Looking for weight loss solutions presents the inquirer with manifold questions. Some weight issues are congenital, some are behavior related; others are hormonal or insulin caused.
Looking for herbal remedies for weight management has increased, with 15% of Americans, and over 20% of women, turning to some form of herbal supplement to help with weight loss, according to numbers from earlier in 2022. In order to evaluate the veracity of herbal remedy claims, I’ve turned to several studies that support evidence for Ashwagandha root (Withania somnifera) as an aid in losing weight.
Stress and Weight Gain
Several studies from around the world have pointed to a direct relationship between stress and weight gain. Specific reasons are both because of behavior and the body chemistry of anxiety and stress.
Stress, Eating, and Exercising
One set of laboratory studies found that women under stress tended to increase not only the amount of food they ate in a sitting, but also the number of times they ate. In addition to that, the data suggested that the participants tended to eat more unhealthy foods when stressed.
Another group of researchers found that stress and obesity were directly related, with people who are under a lot of anxiety tending to reach for “comfort foods.”
Of course, none of this will come as any surprise to people who have had a series of hard days at work, or had kinds to take care of . Reaching for a sweet, salty, or fatty snack happens with little to no thought processes.
Interestingly, it’s not just eating that stress affects. A systematic literature review found 168 studies that link stress to physical activity. The bottom line of their conclusions–when stress goes up, activity goes down; when activity goes down, stress goes up. Of course, the opposite is true. There is a reciprocal relationship to stress and exercise, so increasing activity reduces stress.
Cortisol and Stress
Whenever our minds encounter emotional or mentally taxing situations, the hormonal system of our bodies is triggered. Anytime we’re stressed or anxious, the hormone result is cortisol. Cortisol stimulates us, helping us make quicker decisions, react physically faster, and even hold onto important nutrient reserves.
When we overproduce cortisol, however, all of these short-term benefits become long-term harms. When our cortisol levels are too high, we have too much glucose (sugar) in our blood, that when not properly processed, turns to fat.
In addition to that, cortisol inhibits our digestive tract from absorbing nutrients and passing toxins, all of which lead to weight gain.
Perhaps the worst part about cortisol is that it creates a positive feedback loop, where the hormone itself increases your stress, keeping your cortisol levels high.
Ashwagandha, Stress and Cortisol
A 2017 randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study found that Ashwagandha had a dramatic effect on stress levels in participants. (You can read a full analysis of that study here.)
Participants in this and other trials found that they ate less and had weight loss outcomes. Not only did the Ashwagandha alleviate people’s stress, but helped with the other symptoms of anxiety.
For the purposes of scientific evidence, it’s important to point to measurables. In the weightloss areas, one trial reported:
That same study found something else: a 22.2% reduction in cortisol levels among people taking Ashwagandha, compared to less than an 8% change in people who did not take the herb.
Ashwagandha has a clear and empirically measurable effect on not only stress, but the secondary elements of stress–cortisol and eating habits. With reduced unhealthy eating habits came weight loss, as also occurred with lower cortisol levels.
No data was collected in these studies on exercise habits, though feelings of “wellness” did go up significantly with Ashwagandha use, which can lead to more active behavior, as shown in early quoted studies linking stress with physical activity.
Ashwagandha, Insulin and Weight Gain
Anyone with diabetes already knows that there’s a complicated relationship between insulin and weight-gain. The condition is called insulin-resistance, and occurs when the body produces too much insulin due to increased blood sugar.
Of course, the problem can also arise, and often does, when a person needs to take insulin for diabetes.
Insulin is a hormone produced in the body when blood-sugar goes up. The insulin tells the body to take the sugar into the cells and burn it. If the sugars aren’t burned appropriately, they’re stored in and around the body as fat, especially around the liver.
Insulin results from the blood sugar that’s too high, too often. In these cases, the cells of the body become too used to insulin, and stop listening to its signals to process the blood sugar. Other problems associated with insulin-resistance are:
How Ashwagandha Helps
Two lab experiments found that Ashwagandha reduces insulin resistance, correcting all the consequent side-effects of the syndrome. On a molecular level, one study found a link between hormone response and ashwagandha, resulting in an improvement of insulin response.
This study, it should be mentioned, also found a direct link between ashwagandha and weight control and obesity.
Another study found a direct link between ashwagandha treatment and improving blood-sugar levels and insulin sensitivity.
These results are promising as up to 40% of Americans have insulin resistance, and the link between it and obesity can’t be overestimated. As a result, it may stand to reason that increasing the body's ability to use insulin correctly can lower obesity. These, at least, have been the results of the studies, so far.
Not only have we seen a direct link between ashwagandha and weight loss, we’ve seen it supported by a number of studies that have approached it from various angles. By helping the body adjust its chemical levels on its own, instead of introducing new chemicals, it may be a better treatment for some symptoms such as stress and insulin-resistance.
Perhaps more importantly, the studies have shown demonstrable, measurable differences in cortisol and insulin in participants taking ashwagandha. While data on eating habits and mood are important, they are also subjective. Hormone levels are not.
By reducing cortisol, ashwagandha makes the side-effects of over eating and eating unhealthy foods go down. And by making the body more sensitive to insulin, what sugars a person does eat are processed better.
All of these data point to a strong link between weight control and the use of ashwagandha, as well as side-benefits of reducing blood-sugar and stress.