One of the best ways I know to simultaneously combat stress and unwanted cravings is with the use of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)—an adaptogen that’s been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years. Adaptogens are herbs that improve the body’s ability to deal with physiological and psychological stress. They generally strengthen the immune system and increase your overall vitality.
An interesting fact about ashwagandha is that the Sanskrit word ashwagandha translates to “the smell of a horse,” referring to its ability to bring you the strength and stamina of a horse while nourishing the reproductive and nervous systems.
Ashwagandha belongs to the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family—the same family as tomatoes and potatoes. It’s often called “winter cherry,” referring to its small, red berry fruit or “Indian ginseng,” even though it is not related to the ginseng family.
Ashwagandha is a popular medicinal herb in India and an excellent remedy for chronic stress, low energy and cravings, especially for sugar. It strengthens an exhausted nervous system and has the dual action of energizing and calming the mind and body simultaneously. Let me explain how it works.
Our hypothalamus is the part of the brain that recognizes stress. When you’re under stress, your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland and together they signal your adrenals to produce and release hormones to help you deal with a crisis. This is known as the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. The HPA axis plays a role in everything from your mood and metabolism to energy and sex drive. Chronic stress keeps the HPA axis on constant alert, causing it to be unbalanced, which can lead to health issues such as low libido, thyroid problems and adrenal fatigue.
Ashwagandha supports a more balanced response to chronic stress. It helps stabilize the HPA axis so chronic stress doesn’t result in the heightened release of hormones. In addition to energizing and calming the mind, research supports these primary benefits of this amazing adaptogen:
- Supports immune health
- Promotes healthy sleep quality
- Supports a healthy reproductive system in both men and women
- Increases energy, stamina, and endurance
- Supports healthy joints and muscles
- Promotes thyroid and adrenal health
- Reduces anxiety and helps improve mood
- And so much more
How to Take Ashwagandha
You can purchase ashwagandha in the following forms:
What’s so great about ashwagandha is that it can be taken with or without food, and at any time of the day, even right before bed. The dosage varies depending on your needs. Anywhere from 2 to 9 grams daily falls within the classic therapeutic dosing. I recommend starting with 500 mg twice daily after meals and slowly increase the dose until you get the desired results.
Who Should Take Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is tridoshic, supporting all three doshas (mind-body types)—Vata, Pitta and Kapha—making it good for everyone. But it is heating so if you have excess Pitta and you’re taking ashwagandha without other herbs to balance its heating nature, be sure to monitor for signs of increased Pitta. This includes rashes, diarrhea or feeling short-tempered and agitated.
Ashwagandha helps boost thyroid function. So, if you have hyperthyroidism it should only be used as prescribed by a trained health care practitioner.
Although ashwagandha has been traditionally used in Ayurveda during pregnancy to strengthen the uterus and support the mother’s overall health, its spasmolytic activity on the uterus has raised some concerns in Western medicine.
My Favorite Ayurvedic Herbal Cocktail
Ashwagandha works so well with other herbs, it can be used in many different combinations for specific results. My personal favorite is mixing ashwagandha powder in a cup of hot water with Brahmi powder, shankhpushpi powder and a hint of ghee. The combination of these three powders is a common Ayurvedic herbal cocktail for protecting and restoring the mind and body from stress and fatigue.
- 1/2 tsp Brahmi powder
- 1/2 tsp Ashwagandha powder
- 1/2 tsp Shankhpushpi powder
- 1/3 cup hot water
- 1/4 tsp ghee (which will melt once added to the hot water)
Mix well and drink. It may not taste all that great, but the health benefits are definitely worth plugging your nose for.
Both Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) and shankhpushpi are herbs that support brain health. They help improve memory, concentration and learning. Shankhpushpi also supports proper function of the reproductive system while it calms the mind and balances mental and emotional health.
This herbal cocktail is a must-have for women who are in perimenopause, a time of tremendous physical and mental fluctuation due to unpredictable hormonal shifts.
Seeds of Wisdom
Ashwagandha is an herb for all ages. Given that chronic stress has unfortunately become synonymous with modern life, it’s no surprise that ashwagandha has become so popular. Long before its popularity today, I remember the noticeable benefits of ashwagandha. I took it daily during adolescence as part of my Ayurvedic doctor’s recommendation for boosting my overall resistance to stress. Here I am again as an adult, enjoying its protection and support once more. It’s comforting to see how the same herb that sustained me through the rigors of adolescence – with the teenage pressures of peers, school and parents – is once again in my kitchen cabinet helping me balance the mid-life challenges of work, kids, marriage and fluctuating hormones. Even though many things in my life have changed, Ashwagandha has remained a comforting, constant support at every age.