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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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What is ashwagandha?

corey jenkins

If you’ve watched enough YouTube videos on weightlifting, nutrition and health, then you have almost certainly encountered commercials on one of the most quickly-growing so-called adaptogens on the market: ashwagandha. Before we delve into the latter – which has often been called a “miracle root” – we first need to understand the medical definition of adaptogen, to see what it does to the human body.

Ashwagandha Primer: Understanding Adaptogens and How They Work

At its core, an adaptogen is a root or an herb that combines with receptors in your body to assuage stressors. This means that it helps you manage the biochemical and biophysical stresses to which the body is prone; some adaptogens have long histories of being used in cultural healing traditions (usually in the Far East). In the latter they are often brewed with teas, used as herbs in dishes, or eaten outright. Ashwagandha, as a specific type of adaptogen, is supposed to bind to the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (the HPA for short) gland or axis for the purposes of dampening the effects of stress on the body. It is also known to interact with the sympatho-adrenal system to work concomitantly with the HPA.

All adaptogens are not created the same. Although they share a basic function – as elicited above – the wide range of available applicants have sufficiently-distinct uses within the overall context of stress-management. In particular for the subject of this article, ashwagandha is known to reduce stress levels and help parry the hormone imbalances that are otherwise initiated by stress. Ginseng happens to be another adaptogen that accomplishes this effect. More specifically, there was a study conducted regarding the effects that adaptogens have on the central nervous system.

The Origin and Function of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha can be found in several places on the earth, with the chief locations being sub-Saharan Africa, India and the span including North Africa and lower South-west Asia that is collectively known as the Middle East. The herb has, in fact, been known for thousands of years in these regions, where the inhabitants have long ground the Ashwagandha root into powder and used it in teas, foods and medicines. The unique name of the herb stems from the word “ashwa”, to denote that the natural root of Ashwagandha smells like a horse before the blue tubular stem is ground to dust. Even in powder form, it retains the powerful attributes for which it is known, while giving off only a vestige of the strong horse-smell that it possessed as an unbroken root.

The Forms of Ashwagandha: How Can You Take It?

As mentioned earlier in this review, the Ashwagandha herb is an adaptogen, and it is composed of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. These work together to aid in stress reduction by binding with the appropriate receptors in the human body. In particular, people report feeling a rejuvenation effect from Ashwagandha; similar to another popular adaptogen from the Far East known as ginseng. Ashwagandha, itself, is one of the rare plants that can be used in totality – different parts of the plant have different medicinal uses. The extract of the Ashwagandha root, for example, is especially favored by manufacturers for infusion into their supplements; whereas the whole root is favored by the original Ayurvedic users. They were the first in recorded history to grind the tubular Ashwagandha root into a powder for mixture with several liquids – with milk and water being the most common dispersive mediums.

Although an in-depth investigation into the chemical makeup of Ashwagandha supplements is beyond the scope of this article, one of the most common such supplements that you can find is Withania Somnifera – it is an extract that is often very refined, such that it can easily be incorporated into a dispersive medium.

Ashwagandha is Primarily for Stress Management

Although there are other benefits to this ancient herb, Ashwagandha is primarily useful for assuaging your stress responses. It has become especially popular due to the pandemic that is touching all four corners of the globe in the past couple of years (2020s). When you become stressed, your cortisol (the hormone that is responsible for stress) levels spike to increase your heart rate and initiate the production of excess glucose for the energy you need to expend against a perceived threat. This is, of course, an excellent biological function that initiates either fight or flight in the subject. Once the threat has ceased – or once it has been perceived to cease – your cortisol levels equilibrate and your heart rate relaxes.

The problem arises – particularly due to the myriad of stresses in the modern era – when the body perceives a chronic threat; such as stark uncertainty. The latter can refer to inadequate finances, the encroaching pandemic, loss of livelihood, etc – then the cortisol jolts become persistent and your body is in a constant state of stress. The latter is known to induce inflammation in the body, which facilitates the onset of some of the most common ailments among Americans and around the world: diabetes, stroke, heart disease, hypertension and cancer. Chronic stress and the inflammation it causes are also known to contribute to fibromyalgia and osteoporosis.

Ashwagandha works by dampening the cortisol levels responsible for the body’s reaction to chronic stresses; in effect, it helps you relax. Even more importantly, ashwagandha root or powder actually assuages inflammation, thereby negating the need for a chronic response to the rise of cortisol levels. Since the human body is so interconnected, this also has the effect of improving the function of your immune system.

Of course, as with any new substance, you should consult a physician before you imbibe it. For example, if you suffer from a preexisting thyroid condition and are taking medication for it, ashwagandha could react adversely with this medication. The base function of ashwagandha, after all, is to alter thyroid function for the purpose of managing cortisol responses. For similar reasons, pregnant or breastfeeding women should also consult their primary care physician before taking ashwagandha or any other herb or root that can change bodily functions. This goes for ginseng, as well – even though that herb is not the topic of this article. Ultimately, ashwagandha has the potential to confer huge benefits for the management of chronic stress; it should be used responsibly and after you’ve consulted a doctor.

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