• Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that helps your body manage stress and nervous tension.
  • This healing herb acts on all three stages of the stress response. That’s a good thing because chronic stress isn’t great news for long-term health.
  • You can find ashwagandha root in powders and supplements like Bulletproof Zen Mode. Get all the details about this powerfully soothing root below.

First things first: it’s pronounced osh-wah-GONE-duh. Ashwagandha root is an Ayurvedic herb that’s crossing into the mainstream, thanks to its many mind-body benefits. Most notably, ashwagandha has calming properties that help you manage stress. But how does it work, and how can you make the most of those ashwagandha benefits?

If you have stress in your life, whether it’s noticeable or barely-there, read on to find out how ashwagandha can help.

What is ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha goes by many different names, including withania somnifera, Indian ginseng and winter cherry. It’s part of the nightshade family and is a small shrub that grows in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Ashwagandha is a part of Ayurveda, which is a form of traditional medicine that focuses on balancing the body, mind and spirit.

Supplements tend to contain ashwagandha root extract or ashwagandha powder, which can be combined with other herbs. Bulletproof Zen Mode blends ashwagandha with functional ingredients like kanna, GABA, L-theanine to create a stress-busting and relaxing supplement.

Ashwagandha is also an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens help you adapt in the face of stress. To be an adaptogen, the ingredient has to meet these qualifications:

  1. People must tolerate it well, even with long-term use
  2. It must act on the body’s stress response
  3. There must be a range of other benefits, too

Ashwagandha passes the three-pronged adaptogen test with flying colors.

We’ll get into the benefits below, but first, you should know what the stress response looks like.

What happens to your body when you’re stressed

Stressed man in yellow sweater at home

According to Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome model, there are three basic stages once a stressor triggers the stress response.[1]

(There are other models of the stress response, but Selye’s model gives a good overview to help you understand how ashwagandha works on your stress levels.)

The alarm stage (aka fight or flight)

Your body goes into the alarm stage when you’re being chased by a cheetah, when you slam on your brakes to avoid a crash or when you have a conflict at work.

You can actually feel your fight-or-flight response thanks to the spike in your adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol levels. That belly jump, that tingle in your limbs—that’s your nervous system sounding.

When all of this is happening, your body suppresses your organs, usually through the vagal pathways. It’s preparing energy resources to mobilize to counteract the stressor. Your heart beats faster and your pupils dilate, all to help you fight off or flee from the perceived enemy.

When the stressor is short-lived, you can recover quickly when it’s over. When you have consistent, low-level stress, you spend time in exhaustion mode, the effects of which we’ll get to in a minute.

The state of resistance

During the state of resistance, the stressor is no longer there—or at least, the threat is no longer there. This is the time when your systems try to get back into balance. The body metabolizes and excretes stress hormones that it no longer needs.

Think of this as the “coming down” phase. Though your body attempts to recover, it still remains on high alert. You may be irritable or forgetful.

The exhaustion phase

Chances are, you’ve felt exhaustion after intense times. The exhaustion stage of the stress response can happen at the system level.

When you experience consistent, low-level stress, you’ll feel it in more ways than one. For example, when you’re stressed, your digestive system slows to a halt and you end up with gastric distress a little later on. You might feel entirely spent with low energy levels, or you may even run down your immune system. Yikes.

Related: 9 Supplements to Reduce Stress

Ashwagandha uses for stress and overall wellness

Woman relaxing while listening to cat

Adaptogens like ashwagandha act on all three major phases of the stress response. They increase your threshold as far as what will trigger the stress response, which helps save the alarm phase for times you actually need it.

After the alarm phase, adaptogens work to break down those stress hormones and get them out of the body. They also help with your energy to bring your systems out of exhaustion to keep you functioning as you should.

Here’s how that translates to ashwagandha benefits:

Supports the adrenal glands

Stress and the adrenal glands are inextricably connected. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, a stress hormone that is quicker to release than other stress hormones like adrenaline. Constant release of cortisol chips away at your health, so it’s best to keep stress and cortisol in check.

Persistent stress can contribute to adrenal insufficiency, which can cause abnormal adrenal gland size and wonky production of an adrenal hormone called aldosterone.

Additionally, ashwagandha has been shown to support the adrenals in a few different ways:

  • Helps the hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal (HPA) glands communicate effectively.[2] When the HPA axis isn’t working in sync, your stress response can become trigger-happy, or your body could respond with intensity that doesn’t match the situation.
  • Acts on the adrenals to support normal testosterone levels.[3] Additionally, thyroid hormones—which regulate digestion, muscle and heart function—can be impacted by low adrenal function.
  • Prevents stress-induced vitamin C depletion in the adrenals. The adrenals use up a huge percentage of our total vitamin C.[4][5] If the adrenals don’t have the vitamin C they need, they aren’t able to regulate cortisol production, which results in too much or too little. Cortisol dysregulation can start a cycle of stress response and improper cortisol production.

May help maintain healthy blood sugar levels already in normal range

In a test tube study, ashwagandha supported insulin sensitivity in muscle cells.[6] This helps in the context of stress because when your blood sugar is stable, you can focus on everything else you have to do. You don’t have to constantly interrupt your day to eat, and you’re not distracted by midday sugar crashes.

This is the same reason supplements like MCT oils are so impactful: They don’t cause a blood sugar spike like sugar or carbs, so you enjoy steady, stable energy. When you’re level, you do life better, and you get less stressed about it.

May improve sexual function

Researchers found that supplementing with ashwagandha improved sexual function in healthy women compared to placebo.[7]

This could be because of the many physiological benefits of ashwagandha, or it could be due to its stress reduction properties. A major cause of female sexual dysfunction lies in its relationship to psychological stress.[8]

May support brain function

It goes without saying that occasional mood problems can substantially increase the stress response. Ashwagandha may help here, too. Studies revealed that markers of mood in rodents improved when taking ashwagandha supplements.[9]

May support weight management

Ashwagandha helped with body weight management in adults under persistent stress.[10] If you’re going on this study alone, it’s hard to say whether it’s the stress reduction mechanism that helps with weight loss or the effects of ashwagandha on fat metabolism.

We know that ashwagandha supports a healthy stress response, so it follows that managing stress can help you manage your weight, too.

Related: Weight Management Supplements That Actually Work

Ashwagandha side effects

Hands holding cup of tea

Ashwagandha is generally safe and well-tolerated. However, people with overactive thyroid, blood pressure issues and cancer patients should get medical advice before trying ashwagandha, as it can ramp up thyroid activity and interact with common blood pressure and cancer medications.

Although there is not a set dosage, most benefits of ashwagandha come when consuming between 250 and 600 mg of ashwagandha extract each day. [11]

Everyone’s individual constitution is different, so as with everything, you have to experience it for yourself to see how you feel.

How to add it to your routine

Capsules coming out of bottle of Zen Mode

With roots in Ayurvedic medicine and benefits on stress, immune health, cognitive function and more, ashwagandha seems like a good one to add to the supplement stack for your overall well-being.

Before using it as a complementary and alternative medicine, check in with your healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe for you. If you get the go ahead, you can find it in calming complementary supplements like Bulletproof Zen Mode, or you can get it as a single-ingredient capsule or powder.

If you get it as a powder, heads up: on its own, ashwagandha has a bitter, slightly pungent flavor. It’s great mixed with warming spices and sweet flavors. Try it before bed in this satisfying Sleepytime Tonic recipe.

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This article has been updated with new content.

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