Fight Chronic Stress at the Biological LevelAugust 2018
By John Verona
An estimated 75%-90% of primary-care physician visits may be related to acute or chronic stress.1
Chronic stress, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders has been shown to have a negative impact on our hormones and organs in the body.2
Chronic stress also contributes to accelerated aging and premature death.3-5
With the help of the plant adaptogen ashwagandha, it is possible to help reduce the damage of stress at a biological level.
Adaptogens work by bringing bodily functions into balance.
Ashwagandha can help calm us down and work at the source of our anxiety by rebalancing our neurotransmitters.6
Ashwagandha offers a unique way to reduce chronic stress at the source and shield the body from its invisible biological damage.
What you need to know
Those with chronic stress may not realize the damaging effects it can have on their body, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular death. In our busy lives, it can be challenging to find the time for destressing exercises. Fortunately, researchers have identified herbal extracts with substantial calming effects. Ashwagandha, a plant adaptogen, was found in a recent clinical study to significantly reduce stress assessment scores and blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The Dangers of Chronic Stress
Left untreated, chronic stress can cause or exacerbate many serious health issues. These include:5,7-11
- Cardiovascular health (heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke)
- Obesity (stress-induced eating)
- Gastrointestinal complaints
- Mental health (anxiety, depression, and insomnia)
- Sexual dysfunction
It may be impossible to avoid stressful situations in life, but it is possible to help block the harmful biochemical effects that stress has on the body.
Ashwagandha Combats Chronic Stress
Research has shown that ashwagandha can help the body fight the negative effects of chronic stress.12-14
A study of patients with chronic stress was conducted using ashwagandha extract (300 mg) twice a day for 60 days. The result was a significantly reduced score on stress assessment scales. Ashwagandha also reduced blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.14 This study demonstrated ashwagandha’s ability to improve a person’s resistance to stress itself.
Additional studies indicate how ashwagandha can also help relieve some of the harmful effects that chronic stress inflicts on the body.6,13-15 Two of ashwagandha’s stress-related targets are insomnia and anxiety.
Overcoming Stress-Induced Insomnia
Over time, chronic stress can impair the body’s ability to obtain restorative sleep. Besides making you feel drained and fatigued, poor sleep quality can have a negative effect on endurance,16 contributes to weight gain,17 and can increase fine lines and wrinkles.18
Lack of beneficial, restorative sleep increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and hypertension. Sleep deprivation has been associated with accelerated aging and shorter lifespans.19-21
This was seen in a study showing that sleep deprivation contributes to the shortening of telomeres. Our telomeres are structures on the tips of chromosomes that decrease in length as we age and result in loss of cellular functions. Telomere length is a way of measuring biological aging.22
Stress causes a slew of bio-chemical changes that contribute to poor quality sleep, which then leads to greater stress.23 Ashwagandha can help break this vicious cycle—and it has been used in traditional medicine for this purpose. Part of ashwagandha’s scientific name—somnifera—means “sleep inducer.”
Physicians commonly prescribe several different kinds of prescription drugs to treat sleep disorders. These drugs can induce sleep, but at the risk of side effects—including addiction24 and an increased risk of premature death.25
The exciting news is that ashwagandha can improve the quality of sleep—without the side effects associated with sleep drugs.26
Ashwagandha works by activating nerve-cell receptors for the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which is essential for restful sleep and preventing insomnia.6 In this way, ashwagandha helps prepare the body for sleep.
Sleep disorders and anxiety frequently go hand-in-hand. Because of this close connection, any remedy for poor sleep should include components that also help to lower anxiety—and ashwagandha does just that.
Anxiety and Mood Disorders
Anxiety and mood disorders affect approximately 40 million American adults, making them the most common mental illnesses in the U.S.27
In 2011, close to 48 million prescription drugs were written for the anti-anxiety drug Xanax alone.28 These types of drugs come with side effects including memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and headaches.
Animal studies suggest that extracts from ashwagandha have anxiety-reducing effects comparable to those produced by such common prescription drugs as diazepam (Valium®) and lorazepam (Ativan®).29-31
In rodent models, researchers use a behavioral assay, known as elevated plus maze, which has been validated as a way to test the anti-anxiety effects of different compounds.32
In one study, sleep-deprived rats experienced a high level of anxiety during this procedure, but this effect was ameliorated in ashwagandha-fed animals.33
A recent, double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled human trial found that compared to placebo, subjects receiving ashwagandha extract daily experienced reductions in physiological and psychological markers of stress, improvements in well-being, and reductions in serum cortisol levels.13
And in animal studies evaluating its antidepressant activity, ashwagandha was found to work through mechanisms comparable to antidepressants such as imipramine (Tofranil®) and fluoxetine (Prozac®).29,34,35
Protection Against Neurodegenerative Diseases
Research has revealed that ashwagandha is also an excellent medicinal compound in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
For example, in a rat model of Parkinson’s disease, researches evaluated the impact of ashwagandha on different behavioral, biochemical, and neurochemical tests. What the researchers found was that in rats fed ashwagandha, all the different parameters studied were reversed.33
These impressive results led the researchers to conclude that ashwagandha may be helpful in protecting brain cells from injury in Parkinson’s disease and may serve as an important component of an alternative treatment protocol.
Similar encouraging results have been seen with Alzheimer’s.
Many scientists believe that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the disruption of communication between neurons, which can lead to cell death.34 This is what is thought, in turn, to cause the characteristic memory problems in the early stages of the disease—and ultimately loss of language and reasoning later on.
Laboratory studies have shown that compounds in ashwagandha can regenerate neurites—the fingerlike projections that facilitate communication between nerve cells—35,36 while also reconstructing damaged neurons.36
In order to reduce the symptoms and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, physicians commonly use donepezil (Aricept®). This drug blocks the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps the brain perform everyday activities like learning and memory.
Lab studies show that ashwagandha extract mimics the action of this drug on a more subtle level by protecting against acetylcholine breakdown. This important action may underlie its effectiveness in helping preserve cognitive function and memory.37,38
Ashwagandha has been used for centuries as a medicinal compound for the relief of stress and anxiety.
Studies now show that it can help combat the symptoms of chronic stress by combatting anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
More recent studies indicate that ashwagandha shows promise for its potential benefits in the fight against neurodegenerative disorders.
Ashwagandha offers a more natural alternative for insomnia, mood disorders, and anxiety—while providing the additional benefit of neuroprotection.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.
- Head KA, Kelly GS. Nutrients and botanicals for treatment of stress: adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalance, anxiety, and restless sleep. Altern Med Rev. 2009;14(2):114-40.
- Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037. Accessed May 15, 2018.
- Nielsen NR, Kristensen TS, Schnohr P, et al. Perceived stress and cause-specific mortality among men and women: results from a prospective cohort study. Am J Epidemiol. 2008;168(5):481-91; discussion 92-6.
- Carroll BJ. Ageing, stress and the brain. Novartis Found Symp. 2002;242:26-36; discussion -45.
- Wikgren M, Maripuu M, Karlsson T, et al. Short telomeres in depression and the general population are associated with a hypocortisolemic state. Biol Psychiatry. 2012;71(4):294-300.
- Candelario M, Cuellar E, Reyes-Ruiz JM, et al. Direct evidence for GABAergic activity of Withania somnifera on mammalian ionotropic GABAA and GABArho receptors. J Ethnopharmacol. 2015;171:264-72.
- Epel ES. Psychological and metabolic stress: a recipe for accelerated cellular aging? Hormones (Athens). 2009;8(1):7-22.
- Kyrou I, Tsigos C. Stress mechanisms and metabolic complications. Horm Metab Res. 2007;39(6):430-8.
- Azuma K, Adachi Y, Hayashi H, et al. Chronic Psychological Stress as a Risk Factor of Osteoporosis. J uoeh. 2015;37(4):245-53.
- Kyrou I, Tsigos C. Chronic stress, visceral obesity and gonadal dysfunction. Hormones (Athens). 2008;7(4):287-93.
- Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:607-28.
- Dongre S, Langade D, Bhattacharyya S. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Improving Sexual Function in Women: A Pilot Study. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:284154.
- Choudhary D, Bhattacharyya S, Joshi K. Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017;22(1):96-106.
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012;34(3):255-62.
- Dar PA, Singh LR, Kamal MA, et al. Unique Medicinal Properties of Withania somnifera: Phytochemical Constituents and Protein Component. Curr Pharm Des. 2016;22(5):535-40.
- Oliver SJ, Costa RJ, Laing SJ, et al. One night of sleep deprivation decreases treadmill endurance performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2009;107(2):155-61.
- Spivey A. Lose sleep, gain weight: another piece of the obesity puzzle. Environ Health Perspect. 2010;118(1):A28-33.
- Sundelin T, Lekander M, Kecklund G, et al. Cues of fatigue: effects of sleep deprivation on facial appearance. Sleep. 2013;36(9):1355-60.
- Institute of Medicine Committee on Sleep M, Research. The National Academies Collection: Reports funded by National Institutes of Health. In: Colten HR, Altevogt BM, eds. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); National Academy of Sciences.; 2006.
- The effects of sleep deprivation on sleepiness, performance, stress and immune system. Glas Srp Akad Nauka Med. 2009(50):111-23.
- Cirelli C. Brain plasticity, sleep and aging. Gerontology. 2012;58(5):441-5.
- Jackowska M, Hamer M, Carvalho LA, et al. Short sleep duration is associated with shorter telomere length in healthy men: findings from the Whitehall II cohort study. PLoS One. 2012;7(10):e47292.
- Sanford LD, Suchecki D, Meerlo P. Stress, arousal, and sleep. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2015;25:379-410.
- Pagel JF, Parnes BL. Medications for the Treatment of Sleep Disorders: An Overview. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2001;3(3):118-25.
- Weich S, Pearce HL, Croft P, et al. Effect of anxiolytic and hypnotic drug prescriptions on mortality hazards: retrospective cohort study. BMJ. 2014;348.
- Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/in-depth/sleeping-pills/art-20043959. Accessed May 9, 2018.
- Available at: https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics#. Accessed May 9, 2018.
- Lindsley CW. The top prescription drugs of 2011 in the United States: antipsychotics and antidepressants once again lead CNS therapeutics. ACS Chem Neurosci. 2012;3(8):630-1.
- Bhattacharya SK, Bhattacharya A, Sairam K, et al. Anxiolytic-antidepressant activity of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides: an experimental study. Phytomedicine. 2000;7(6):463-9.
- Gupta GL, Rana AC. Protective effect of Withania somnifera dunal root extract against protracted social isolation induced behavior in rats. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2007;51(4):345-53.
- Gupta GL, Rana AC. Effect of Withania somnifera Dunal in ethanol-induced anxiolysis and withdrawal anxiety in rats. Indian J Exp Biol. 2008;46(6):470-5.
- Walf AA, Frye CA. The use of the elevated plus maze as an assay of anxiety-related behavior in rodents. Nat Protoc. 2007;2(2):322-8.
- Ahmad M, Saleem S, Ahmad AS, et al. Neuroprotective effects of Withania somnifera on 6-hydroxydopamine induced Parkinsonism in rats. Hum Exp Toxicol. 2005;24(3):137-47.
- Available at: https://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp#brain. Accessed May 15, 2018.
- Tohda C, Kuboyama T, Komatsu K. Search for natural products related to regeneration of the neuronal network. Neurosignals. 2005;14(1-2):34-45.
- Kuboyama T, Tohda C, Komatsu K. Neuritic regeneration and synaptic reconstruction induced by withanolide A. Br J Pharmacol. 2005;144(7):961-71.
- Schliebs R, Liebmann A, Bhattacharya SK, et al. Systemic administration of defined extracts from Withania somnifera (Indian Ginseng) and Shilajit differentially affects cholinergic but not glutamatergic and GABAergic markers in rat brain. Neurochem Int. 1997;30(2):181-90.
- Choudhary MI, Yousuf S, Nawaz SA, et al. Cholinesterase inhibiting withanolides from Withania somnifera. Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo). 2004;52(11):1358-61. .