Stress affects us in different ways. Some people develop anxiety and worry and have difficulty shutting down an overactive mind. Others may develop depression or may experience insomnia, muscle tension, weight gain, headaches, or other stress-related symptoms and conditions.
Regardless of how or where your stress manifests, it can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Plus, it’s important to remember that stress is more than an emotion—it has a real physical impact on your body.
In fact, it’s estimated that 60-80% of doctor visits have at least one component that’s rooted in stress. This is why I regularly ask my patients about their stress levels, regardless of why they came to see me in the first place.
What Happens When You’re Stressed?
If you’re stressed—for example, your hot water heater breaks and water is running all over your floor—it triggers your body’s “stress feedback loop,” called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is your body’s automatic response and is as natural as breathing.
First, the hypothalamus (the tiny control center in your brain) releases CRH, a hormone that travels to your pituitary gland where it triggers the release of ACTH. The ACTH travels to your adrenal glands where it triggers the release of stress hormones—including cortisol and epinephrine.
These stress hormones put your body into fight-or-flight mode by raising your heart rate, boosting your blood sugar levels, and even quickening your breathing pace. This is an evolutionary and highly adaptive response that ensures you’re ready to combat danger. So, if you’re fleeing from an attacker, for example, you’ll have the speed and stamina to flee. Once the danger is gone, your body returns to normal.
The problem is that when you’re chronically stressed it’s like being chased by a tiger or bear, continuously! This overworks your HPA-axis and causes it to become less efficient.
Plus, Stress Can Impact Your Digestion
Stress and digestion are closely connected through something called the gut-brain axis. If you’ve ever had the feeling of butterflies in your stomach, you’ve already experienced this strong link. But what does it mean?
When your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, it sends a message to the enteric nervous system in your gut—which is sometimes referred to as your body’s “second brain.” Your enteric nervous system reacts by increasing the acids in your stomach, causing your esophagus to spasm, making you feel nauseous, and even contributing to constipation or diarrhea.
Ashwagandha Helps Support Your Stress Response
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a botanical medicine, also known as Indian ginseng, that’s been used for more than 3,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s part of a class of herbal medicines called adaptogens that help people “adapt” to long-term stress.
I like to think of ashwagandha as your body armor against life’s stressors. Although stress cannot be removed from your environment, how your body and mind perceive stress can be altered so stress does not affect you in such a negative way.
How Does Ashwagandha Work?
Ashwagandha works by helping to stabilize and balance your body’s HPA-axis so it works more efficiently and effectively, reducing the impact of stress on your body. Studies have shown that ashwagandha can lower cortisol levels. This is important because if cortisol levels are chronically high you might feel anxious or notice that your sleep is disturbed.
Taken in the right form and amount, ashwagandha’s stress benefits include helping to:
- Maintain healthy cortisol levels
- Reduce stress and anxiousness
- Boost mood and mental health
- Reduce fatigue and irritability
- Improve focus and concentration
- Support healthy sleep quality
I generally suggest taking ashwagandha at night before bed, but it can also be taken during the day. When combined with lifestyle changes such as daily meditation or breathing exercises, it can radically boost your ability to handle stress more effectively.
What’s the Bottom Line for You?
What I’ve seen over the years is that people who take adaptogens like ashwagandha—along with practicing daily meditation and exercise—typically report that they have a greater resistance to stress. In other words, adaptogens combined with mind-body-spirit lifestyle practices don’t decrease the amount of stress in your life, but rather alter the way stress affects your body—so it takes less effort to “go with the flow.”
The change may be as simple as noticing an improvement in sleep quality or realizing that your anxiety level is lower than usual. It’s also important to know that adaptogens like ashwagandha can take a little while to fully kick in and help support your HPA axis. In fact, for some people the benefits slowly increase over weeks or even months—so it’s important to stick with it. Over time, you’ll notice that you’re just feeling better and when you’re feeling better mentally it helps you physically!