In our Western lives, we downplay or are simply unaware of how everyday situations are stressful to our bodies and when these stressors are not met with a resilient and adaptable nervous system, they can begin to take a toll on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. So the deadline you have coming up at work, or the fight you had with your partner that you can’t stop ruminating on still has an effect on our biological response to stress.
The Stress Response and the HPA System
Stress triggers a cascade of physiological and psychological responses aimed at maintaining equilibrium. The HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis is a pathway the body uses to process stress and keep us adaptable and is central to this response.
The word axis is used to describe the communication pathway that exists between the organs and glands of the endocrine and nervous systems. When these systems communicate with each other, a cascade of chemical messaging occurs across the entire body.
When we’re exposed to a stressor the HPA axis is triggered. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland via the release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone, the pituitary then responds by secreting adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which prompts the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).
Cortisol then stimulates the release of glucose into the bloodstream, equipping the body with available energy to fuel the anticipated ‘fight-or-flight’ response that follows. The production of adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate and we’re given the boost our bodies need to overcome the stressor and survive. This hormonal cascade continues until our body perceives that it is safe. Once this occurs these chemical interactions automatically switch off as part of the body’s inbuilt negative feedback loop.
Stress becomes chronic when this negative feedback no longer functions as it should. The body still registers our reaction to stressors in our lives, whether that be in our external environment or simply our own minds running on a loop. The adrenal glands continue to pump out adrenaline and cortisol, and like any overworked muscle, they eventually end up taxed and unable to perform at their innate capacity. As a result, the rest of the body also becomes depleted; foundational energy reserves wane, adaptability declines and has a cascading effect on other organ systems within the body.
What Is An Adaptogen?
An adaptogen is a natural substance, typically a plant or herb, that helps the body adapt to various stressors, both physical and psychological, and maintain balance or homeostasis. Adaptogens have a broad-spectrum effect on the body, exerting a non-specific influence on multiple organ systems and physiological processes. They help the body adapt to a wide range of stressors, rather than targeting a specific condition or symptom. They have been shown to directly affect the HPA axis, by regulating the secretion of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and help restore the balance of the stress response system.
One of our favourite adaptogenic herbs is the one and only Ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha & Chronic Stress
Ashwagandha has been treasured for its ability to revitalise and rejuvenate for more than six thousand years; this Indian root strikes a delicate balance between strengthening and fortifying the body while bringing a calm, parasympathetic embodiment.
For over 3000 years Ashwagandha has been used as a Rasayana within Ayurvedic medicine. Herbs belonging to the rasayana group are prised for their ability to restore and revitalise the body, slow the ageing process and prevent disease. Rasayanas increase the body's resistance to stress and can be taken over long periods of time without causing side effects or harm to the body. A herb that belongs to the rasayana group can be classified in contemporary language and understood as an 'adaptogen'. Ashwagandha behaves in a similar way to the herbs we classify as tonic in the Taoist herbal system.
The root of Ashwagandha is regarded as a tonic, aphrodisiac, narcotic, diuretic, anthelmintic, astringent, thermogenic and stimulant. The Hindi name for ashwagandha is ‘asgandh’, referring to the horse sweat-like smell of the root. This translates to granting the strength of a horse to those that use this adaptogenic herb.
Ashwagandha is considered to be adaptogenic in nature, which as we mentioned earlier, enhances the body’s adaptability to stress including the modulation of the stress response and nervous system as a whole. Ashwagandha has been found to reduce cortisol levels by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for cortisol synthesis.
Ashwagandha, GABA & Anxiety
Another way that Ashwagandha supports nervous system function is through its effect on Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in reducing neuronal excitability and promoting relaxation. Ashwagandha exhibits GABAergic activity by enhancing GABA receptor signalling in the brain.
This activity contributes to its anxiolytic and stress-reducing effects, supporting a calmer state of mind and reducing the impact of stress on the nervous system. Ashwagandha has also been shown to exert anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects comparable to commonly prescribed medications including Lorazepam and Imipramine.
Ashwagandha, Cognition & Neuroprotection
Chronic stress can impair cognitive function, affecting memory, attention, and learning abilities. Ashwagandha has shown promising results in enhancing cognitive function and memory. Studies suggest that the herb improves spatial and working memory, attention span, and information processing speed.
The nervous system is intricately linked to stress regulation, and maintaining its health is essential for overall well-being. Ashwagandha exhibits neuroprotective properties that can shield nerve cells from damage caused by chronic stress and oxidative stress. Its active compounds, including withanolides and withanosides, possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which help protect nerve cells from degeneration.
Ashwagandha & Sleep
Restful sleep is crucial for the body to recover from stress and maintain optimal health. Ashwagandha has been traditionally used as a sleep aid due to its calming properties. It can help individuals achieve better sleep quality by reducing anxiety, promoting relaxation, and combating insomnia. By facilitating restorative sleep, Ashwagandha indirectly contributes to stress regulation and nervous system support.
SuperFeast Ashwagandha is sourced from Northern India: Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar, Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh provinces.
It is grown in sub-tropical regions in sandy soil. Ashwagandha root is harvested at around one year of age. It takes 6-9 months for the root to reach maturity for harvest. Our Ashwagandha is then sun-dried and water extracted.
If you wish to learn more about sourcing practices then head to our FAQ page.
The Yoga of Herbs, An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine by David Crawley
Adaptogens, Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief