By Sue Bedford (MSc Nutritional Therapy)
You may have heard the word ‘Adaptogen’ in relation to nutrition and health as it is a popular topic in many health magazines and wondered what on earth they are. Adaptogens are a group of herbs, plants, spices and roots (and certain mushrooms) that support the body’s natural ability to deal with stress. They are called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to the specific needs of the body. This may be a physical, chemical or biological need. They have been compared to a thermostat, moderating the body’s stress response like a thermostat controls temperature – a bit like a homeostatic mechanism. They have special compounds that can possess opposing qualities, such as being relaxing or stimulating. The correct response is triggered according to the body’s specific needs. They are found today in a growing list of drinks, teas, tinctures and powders. There are dozens of plants, growing in some of the world’s harshest environments, that fall under the adaptogen category, some examples include Reishi Mushrooms, Siberian Ginseng Root, Moringa, Astralagus, Maca, Turmeric and Liquorice – to name a few.
What is Ashwadandha?
Ashwagandha, also known as ‘Withania Somnifera’, was originally used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It is a small woody shrub and grows in India, Africa and the Mediterranean. It is also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry and belongs to the Solanaceae family (nightshade family). The Latin translation for Ashwagandha’s botanical name is ‘sleep inducing’. It is classified as an adaptogen meaning that it can help the body to counteract the effects of stress. Recent clinical research on Ashwaganda has shown it to play a role in treating insomnia, depression, anxiety and stress. It has also been studied for it’s cognitive enhancing, neuroprotective, antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating, anti-cancer, cardio-protective, and thyroid modulating effects (Braun & Cohen, 2015).
Ashwagandha and fertility
Ashwagandha has been shown to support the adrenal glands by normalising cortisol levels and therefore reducing stress and anxiety. This is important as ongoing stress can be detrimental to health and fertility as high levels of cortisol can have a detrimental effect on the sex hormones. A high cortisol level may suppress the pituitary’s ability to release luteinizing hormone (LH). Abnormal cortisol levels can suppress ovulation. Adrenal function is closely linked to thyroid function, therefore as Ashwagandha supports the adrenal glands, it has an indirect effect on improving thyroid function as well. The Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA axis) in the body, which is our central stress response system, is connected to sperm production and fertility in men and hormonal balance and fertility in women. The body produces cortisol from the same precursors used to make our reproductive hormones, and, under stress, the body will often produce cortisol instead of testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone. By keeping cortisol levels at a healthy level means that the reproductive hormones will be more balanced.
Adrenal function is closely linked to the function of the thyroid gland, therefore as Ashwagandha supports the adrenal glands, it has an indirect effect on improving thyroid function as well. Initial studies demonstrate Ashwagandha’s ability to positively impact thyroid function by stimulating thyroid hormone activity, again important when it comes to fertility as in regulating ovulation, preventing miscarriage and aiding foetal brain development.
Ashwagandha has been shown to stabilize blood sugar levels. This is important when it comes to conditions such as Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) as high sugar levels cause insulin to be released, which can cause the ovaries to produce more testosterone, which in turn, interferes with the development of the follicles in the ovaries and prevents normal ovulation.
Ashwagandha has shown in studies to have immune-supporting properties as well as anti-inflammatory properties – important for general health and also in conditions such as endometriosis. More research is needed into this area. As this herb contains a good amount of iron it contributes to the prevention of anaemia and promotes a good flow of oxygenated blood around the body and to the reproductive organs, including the uterus.
Ashwagandha is generally well tolerated and regarded as safe when taken within the therapeutic dosage range (3-6g daily of the dried root powder). There are no known contraindications (Bone & Mills, 2013) however, it is herbal medicine, and should be used with care. Always check with your G.P or qualified healthcare provider if you are unsure if it is suitable for you.
Bone and Mills 2013 – Principles and practice of Phytotherapy: modern herbal medicine
Braun, L., & Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & natural supplements: An evidence-based guide.
Mahdi AA, Shukla KK, Ahmad MK et al. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2011, article ID576962, 9 pages. Doi: 10.1093/ecam/nep138.
Mishra, Lakshmi-Chandra, Betsy B. Singh, and Simon Dagenais. “Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha): a review.” Alternative Medicine Review4 (2000): 334-346.