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Stressed? Try a Deep Breath—And an Herbal Extract

Stressed? Try a Deep Breath—And an Herbal Extract: Main Image
Levels of the adrenal stress hormone, cortisol, came down almost 28% in ashwagandha users

When looking for things to help with the stressors of modern life, we may do well to look to centuries-old Ayurvedic medicine. A study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that people who took ashwagandha, a prominent medicinal herb in Ayurveda, reported lower stress levels and had reduced blood levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

The researchers enrolled 64 people in the study who reported a low sense of well-being and a high sense of stress on questionnaires, but were otherwise healthy. They were assigned to take either 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily or placebo for 60 days.

Ashwagandha's physical and emotional benefits

Results from blood tests and questionnaires showed that ashwagandha improved people's perceptions and experiences of stress in the following ways:

  • Sense of stress: Scores on questionnaires about perceived stress dropped 44% in people taking ashwagandha and only 5% in people taking placebo.
  • Coping: Answers to questions about behaviors and experiences related to stress suggested better coping in the ashwagandha group than the placebo group.
  • Mood: Scores on anxiety and depression questionnaires were more improved in the ashwagandha group.

In addition, levels of the adrenal stress hormone, cortisol, came down almost 28% in ashwagandha users but only 8% in the placebo group. This shows that the drop in psychological stress levels was manifest in the body's physiology, and suggests that ashwagandha may play a role in protecting the body from the negative health effects of stress.

According to the study's authors, the results "collectively suggest that high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract mitigates not only the focal aspects of stress but also some of the precursors, consequences, and associated symptoms of stress,".

Holistic stress reduction

Ashwaganda has traditionally been used to give strength, vitality, and resilience, and these findings give scientific support for this use. Here are some other things that can help to reduce stress and its harmful effects:

  • Move. Physical activity lifts mood and increases well-being. It also changes the physical responses to stress and keeps us healthy.
  • Breathe. A variety of meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to reduce psychological stress and its physical manifestations. Conscious breathing is the foundation for most relaxation practices.
  • Connect. Make time for friends and family. Maintaining a strong social network improves sense of well-being and helps us through stressful times.

(Indian J Psychol Med 2012;34:255-62)

Maureen Williams, ND, completed her doctorate in naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle and has been in private practice since 1995. With an abiding commitment to access to care, she has worked in free clinics in the US and Canada, and in rural clinics in Guatemala and Honduras where she has studied traditional herbal medicine. She currently lives and practices in Victoria, BC, and lectures and writes extensively for both professional and community audiences on topics including family nutrition, menopause, anxiety and depression, heart disease, cancer, and easing stress. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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