Ashwagandha: Nature’s Gift for Anxiety
Ashwagandha is probably one of the most popular and prescribed herbal medicines at the Holistic Medical Centre, by our doctors and naturopaths alike. As a result, we thought this wonderful herb deserved a special introduction of its own.
Also commonly known as Withania, ashwagandha is a herb native to India, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. It has been prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners for thousands of years and has many studies supporting its safety and efficacy. Traditionally, the herb has been used to support convalescence after a period of illness. However, its ability to reduce anxiety symptoms, boost mood and strengthen the body against stress and fatigue has made it a valuable tool for combatting these common ailments of modern society.
Through supporting adrenal performance, calming the nervous system, and enhancing immunity and brain function, ashwagandha has an excellent all round ability to support individuals through prolonged stressful periods that all too often result in further health disturbances. As a result, the herb has become a firm favourite in our practice for helping our patients to cope with stress and anxiety, as well as reducing associated symptoms such as mood and sleep disturbances, heart palpitations, feelings of overwhelm, and heightened sensitivity to stimulation.
Preliminary trials have found ashwagandha to be as effective as some prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. Additionally, it has been shown to lower the production of the stress hormone cortisol which is often elevated in stressed individuals (on the flip side, it can also increase cortisol in people with low levels of this hormone). It is thought to exert many of its calming effects affects via stimulation of GABA activity – a natural hormone produced by our bodies to calm and relax us.
As with many herbs, ashwagandha has numerous beneficial therapeutic actions that make it an excellent medicinal herb to use for the many conditions associated with or exacerbated by, anxiety, these include:
- Reducing anxiety and calming the nervous system
- Protecting against the effects of stress
- Improving sleep quality
- Enhancing learning and memory
- Increasing libido in men and women
- Supporting convalescence after illness
- Enhancing immune function
- Helping ease inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and painful joints
So you can see why we find this herb so beneficial in our practice!
Diet and lifestyle also have an important role to play in reducing anxiety.
Alongside herbal support, it is so important to look at our daily nutritional intake and lifestyles, and how they may be contributing to our symptoms. Two important aspects to consider in anxiety are dietary and breathing patterns.
Fluctuations in blood-sugar levels can trigger the release of our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol which in turn can trigger anxiety symptoms such as shaking, heart palpitations, and heightened awareness. Regular consumption of alcohol and sugary foods will cause an initial rise in blood sugars, followed by a corresponding drop. During the high you tend to feel relaxed and alert, while the drop can leave you feeling anxious and shaky. This is because your body responds to low blood-sugar levels by releasing adrenaline and cortisol in order to bring your glucose levels back into balance. If you find yourself constantly turning to sweet foods or caffeinated drinks for energy then this is a sign that you will be experiencing some degree of blood sugar fluctuations.
Coffee consumption can double the levels cortisol and adrenaline released, as well block the production of GABA – one of our feel good, calming hormones. Thus, in susceptible individuals, coffee consumption can lead to worsened anxiety. In fact, ask any anxiety expert and they will confirm that the food that most readily stimulates anxiety is coffee!
The best way to avoid blood sugar fluctuations, as well as unnecessary adrenaline and cortisol release is to limit your consumption of caffeine and limit sugary or refined carbohydrate foods like breads, muffins, biscuits and sweets in preference for whole complex carbohydrates, quality fats, fibre and protein. The thought of going without a daily coffee and muffin break can be horrific for some people, but rest assured there are some wonderful alternatives. Likewise, many people are unaware that their diet may be low in protein or quality fats, so often getting a little support and advice from one of our naturopaths can make a big difference here.
Anxious people often breathe in their upper chest, using short, shallow breaths, rather than breathing into their lower chest. Upper chest breathing mimics the rapid shallow breath that we switch on in stressful situations and can exacerbate and even trigger anxiety symptoms. Ideally, we should spend the majority of our time using gentle, lower chest breathing which utilizes our diaphragm muscle and turns off our stress response – helping us to feel calmer and focused. Take a minute to observe what your breathing habit is – you may be surprised! Correcting your breathing patterns takes practice and commitment – but it can be done. Try starting with the simple breathing practice below.
At the Holistic Medical Centre, we combine our medical expertise with naturopathic healthcare and disciplines, including herbal medicines, lifestyle and nutritional advice. The combination of these practices allows us to limit the need for medications where appropriate, while at the same time provide effective and supportive treatment for our patients. Herbal medicines are generally safer than prescription drugs, and pose no addiction concerns. Therefore, wherever possible we seek to find herbal and lifestyle solutions for your anxiety issues.
Ashwagandha is a very safe herb with very few reported side-effects. However, as with all herbal medicines, it should not be taken without supervision by a qualified practitioner.
Breathe out: breathing practice to reduce anxiety
Belly breathing is easy to do and very relaxing. Try this basic exercise anytime you need to relax or relieve stress. It can be practiced at home, in the shower, at the traffic lights – anywhere when you have a few minutes to sit or relax quietly. I recommend practicing this 3 times daily when you can as it will really help to encourage relaxation and switch off stress.
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
- Take a slow gentle breath in through your nose to a count of 2, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
- Pause for 2.
- Breathe out gently through your nose to a count of 3. You can do this through pursed lips as if you were whistling if your nose is blocked or runny.
- Feel the hand on your belly go in slightly as you breathe out.
- Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.