The feeling of being overwhelmed, over-scheduled, and unable to keep a sense of mental balance is becoming all too common. As people feel more exhausted, it affects everything else in their lives – their relationships, jobs, blood pressure, sex life and libido, immune systems - even the ability to relax. Stress erodes all of it. If this sounds familiar, you know you’re not alone.
Unfortunately, few things hold us back more in life than stress. Whether it’s physical stress because you’re working out or have a demanding, physically intense job, or mental stress due to a schedule that always seems to be in overdrive, there’s no doubt about it, stress is a killer.
But the fact is, you will always have some stress in your life. So the ideal goal isn’t to eliminate all of the reasons for stress (although that can help, when it can be done), it is also to be able to healthily adapt to stress and respond in a way that doesn’t cause ill effects.
I believe we have the botanical answers to stress – ones that have been used for thousands of years. Two outstanding herbs that can make a life-changing difference are ashwagandha and rhodiola, and they are the subject of this Terry Talks Nutrition®.
Ashwagandha, India’s Wonder Herb
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a frequently utilized adaptogen in Ayurvedic medicine. One of the oldest healing systems in the world, Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced in India for over 5,000 years. Practitioners of Ayurveda incorporate diet, meditation, breathing, yoga, purification (detox), massage, and herbal extracts in their treatment plans to restore patients to a state of balance and good health.
Adaptogens are special herbs. They seem to do exactly what we need them to do. An “adaptogen” simply means that ashwagandha provides the appropriate support you need at a given time, whether that means stress relief, more physical or mental energy, or a calmer outlook.
The name “ashwagandha” comes from the Sanskrit word used to describe the smell of a horse, referring to the scent of the plant’s roots after harvesting, but also to the feeling of strength and vitality that all those using the herb experience as well.
The plant itself is a small woody shrub with small yellow flowers that bloom year-round. It thrives in a sub-tropical climate, and does very well in harsh situations even with little water, making it easy to cultivate – a perfect match for its environment. In fact, it’s actually better for the root development if the plant is left unfertilized.
Traditionally, ashwagandha has been prescribed for many things: calming nerves, reducing inflammation, and increasing both libido and stamina. Like other botanical adaptogens, it is recognized as having the special ability to be simultaneously energizing while being calming, too.
Aside from these more psychological effects, ashwagandha is a well-known traditional therapeutic for arthritis and joint pain, so it is an excellent all-around herbal medicine for just about anyone.
One of the scientific explanations for ashwagandha’s success? It contains a wealth of potent natural compounds, including withanolides that boost resistance to stressors – physical and psychological. In fact, in scientific studies, ashwagandha has been shown to reduce corticosterone levels and increase antioxidant activity. The result – less “fight or flight” and more calm, and less oxidative damage as well.
Understandably, these effects make ashwagandha a natural stress reliever. But clinical and scientific studies have found that ashwagandha not only reduces stress by decreasing cortisol levels, it can significantly reduce tension as well – by over 50% in one clinical trial (as measured by a standard rating scale).
In this 60-day, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, volunteers were separated into ashwagandha and placebo groups. Each individual completed surveys relating to tension, depression, and fatigue. Cortisol levels – again, our “fight or flight” hormone – were also noted.
Reporting cortisol levels is a good “real world” way of telling whether a stress-reducing ingredient is really working. Obviously, some cortisol is a good thing – we need it to help speed up our reactions and make us more alert in potentially dangerous situations. But in many people with chronic stress, cortisol levels are elevated all the time. After a while, they simply feel exhausted.
Other “real world” symptoms this study investigated were the somatic symptoms of tension and stress.
Somatic symptoms mean the physical attributes of the condition. Muscle tension in the neck, back and jaw, increased heart rate, and other sensations are just as real as the psychological impressions for anyone suffering from chronic stress. Obviously, these somatic symptoms can cause a lot of long-term damage.
Throughout the test, researchers measured the differences between the ashwagandha group and the placebo group. By day 60, they were dramatic.
In each scale subset of the survey, the ashwagandha group showed clear reductions in symptoms (see Figure 1). As seen in this chart, the control group, by contrast, was nowhere close to the same results. The difference between the treatment group and the placebo group was as high as 89% - a very strong showing by ashwagandha overall.
Additionally, in the “stress” subset score, those in the ashwagandha group saw a 64% reduction. Those in the placebo group only reported a 10% reduction. There is no doubt that this botanical would be perfect for the regimen of anyone feeling overwhelmed.
This study is an excellent example of the range of ashwagandha’s benefits, because it shows how the herb is able to promote mental and physical health. Ashwagandha is practically a botanical “cure all” for fatigue, exhaustion, stress, depression, and nervous tension, because it addresses both the mind and body.
As it happens, the extract of ashwagandha used in this study was a special type. It is a root-only extract that is standardized for withanolide content. Withanolides, along with sitoindosides and other alkaloids and compounds, account for much of ashwagandha’s strong effects. However, standardizing for one compound alone doesn’t always mean that you have a good ingredient. It’s important in the case of ashwagandha to keep the balance of the whole-root compounds that act together for the most benefits and yet have a credible yield of withanolide content.
Of course, not all stress and exhaustion is necessarily brought on by our mental state or some other type of deep-rooted concern. Sometimes, we’re just plain tired. Or, we simply want to do more and have better endurance. Ashwagandha can help here, too.
Consider this study that focused on the performance of 40 elite cyclists in India, 20 male and 20 female. Recognizing that the sports nutrition field is teeming with products that claim to improve aerobic capacity, researchers in India decided to try a traditional, yet updated, approach. They used ashwagandha.
The 8-week study was broken into placebo and treatment groups. At the beginning of the clinical trial, these elite athletes were examined via treadmill test for their maximal aerobic capacity (the rate of oxygen uptake by the body that fuels red blood cells), and respiratory exchange ratio (how much oxygen is inhaled versus how much carbon dioxide is exhaled). The researchers also measured the total time it took the athletes to reach a point of exhaustion.
In every parameter, the ashwagandha group improved. The botanical was able to boost the endurance of these athletes and support the intensive interplay between the ability of the lungs to bring in oxygen to fuel red blood cells, and the heart’s ability to pump those red blood cells to the muscles in the body. The placebo group showed no change at all.
Because ashwagandha is a natural, traditional ingredient, the Sports Authority of India accepts it as a non-doping energy booster, too. It will be interesting to see whether or not ashwagandha becomes as popular in North America as more athletes learn about the botanical.
If you’re active, and incorporate ashwagandha into your regimen, the result is ultimately going to be better workouts, faster recovery time, and improved muscle tone. Believe me, your body will thank you for it.
In other scientific laboratory research, ashwagandha reduced the blood sugar levels, depression, gastric ulcers, and immune deficiencies induced by chronic stress.
And, if all of these stress-reducing and energizing effects weren’t enough, there is an exciting study being done on ashwagandha’s anti-cancer potential, too. For example, ashwagandha has been shown to boost normal cell growth and differentiation while stopping cancerous cell proliferation of neuroblastoma, a serious and often fatal nerve cell cancer of childhood.
Ashwagandha is also being investigated for its ability to fight bacteria and fungus, and even to help the body clear out beta-amyloid plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Rhodiola – Energizing Adaptogen Extraordinaire
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is another one of nature’s amazing herbs.
Like ashwagandha, rhodiola has a long history of traditional use that, in more recent years, has become validated by clinical and scientific studies. Native to northern Europe and Asia, rhodiola figured prominently in the medicine systems of the arctic, Siberian, Mongolian, and other cold-climate cultures.
Labeled “rosea” by the great Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus because the freshly cut roots reminded him of the scent of roses, rhodiola has been noted in Western medicine since the 1700’s, and has been popularly called the “golden root” or the “roseroot”. It grows naturally in cold, harsh environments in sandy soil, produces yellow flowers, and reaches a height of about two feet.
In traditional medicine, rhodiola was often a gift to newlyweds, assuring them of a fruitful household and many children. Apart from that, the root was used to treat fatigue, illness, infections, and altitude sickness.
In fact, Vikings considered the plant invaluable for boosting endurance. Infusions made from the plant were prescribed in Mongolia for colds and flus. Over time, the herb was widely traded throughout northern Europe and Asia. However, the best harvesting places for the plant were often a well-guarded family secret.
Serious research of rhodiola really began in the early 1960s in the former Soviet Union. Like many nations with a rich heritage of beneficial herbs, the Soviet scientists were eager to see how a home-grown botanical remedy could be utilized in a more modern application.
Laboratory studies showed that smaller doses of rhodiola boosted endurance and increased the time to exhaustion in mouse swimming tests. However, larger doses showed a reverse effect. Interestingly, the middle-range doses helped mice to learn new tasks.
The reason for this may be because of the way smaller dosage levels stimulate brain chemistry. The early laboratory studies showed that rhodiola increased neurotransmitter activity, including norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Because of this, the sections of the brain that emphasize analysis, planning, memory, and attention work more effectively, yet calmly. That’s what makes rhodiola such an effective adaptogen.
What Makes Rhodiola Tick? Key Compounds
Important constituents of rhodiola include salidrosides and the compounds rosavin, rosin, and rosarin, which are specific to the Rhodiola rosea species. In chemical and scientific analysis, it is primarily these compounds that are responsible for the cognitive, stress-reducing, and energizing effects of the herb.
Clinical research on rhodiola has shown some remarkable results.
For instance, one well-known clinical study focusing on fatigue associated with night duty for young physicians showed an improvement in the rhodiola group for total mental performance – important for anyone working over the evening hours, but especially critical in this case.
Other clinical research focused on individuals trying to accomplish many goals in a limited time period, something many of us could identify with, but in this case, relating to students and final exams.
In one double-blind study of 60 college students, the rhodiola group saw improvements in mental fatigue, overall fitness and well-being, and final exam grades – a real world test with positive results if ever there was one.
In another study of high school students, those in the rhodiola group also experienced better endurance, less fatigue, and reduced nervous tension.
Other studies have looked more specifically at physical stress factors: endurance, reaction time, speed, strength, and attention. These studies of Olympic athletes showed marked improvements versus the placebo groups, especially for heart rate (104-106 percent of baseline, versus 129 percent in the placebo group) and recovery time.
So again, like ashwagandha, rhodiola is another botanical that will help you adapt to the situations at hand, and meet your physical goals as well as the demands on your mind and attention span.
Interestingly, despite the fact that rhodiola can help give you the energy and clarity you need, it does not contain caffeine, nor will it affect your blood pressure or heart rate. That is part of what accounts for the feeling of calmness – you just feel better. And, conversely, it is not a sedative. So even though you’ll get past that “revved up” feeling that stress can bring about, you won’t feel like taking a nap, either.
Rhodiola for More Than Energy and Stress Reduction
Like ashwagandha, rhodiola has also been studied for other benefits, including preventing stress-related heart damage, tumor inhibition, and antioxidant ability. It is quite possible that in the near future, rhodiola will be recommended to help reduce the negative effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Stop Feeling Stressed – Adapt and Thrive Instead!
Maybe you’ve dealt with a lot of stressful events in your life. Maybe you’ve always had a tough time with social or work situations. Perhaps you are in a physically stressful job. You may feel like stress is getting the upper hand. We’re always going to have some kind of unavoidable stress in our lives, so adapting to it – working through it as the best person you can be – is a much more positive response. You are stronger than you realize. You are in the driver’s seat.
Consider your lifestyle. Prune away the “unnecessaries” that add to your stress levels. Take that time – limited as it may be – and become centered and focused. And consider, too, a natural, safe, and effective combination of rhodiola and ashwagandha that gives you the support you need.
These botanicals won’t give you a temporary boost only to let you down later, or conversely, to make you feel jittery and “off center.” That’s why I recommend adaptogens for anyone with mentally or physically demanding jobs and schedules. For those times when you feel tired or slightly stressed even before you begin your day, ashwagandha and rhodiola can help give you the boost you need to get started on your way.
If you’re looking to improve your exercise regimen, recovery time, or your sex life, they are two of the best herbal remedies available. You can use these herbal extracts continuously, or simply when you need them most. You’ll probably find that over time, as you develop a better way of adapting to stressful situations, that you won’t need to rely on ashwagandha and rhodiola as often. But rest assured they are there when you do need them. You’ll notice a difference with these herbs. You’ll feel more vital, more energetic, and more able to “swim through the tide” of stressful challenges each day.
Overall, I believe that ashwagandha and rhodiola are extremely effective natural medicines to help you sail through the challenges of everyday life and not only survive them – but thrive in the midst of them.
To thrive during times of mental and physical stress, I recommend taking Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root extract, and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) root extract 1-3 times daily.