. Men with hormone-sensitive prostate cancer are also advised to avoid ashwagandha because of an increased cancer risk linked to a potential increase in testosterone.

Stress relief benefits

As a stress reducer, ashwagandha works by reducing the body’s levels of cortisol – a hormone that is linked to stress response. A healthy person experiences a natural rhythm of higher cortisol levels in the mornings as the hormone helps them wake up, and lower cortisol levels in the evenings as the hormone helps them relax and prepare for sleep.

The stress-reducing effects of ashwagandha are not immediate, but can be felt within a couple hours.

Clinicians recommend using the herb as needed for stressful situations; it is not recommended to be a long-term solution for stress reduction.

“People who are chronically stressed and have a history of using pharmaceutical interventions to manage their symptoms should avoid using ashwagandha as a lone long-term method of stress reduction,” Breuss said. “Combining supplements or pharmaceuticals with healthier lifestyle choices will have a better chance of improving any issues at hand, as opposed to seeing ashwagandha simply as a tool to help manage stressful moments.”

Because cortisol levels are higher in the mornings, it is recommended to use the herb in the evening when the body’s cortisol response should be naturally low. This can help the body’s hormonal rhythm remain relatively stable.

“Additional supervised medical studies about the use of ashwagandha are needed so we can gather enough data to see how it might affect other body behaviors,” Breuss said.

Alternative stress relief techniques

Every person has a unique way to reducing stress in their life. Some people can use a single technique and find the results they were hoping to achieve; others need to try alternative or additional methods.

If a person needs additional stress relief methods, there are several that may help

Breath exercises: Focusing on taking breaths with longer exhales are shown to lower a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate, as well as lower overall stress responses.

Physical exercise in the morning: Moderate exercise leads to increased cortisol release in the body, reinforcing the body’s natural cortisol rhythm. This helps the body’s stress response to be naturally lower at night.

Diver’s reflex: Using the diver’s reflex response is a simple way to lessen stress. Fill a bowl with icy cold water, take a deep breath, and submerge your face into the bowl for 30 seconds. The technique will help to slow the body’s heart rate and lower the overall stress level.

Progressive muscle relaxation: Used as a treatment for several behavioral health issues, progressive muscle relaxation is a method of tightening and then relaxing specific muscle groups to release tension. Studies show this technique is effective not only for stress relief, but helping with anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and other health conditions.

“We are unique as a species because we can turn on our body’s stress system just by using our minds,” Breuss said. “Learning to regulate your thoughts and emotions, along with your physical response to them, is all part of living a healthy life.”

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