Can Ashwagandha Help Reduce Anxiety?

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In ayurveda (a form of alternative medicine that originated in India), an herb known as ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has long been used to treat anxiety. Also known as Indian ginseng, it's said to act as an adaptogen (a class of substances thought to strengthen the body's resistance to the harmful effects of stress). Not only used to relieve anxiety, ashwagandha is also said to aid in the treatment of stress-related issues such as insomnia and depression.

Why Is Ashwagandha Sometimes Used for Anxiety?

Some alternative medicine proponents suggest that ashwagandha's potentially anti-stress benefits may be closely linked to the herb's effects on anxiety. Since stress is known to worsen anxiety (and may aggravate anxiety disorders), working to reduce stress is considered beneficial for people who struggle with anxiety.

Preliminary research suggests that ashwagandha may have a tranquilizing impact on the central nervous system. There's also some preliminary evidence that ashwagandha may have effects similar to that of gamma-aminobutyric acid (an amino acid known to regulate mood and possibly aid in the management of anxiety). 

See Also: All-Natural Mood Enhancers

The Science Behind Ashwagandha and Anxiety

For a report published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2014, researchers reviewed five previously published clinical trials testing the use of ashwagandha in the treatment of anxiety.

Each of those studies concluded that treatment with ashwagandha resulted in greater improvements in anxiety symptoms (compared to treatment with placebo). However, the report's authors note that the reviewed studies had significant flaws.

The most recent research on ashwagandha's effectiveness as an anxiety treatment includes a clinical trial published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine in 2012.

For the study, 64 people with a history of chronic stress were split into two groups: the first group took ashwagandha in capsule form every day for 60 days, while the second group took a placebo for the same time period.

By the study's end, study participants treated with ashwagandha showed a significantly greater improvement in anxiety (compared to study members given the placebo). Those given ashwagandha also experienced an improvement in mood, as well as a substantial decrease in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Some preliminary research (including a rat-based study published in the journal Phytomedicine in 2000) suggests that ashwagandha may offer anxiety-reducing effects similar to that of lorazepam (a medication commonly used in treatment of anxiety disorders). Further research is needed to confirm this finding.

Caveats

Due to a lack of long-term studies on ashwagandha, little is known about the safety of extended or regular use of this herb. However, since ashwagandha may lower your blood sugar levels, it's crucial for those using diabetes medication to take caution and consult a physician prior to taking ashwagandha.

There's also some concern that use of ashwagandha may be harmful to individuals with low blood pressure (as well as to people taking blood-pressure-lowering medications).

Ashwagandha should also be avoided by patients with stomach ulcers, autoimmune disorders (such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes), or thyroid conditions.

It's also important to keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as metals. Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get further tips on using supplements here.

Using Ashwagandha for Anxiety Relief

While ashwagandha may help you alleviate anxiety, self-treating an anxiety disorder with this or any other herb and avoiding conventional care is not advised. If you're experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder (such as frequent feelings of panic or fear, heart palpitations, and difficulty sleeping), it's important to seek help from your primary care provider and mental health professional.

For more help in managing your anxiety, make sure to exercise regularly, limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol, practice relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing, and get sufficient sleep.

Along with ashwagandha, herbs like valerian, and passion flower also show promise as a natural approach to anxiety relief.

Sources

Andrade C1, Aswath A, Chaturvedi SK, Srinivasa M, Raguram R. "A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the anxiolytic efficacy ff an ethanolic extract of withania somnifera." Indian J Psychiatry. 2000 Jul;42(3):295-301.

Bhattacharya SK1, Bhattacharya A, Sairam K, Ghosal S. "Anxiolytic-antidepressant activity of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides: an experimental study." Phytomedicine. 2000 Dec;7(6):463-9.

Chandrasekhar K1, 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 Jul;34(3):255-62.

Kulkarni SK1, Akula KK, Dhir A. "Effect of Withania somnifera Dunal root extract against pentylenetetrazol seizure threshold in mice: possible involvement of GABAergic system." Indian J Exp Biol. 2008 Jun;46(6):465-9.

Mishra LC1, Singh BB, Dagenais S. "Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review." Altern Med Rev. 2000 Aug;5(4):334-46.

Pratte MA1, Nanavati KB, Young V, Morley CP. "An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)." J Altern Complement Med. 2014 Dec;20(12):901-8.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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