Researching alternative medicines can present many challenges, ranging from finding access to reputable studies to interpreting the data in a useful fashion. In the present piece I’ve researched the subject of Ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera), and broken down the best scientific study I could find to evaluate the veracity of claims about this traditional herb. Taking not only a main study from the National Institutes of Health library, but also reviewing a meta study, I’ve found good evidence that Ashwagandha root can, indeed, help alleviate anxiety and stress.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. Trying to remedy this and other maladies, nearly 40% of Americans have turned to complementary or alternative medicines, making the verification or debunking of them all the more important. To do that, I’ve broken down an entire study from a process, methods, and results standpoint, in order to establish the validity of Ashwagandha root as a treatment for stress and anxiety.
✲ Study was conducted with the utmost scientific rigor; the results can be trusted.
✲ Universally recognized stress tests were used before and after, showing significant reductions in anxiety among the Ashwagandha group.
✲ Cortisol levels also came down in participants using Ashwagandha, a key hormone indicator of lower stress.
✲ Other studies have arrived at similar results, though criticisms have been made as to the reliability of the other tests.
How the First Study was Run
In 2012, three scientists designed and ran a randomized, double-blind study to determine if the traditional claims about the benefits of ashwagandha root could be proven in a clinical setting.
Randomized: this means that participants are given either the studied product or a placebo. In this case, all of the participants suffered from some form of anxiety or stress, but whether the person received ashwagandha or not was determined by a random selection.
Double-Blind: in a “blind” study, the persons taking the medications don’t know if they are taking the med under study, or a placebo. In a double-blind study, the people giving them the medication don’t even know. That’s because if the doctor knows whether or not he’s giving a placebo or the medicine, they may behave differently around the participant.
In an anxiety study, if you perceive your doctor is behaving differently, it could very well affect your mood. The fact that this study was double-blinded means no one knew who was getting ashwagandha, and makes this a better study.
Two of the researchers were based in the Department of Neuropsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry, Asha Hospital, in India. Their expertise when it comes to the effects of anxiety and brian chemistry can’t be questioned.
To make sure their study was air-tight, they gave each participant a full stress test before the ashwagandha treatments, so they had a good baseline of each person’s anxiety.
About the Stress Tests: the scientists used two internationally recognized test, the Perceived Stress Scale and the World Health Organization 5. Using these scores, the researchers were able to determine that they participants all had high degrees of stress. They also used other tests to make certain that the participants had no other mental health related issues.
After 60 days of giving half of the participants ashwagandha, and half a placebo, they administered the same stress tests to the whole group and compared results.
What researchers found won’t surprise any herbalist, but it did send some shock waves through the medical community. There was a significant drop in anxiety and stress among the participants who took ashwagandha, and more importantly, the drop in anxiety was significantly higher than the placebo group.
In fact, participants who took the ashwagandha had a 44% drop in stress. Based on statistical probability, the odds of that kind of difference in score over a whole study of sixty people is one in ten-thousand.
People taking the ashwagandha didn’t only see a drop in anxiety. Researchers also conducted a General Health Questionnaire with participants. The GHQ, as it’s known, was developed in the late 70s and has been used for everything from health screenings to job interviews for sensitive positions. The GHQ covers four topics: physical health; anxiety and insomnia; social settings; and depression.
In this study, doctors found that people who took ashwagandha had significantly better scores in all four areas. The average improvement in the categories was over 60%, much higher than could be explained by mere coincidence.
Some things are hard to measure, and hard to get a handle on. For instance, how can we really define happiness? Is a questionnaire a good enough indicator of whether someone is really less stressed?
In a double-blind, randomized trial, there’s no incentive for anyone to or to misrepresent themselves. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be irregularities in self-reporting. That’s why the neuroscientists took cortisol samples from all participants, to see how the actual brain chemistry of the participants may or may not have had changed.
Cortisol is the main stress hormone of the body. Like many of our natural chemicals, when everything is in balance it plays a vital, important role, but when things are out of balance, it can wreak havoc.
When our brain chemistry and stress levels are at their proper levels, cortisol only triggers when we’re under physical, emotional, or mental stress. The hormone helps us process sugars, increases are heart rate, and gives us a boost of energy. But when cortisol levels are too high, for too long, that energy means you can’t sleep. The increased heart rate leads to hypertension. And the burning of fat and sugar leads to intense cravings and over eating.
The most important evidence from this study was that people who took ashwagandha had a 27.9% drop in cortisol. That means their bodies are secreting less stress hormone–resulting in healthier bodies all around.
In my research I did come across a meta-study that had a different interpretation of the results. I bring it up because it’s important to have all the information available when you’re researching something as important as mental heatlh.
Published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, it criticised the study I have been quoting as having too small a sample size (64 participants). The meta-study also criticized other sstudiess for having conflicts of interest, or what it perceived to be unsatisfactory methods.
It’s worth noting, however, that the criticisms for each study are different. That means that the results can’t be attributed to a single flaw that every study repeats–the results have been the same no matter what.
That means we have four studies showing statistically significant reductions in stress, anxiety, and other health problems, and one review of them that doesn’t like their methods. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine who has made the bigger investment in actual research.
Having reviewed the literature and read the case studies in depth, it seems that ashwagandha has a lot to offer when it comes to improving stress and anxiety. I’ve read through the critiques of the studies, as well, and have found no material reason to discredit the authors’ results.
I encourage you to read on all the links I’ve referenced, and keep reading. I’ll have more reviews of medical studies upcoming.
Citations and References
- Main Study:
- Alternate Studies: