Benefits of Ashwagandha for Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Carrie Lam, MD


Dried and cut as well as groud ashwagandha laid out in bowls and on a bamboo mat, ready to use for the health benefits of ashwagandhaAshwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is an herb that is known to boost the immune system, stimulate the thyroid, prevent cortisol loss and enhance cognition, among many other characteristics. Benefits of Ashwagandha include supporting healing and maintaining the body’s delicate balance. When under stress, a natural remedy such as an herbal supplement can help alleviate symptoms and restore your body to optimal functioning.

The available scientific data on Ashwagandha shows that the herb is a potent regenerative agent. It has multiple pharmacological actions, which include neuroprotective, analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Not just useful for treating the physical ailments common in clinical levels of stress, Ashwagandha is also useful for mood disorders and memory loss.

As a popular Ayurvedic herb in India, Ashwagandha is given to the young and old to heal scores of ailments, with some even using it as an aphrodisiac. While healers use it for various conditions, scientists are studying the herb to prove its efficacy.

It has been used widely as a supplement among those with adrenal fatigue. While it has its positive aspects, we have, unfortunately, seen negative results when it is not used properly, which is why sufferers of adrenal fatigue should know about this herb, including its uses and cautions.

Ashwagandha

The plant Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera L.) is a member of the nightshade family with a strong-smelling root. In Sanskrit, the name means “smells like a horse”. The roots and berries from the plant are widely used in Ayurvedic, Indian, and African medicine.

Ayurvedic healers consider the root of Ashwagandha to be a tonic, narcotic, stimulant, and aphrodisiac. Preparations include a powder mixed in milk, and a paste made from the root crushed in water. The paste is applied to ulcers and other painful swellings as a narcotic. The leaves of the Ashwagandha plant are bitter and used to alleviate fevers or severe, painful swelling, due to their anti-inflammatory properties.

However, what Ashwagandha may be most famous for is its adaptogenic properties, helping the body to cope with stress. “Adaptogenic” indicates that the herb has qualities that boost functions when needed and calm functions when called for. This ability to adapt to the body’s internal environment has led to wide-spread, indiscriminate use of this herb for those who are fatigued and seek vitality. Some people use it for cognitive health, claiming that it helps them think better. Others use it to alleviate pain and swelling. Some even claim the herb has anti-aging properties.

Dried and cut ashwagandha in a bowl next to a bowl of meat and nuts, indicating the benefits of ashwagandha are complementary to a healthy lifeAshwagandha has been found to be beneficial for the following conditions:

  • Anxiety – combined with proper breathing and personalized diet, Ashwagandha may reduce anxiety symptoms.
  • Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – one product that contained Ashwagandha and other ingredients helped children with attention and impulse control.
  • Cerebellar Ataxia – people with this brain disorder who took Ashwagandha in an Ayurvedic intervention, showed improved balance.
  • Diabetes – taking Ashwagandha may improve blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.
  • High cholesterol – the herb shows some cholesterol-lowering abilities.
  • Male infertility – Ashwagandha may improve sperm quality.
  • Arthritis – in a formulation with other ingredients, Ashwagandha helped alleviate arthritis symptoms.
  • Parkinson’s disease – Ashwagandha and other herbs improved symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Ashwagandha is believed to work by calming the brain, reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, and boosting the immune system. It is widely touted as helping those with adrenal fatigue – a condition where the body’s neuroendocrine stress response is compromised due to overwhelming stress, resulting in a compensatory systemic slowdown to conserve energy. Fatigue and lethargy are classic symptoms, and in severe cases one can become incapacitated.

Ashwagandha and the NEM Response

Ashwagandha is recognized as an herbal supplement for adaptogenically boosting adrenal function. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis drives the adrenal gland to secrete more anti-stress hormone and is part of the neuroendometabolic (NEM) stress response. The NEM stress response is made up of six component responses that serve to regulate and control stress in the body. When the body is chronically stressed, the six responses may become imbalanced and result in certain symptoms, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, brain fog, low thyroid function, salt cravings, reduced libido, etc. Ashwagandha is purported to help balance these response systems by helping to regulate mood, balance hormones, and boost the immune system.

Read more about the NEM response system here.

Ashwagandha Boosts the Immune System

A stylized image of pathogens raining down, but bouncing off an umbrella that represents the immune benefits of ashwagandha. Red blood cells are protected beneath the umbrella representing the body's internal well being.Ashwagandha apparently also has immunomodulatory and immunostimulatory abilities. One study in mice found significant modulation of immunity. In the study, investigators induced myelosuppression with one of three compounds: cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, or prednisolone. They measured activity using hematological and serological tests, and found that Ashwagandha prevented myelosuppression.

The herb increased hemoglobin concentration, red blood cell count, white blood cell count and platelet count, and the mice gained weight. The studies in mice also showed immunomodulatory and immunostimulatory properties that may help people navigate the NEM stress response.

People with adrenal fatigue syndrome in advanced stages often have mild to serious issues with inflammation and a limping immune system. A low-energy state in the body often forces it to slow down certain body systems. The immune system may be one of the unwitting targets, which may lead to more frequent bacterial or viral infections that also tend to last longer than normal. As shown in the clinical studies with the mice, Ashwagandha may be helpful to support the immune system.

Ashwagandha Stimulates Thyroid Activity

The hormonal system responds to stress via the adrenal glands and the thyroid. If the thyroid has deficits in functioning, a person is likely to feel fatigued. Ashwagandha was found, in one study, to stimulate thyroid activity. In the study, researchers administered Ashwagandha root extract to the mice for 20 days. The findings showed increased thyroid function, as well as improved liver functioning.

Prevents Cortisol Loss in Adrenals

One study looked at Ashwagandha as an agent to prevent the loss of cortisol in the adrenal glands. In the study, mice that swam in water for five hours experienced a significant loss of cortisol due to the exercise stress. They also lost ascorbic acid content. When researchers administered Ashwagandha, loss of cortisol and ascorbic acid was prevented.

Two male sillouettes with battery indicators inside their outlines, one empty, and one full indicating the energy boosting benefits of ashwagandhaPeople suffering with adrenal fatigue have varying levels of cortisol, depending on the time of day and other factors. Taking Ashwagandha appears to prevent or reduce the loss of cortisol, helping the individual have more energy.

Of clinical note, however, the cortisol-maintaining capabilities of Ashwagandha are typically only seen in the earlier stages of adrenal fatigue. In this stage, the adrenals are able to respond to the herb and produce the requisite hormones to maintain balance in the body. In more advanced stages, people often find that Ashwagandha stimulates their system too much, leaving them feeling “wired”. The adapotgenic property is skewed in favor of being stimulatory for reasons not yet known. Therefore, you should use Ashwagandha should be used judiciously and only with an experienced practitioner. In fact, improper use of this herb can lead to adrenal crashes and retarded adrenal recovery.

Ashwagandha Improves Cognition

With NEM stress response imbalance, people often feel anxious, depressed and moody. They could have insomnia and difficulty concentrating. This is a result of dysregulation in the neuroaffective response. The neuroaffective response is primarily regulated by neurotransmitters that are produced by the autonomic nervous system, central nervous system and gut. When the neurotransmitters are not equally balanced with each other, the symptoms mentioned above may result. This neuroaffective response is common in adrenal fatigue syndrome.

Ashwagandha has been shown in many studies to slow, stop, or reverse the loss of brain cells. The herb is recommended for people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases. With the power to alleviate these neurodegenerative diseases, people suffering from adrenal fatigue could try the herb to help with the brain fog and mood disorders common in the NEM response.

The Herb is Calming

A woman with arms outstretched to the side and eyes closed feeling enjoying the wind and nature, signifying the calming benefits of ashwagandhaAshwagandha has a calming effect, similar to the drug Lorazepam. Researchers tested the herb in rats in three standard tests of anxiety: social interaction, the elevated plus-maze and feeding latency in an unfamiliar environment. The herb reduced brain levels of tribulin, a sign of clinical anxiety. Antidepressant effects were witnessed in stress tests and the herb acted as a mood stabilizer, staving off anxiety and depression. In advanced stages of adrenal fatigue however, Ashwagandha can often have the opposite effect, leaving the body feeling wired instead of calm.

Benefits of Ashwagandha in Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Plan

Recovering from adrenal fatigue can take some time. Working with a specialist in the NEM response can help define priorities. A holistic plan will be personalized and flexible. Initial steps will include an examination of the stressors present in an individual’s lifestyle, as adrenal fatigue is generally caused by stress. Eliminating stimulants such as coffee and tea is advised. More and better-quality sleep can help reset hormonal balances and improve mood. Exercise is a key component in restoring equilibrium. Ashwagandha has biologically active components that can help restore balance and help people feel better. The herb should be used as a component in the adrenal fatigue recovery plan, instituted after consultation with a healthcare expert.

People in later stages of adrenal fatigue should be careful when taking certain herbs as the effect may be the opposite of intended, due to the compromised adrenal system and the herb’s stimulatory effects mentioned earlier. While Ashwagandha’s benefits are many, for some people, the herb may delay or prevent the healing process. The adaptogenic properties may be most beneficial for people in mild stages of adrenal fatigue. In others, the herb may trigger an adrenal crisis. Additionally, long-term use may lead to dependency as the individual uses Ashwagandha to increase energy, needing a higher and higher dose. People may feel fatigued and over-stimulated at the same time. Withdrawing from the herb may cause mental and physical distress. People with advanced adrenal fatigue should consult with an experienced clinician before adding Ashwagandha to their adrenal fatigue recovery plan.

Ashwagandha Administration

A pill capsule split open with dried powdered ashwagandha spilling out of the halves, showing one way to achieve the benefits of ashwagandhaThe healing benefits of Ashwagandha are available in capsule form. Dosages are typically 600 to 1,000mg twice daily, although factors such as the user’s age and health affect the required dosage. A much more effective delivery method is fermented Ashwagandha. The fermentation process breaks down the Ashwagandha into its basic components, thereby significantly increasing bioavailability and ease of absorption.

Potential side-effects of Ashwagandha may include vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach discomfort. The effects of applying the herb to the skin are not known. Pregnant women are advised to not use the herb.
Since the herb helps lower blood-sugar levels, people taking drugs or supplements for diabetes should monitor blood sugar closely. Since the herb improves thyroid activity, people taking thyroid medications should monitor their condition while taking Ashwagandha, or avoid the herb.

The herb can act as a sedative, so use caution when driving or operating machinery. Using Ashwagandha with other supplements or drugs may increase the sedative effect. The herb is not known to interact negatively with food.

Conclusion

Studies show that the herb is powerful. It has regenerative capabilities and works via multiple pharmacological actions. Its abilities include being anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and neuroprotective. The herb works at the physical level on the adrenal glands and the hormones, and also on the mental level, as an anti-anxiety therapy.

In summary, Ashwagandha can have numerous healing benefits for adrenal fatigue sufferers. It is known to boost the immune system, support improved thyroid functioning, enhance brain power and mood, and prevent the loss of cortisol. It works to support a healthy immune system, dampen pain, and improve energy levels. People with mild NEM stress response dysregulation may consider the herb as part of an overall plan to reduce stress and restore homeostasis to the body and mind. Along with a personalized plan to navigate the NEM stress response, developed under the supervision of a caring clinical professional, Ashwagandha may be helpful. However, it is, once again, crucial to note that people in more advanced stages of adrenal fatigue should use caution when using Ashwagandha or any other supplement, as it may have unintended or negative results.

References

Ashwagandha, NIH, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/953.html

Studies on the immunomodulatory effects of Ashwagandha, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 50, Issue 2, February 1996, Pages 69–76, Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0378874195013180

Studies on immunomodulatory activity of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) extracts in experimental immune inflammation, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 67, Issue 1, October 1999, Pages 27–35, Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874199000653

Changes in Thyroid Hormone Concentrations after Administration of Ashwagandha Root Extract to Adult Male Mice, Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, Volume 50, Issue 9, pages 1065–1068, September 1998, Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2042-7158.1998.tb06923.x/abstract

An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda, Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011; 8(5 Suppl): 208–213, Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/

 
© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dried and cut ashwagandha in a bowl next to a bowl of meat and nuts, indicating the benefits of ashwagandha are complementary to a healthy life

DrLam.com
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Hello, Dorine.
 
Just wanted to check in and update you on my progress and my situation. I'm still using certain AFS supplements from Supplement Clinic, along with other supplements that work for me. As always, thanks for all your support and teaching along the way. It continues to serve me every day.




14 Comments

  • Jean C says:

    I’ve been taking the Gaia adrenal formula for use at night which has ashawaganda and calming herbs but I have been waking up many nights for 30-120 minutes. Also in menopause so it’s hard to tell what is causing the sleep disruption. This is uncharacteristic for me but it’s being going on for a couple of months. It started before I started taking the Ashawaganda but I am definitely dealing with that tired wired issue. I wonder if I take it earlier if the sleep disruption could be avoided.

    • Dr.Lam says:

      All natural compounds have pros and cons. When your hormones are unstable during menopause, it can make the clinical picture convoluted. The good news is that a detailed history will solve the puzzle as the body does behave logically. As long as you understand all the physiology well and thoroughly , the picture will be clear. why not stop or reduce the formula and see how you do ?

      Dr Lam

  • Eddie says:

    if my cortisol levels are low all day long and i always wake up at 4AM like clockwork, can i take Ashwagandha, and is so, can i take it at bedtime to see if i stay awake throughout the night? Thanks

  • Linda says:

    I just read your article on the Ashwagandha and it sounded great. I have some of the symptoms that is described in that article. When i went to review the fermplex A, I couldn’t find anything with an A, and it says it was for menopause. i am 65. Can you just get Ashwagandha?

  • Joyce says:

    I would like to try some Ashwaganda. Does Dr Lam sell it?

  • Tyra says:

    what if you have over active adrenals and hyperthyroidism and heart palpitations. is ashwaghanda safe then?

  • Debbie Quigley says:

    I was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease and take 30mg cortef + .75mg Fludrocortisone each day. Can I take ashwaganda?

    • Eddie says:

      How does one feel when they have addison’s? Thanks

      • Debbie Quigley says:

        Hi Eddie,
        When I was first diagnosed, I could barely function. I spent my life in bed because I did not have enough energy to even open my eyes. When I was at my worst, I couldn’t even eat. Someone had to spoon-feed me. My body felt too heavy to move. I couldn’t talk or follow conversations. I continuously felt I was about to go unconscious. It was awful. At present, I still battle with very, very low energy. I struggle all day, but can function.
        Do you suspect you might have Addison’s?

        • Eddie says:

          Hi Debbie, Thank you for replying. Sorry to hear about your situation. All i know is that all my daytime saliva cortisol levels are extremely low. I feel my worst in the mornings. i tend to feel better after lunch and evenings. i don’t have any energy whatsoever. my cortisol blood level is in range, but on the low end. i had it checked last month and it was around 9 at 8AM. I believe the reference range was 6-18. Thanks again.