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Ancient herb appears useful as anti-stress therapy

Ashwagandha plant


An herb used for centuries in India is gaining recognition in the United States as a way to reduce stress, and scientists at Upstate say their research indicates the herb, called ashwagandha, can help people with anxiety disorders.

Ashwagandha is an anti-inflammatory supplement that works as an adaptogen, helping the body resist damage from both physical and mental stress, says Kaushal Nanavati, MD, medical director of integrative therapy at Upstate. He says it can also improve sleep quality.

Nanavati was involved in assessing five studies in which people took ashwagandha or a similar-looking pill known as a placebo. All of the studies showed that people who took ashwagandha saw a greater improvement in anxiety than those who took the placebo. Nanavati and colleagues published their assessment in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. They say additional studies would be necessary to determine the best dose of ashwagandha.

“Ashwagandha has an effect on receptors in the brain that impacts the serotonergic and GABAergic pathways, working as an adaptogen,” Nanavati told PsychiatryAdvisor.com. Serotonin pathways help regulate mood, and GABAergic pathways reduce nerve cell excitability throughout the nervous system.

The herb, sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng, has been used to treat various maladies, from arthritis to hiccups to backache. As a stress-reduction aid, ashwagandha may help people with anxiety disorders and with depression, Nanavati says, although the study in which he was involved focused only on anxiety.

Depression and anxiety disorders affect a wide swath of the American population. An article from the Archives of General Psychiatry projects that nearly 30 percent of Americans will be affected by an anxiety disorder sometime during their lifetime, and the National Center for Health Statistics says use of antidepressants increased by almost 400 percent from 1988 to 2008.

Physicians are eager to find reliable alternative treatments, to reduce the side effects from commonly prescribed antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications.

Upstate‘s Christopher Morley, PhD, told PsychiatryAdvisor.com that both patients and physicians are becoming more open to plant-based remedies for mental disorders, partially because “while the ‘Western‘ medical system has produced amazing strides in the treatment of human health issues, there are often trade-offs associated with standard treatments.” Morley, an associate professor of public health, family medicine and psychiatry, serves as interim chair of the department of public health and preventive medicine, as well as vice chair for research in the department of family medicine.

Ashwagandha is available in pill form or as a liquid extract. Nanavati says it is generally well-tolerated in lower doses of up to 3 grams, but he cautions that people should consider taking it only with the advice of a health care provider.

Whether ashwagandha is likely to help you depends on your reason for taking it, and what other health conditions you have, he says.

Can ashwagandha help?

The Indian herb called ashwagandha is gaining acceptance as a possible treatment for stress, which often manifests as a symptom of anxiety, depression or both.

pill bottle* Anxiety is a mental health disorder characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one‘s daily activities.

* Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, an illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you behave.

Sources: National Institute of Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association

health-winter-2017cvrThis article appears in the winter 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine.