Stress has been part of the human experience since the beginning, but as our lives have become increasingly complex, the demands on our bodies have shifted, as well. Our current reality of dealing with the pandemic, and all the changes it has brought, is a prime example. The stress of isolation, concerns about health, finances, and uncertainty about the future are all processed with brains and nervous systems calibrated to detect threats from the huge predators and external events our ancestors dealt with. This constant activation of our ‘fight or flight’ response depletes our energy reserves; That, paired with too little movement, poor sleep, and less-than-optimal nutrition creates a perfect storm of deep exhaustion. Energy and libido plummet, sleep quality erodes, and mental focus fuzzes out.
Life being what it is, most of us just keep on keeping on, with less and less energy, less and less ability to be present to those we care for and the good around us. We down more coffee or energy drinks, stress eat, or binge news reports, further draining our reserves. What to do?
From thousands of years ago to the present day, practitioners of Ayurveda have utilized several herbs that help the body not only deal with stress but help restore peak health. Foremost among these is ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), considered by many to be one of the premier adaptogens. The brilliance of adaptogens is their ability to help the body up-or-down regulate important body functions in a way specific to individual needs.
Let’s take a look at ashwagandha’s many benefits.
Ashwagandha helps promote a balanced and resilient nervous system, resulting in less ‘fight of flight’ reactivity, and more of a “It’s not great, but I can handle it,” response. It promotes healthy nerve growth and repair, and robust cognitive function. So long, brain fog! Ashwagandha also reduces the stress hormone cortisol, helping the adrenal glands regain healthy function. Unlike other adaptogens (e.g., ginseng or rhodiola), it tends to have a calming, rather than stimulating action. Contrary to some common perceptions, ashwagandha isn’t a sleep ‘knockout’ herb (like valerian, for some), but rather helps restore balanced sleep cycles, taken over time.
As we know, good sleep is important to peak immune function. Ashwagandha further assists by acting as an immunomodulator, balancing immune response to the needs of the individual and the moment, helping the body stay adaptable to changing internal and external challenges.
Chemical constituents in ashwagandha known as withanolides act as important hormone precursors which the body is able to utilize for individualized needs. Ashwagandha’s ability to help the body regain hormonal balance has been shown to improve libido in both men and women, as well as boosting male fertility.
Ashwagandha is also a potent antioxidant that helps protect cellular health and reduce the inflammation caused by exercise: a real plus for both the ‘weekend warriors’ and those who work out on the regular. Studies have shown that ashwagandha helps build lean muscle mass and promote sustained energy levels, as well as speeding recovery after exercise.
Amazing as all of ashwagandha’s benefits are, keep in mind that it isn’t a ‘magic wand’ that you can wave, to make all the stress of our current (or any) crisis just evaporate. What this rightfully respected multi-tasking herb can do is be a valued addition to choices that prioritize your health: nourishing yourself with whole, fresh foods; getting the movement your body needs; practicing good sleep hygiene, and taking time to appreciate and enjoy the things that matter the most to you.
When your body is able to rebalance and restore itself, with the help of an outstanding adaptogen like ashwagandha, you can go from feeling utterly overwhelmed (possibly covered in chip crumbs, phone glued to hand), to feeling up for whatever comes next. As it has for countless others, through history, ashwagandha can help provide you strength and stability to weather life’s storms with calm energy.