Does Ashwagandha Support Neurodivergence and Brain Health?

Published on November 30, 2022


By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

https://www.holisticwritingconcepts.com

 

Ashwagandha has been traditionally used to support organs and systems related to attention and focus, such as normal brain function, attention, digestive health, stress response, mental well-being, the sleep cycle, and the nervous system.*

Scientific evidence validates these traditional uses, which suggests Ashwagandha may provide a layer of generalized support for cognitive and nervous system health.*

In this article, we’ll explore how Ashwagandha can support brain health and a healthy stress response which may lead to a greater sense of peace, calm, and focus.*

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha, also known as Ashwagandha Root, Indian Ginseng, Winter Cherry, or Withania somnifera, is an herb used extensively in Ayurveda, the traditional wellness practice of India.

In herbalism, Ashwagandha is considered a nervine, which supports the nervous system, and an adaptogen, which helps the body adapt and thrive under various physical, mental, and emotional stressors.* 

Adaptogens have been used throughout the world’s traditional herbal systems. Some examples include: 

In addition to its stress-balancing benefits, Ashwagandha has also shown promise for supporting sexual function and libido,REF#86,REF#87, sleep,REF#88,REF#89, mood,REF#90 thyroid function,REF#91 normal blood sugar,REF#92 fertility,REF#93 athletic performance and recovery,REF#94 HPA axis (hypothalamus pituitary adrenal), function, cortisol balance,REF#95, and more.*

Modern science has identified over 50 chemical constituents in ashwagandha, including steroidal alkaloids and lactones, collectively known as withanolides.REF#96 

Chemical constituents are the active components in plants that may impart specific health benefits.

These chemical constituents are responsible for ashwagandha’s benefits, including supporting the adrenals, the hormonal and nervous systems, and the brain.*

Let’s explore how Ashwagandha can help support brain function, which may lead to greater focus, attention, and calmness.*

Understanding Adaptogens: How Ashwagandha Supports A Healthy Stress Response*

To understand how Ashwagandha works on brain health, we must first understand how it helps mediate our stress response.*

Stress is a leading cause or contributing factor to many physical, mental, and emotional chronic diseases.REF#97

It’s also detrimental to brain health. Research has shown that stress can cause damage to the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory, with associated memory deficits.REF#98

Stress can also impair our sleep cycleREF#99 and blood sugar balance,REF#100 which can further compromise brain health.

Stress is a significant driver of our cognitive power and overall well-being.

Traditional herbalists understood this, which is why they included adaptogens, like Ashwagandha, Maca, and mushrooms, in many herbal preparations.

How do adaptogens work?

According to research, adaptogens improve stress response and help the body adapt by normalizing physiological processes during stressful times.* 

Adaptogens achieve this by regulating homeostasis via their actions on the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. They also control vital mediators of the stress response, such as heat shock proteins, stress hormones like cortisol, and nitric oxide.REF#101

Many studies have shown ashwagandha’s positive effects on stress response via its adaptogenic properties.REF#102,REF#103

For example, in a 2021 double-blind placebo-controlled study published in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, researchers found subjects receiving ashwagandha had a 83.4 greater probability of achieving control over their stress versus the placebo group. The ashwagandha group also had “significantly lower serum cortisol levels” than the placebo group (cortisol is your body’s master stress hormone).REF#104

By having a supportive effect on normal physiological functions during stressful times, Ashwagandha (and other adaptogens) may provide a wealth of indirect support to the brain and nervous system.

Next, we’ll explore how ashwagandha may directly support normal cognitive function.

The Many Ways Ashwagandha May Support Brain Health*

Ashwagandha has been shown to provide many potential benefits for cognitive health.*

For example, research has shown the withanolides in Ashwagandha can support the brain with:REF#105REF#106REF#105REF#105

  • Attention*
  • Executive function*
  • Healthy neurological function *
  • Immediate and general memory*
  • Information processing speed*
  • Immediate and general memory*

Additionally, in the same 2021 double-blind placebo-controlled study published in Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine mentioned previously, also showed improved memory and focus, psychological well-being, sleep quality, and reduced stress levels in the ashwagandha group vs. placebo.REF#104

Several studies have shown AshwagandhaREF#88, REF#89 to help promote a normal sleep cycle, which directly contributes to cognitive health and function.

For example, new evidence shows that the brain goes through deep cleaning or detoxification during deep, natural sleep.REF#107

It is during this time that your brain sweeps away daily waste, including all the cell by-products that build up as the result of thinking, including neuro-degenerative substances that can cause cognitive issues.

Sleep is also prime time for synaptic pruning, a process in which old memories and information are cleared out to make way for new knowledge in the brain.REF#116

In other words: if we’re not sleeping enough or well enough, our brains cannot function optimally. This is why occasional sleep aids, like Ashwagandha, can be so helpful for brain health.*

Another study published in Neurochemistry Research entitled: “Neuroprotective effects of Withania somnifera dunal: A possible mechanism” showed that Aswagandha’s withanolides helped mediate nitric oxide production, which may benefit the brain.*REF#108

You may recall we mentioned balanced nitric oxide production as a benefit of adaptogens earlier in this article.

Ashwagandha has also been shown to be potentially helpful in supporting learning and well-being in school settings.*

Participants in a study titled: “The Perceived Impact of Ashwagandha on Stress, Sleep Quality, Energy, and Mental Clarity for College Students: Qualitative Analysis of a Double-Blind Randomized Control Trial” published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, were college students aged 18-50 years. They were randomized to an intervention or placebo group to take one capsule twice daily for 30 days. The Ashwagandha group took 700 mg of full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root daily.REF#109

The results were that Ashwagandha increased college students' perceived well-being through supporting sustained energy, heightened mental clarity, and enhanced sleep quality.

Researchers in the majority of these studies believed the antioxidant effects of Ashwagandha's withanolides, combined with its stress-supportive properties, were responsible for its cognitive health benefits.

Ashwagandha Supports Mood*

Mood can also be an indicator of brain health. If you suffer from occasional mood swings, Ashwagandha may be able to help.

Traditional practitioners often used adaptogens like Ashwagandha to help promote strong mental well-being and resilience, even in the face of mental or emotional challenges.*

There has been some research into how Ashwagandha may support mood and mental well-being.

An animal study published in Phytomedicine: International Journal Of Phytotherapy and Phytopharmacology REF#90 found that ashwagandha acted as a mood stabilizer by helping reduce brain levels of tribulin, a marker of anxiety.REF#90 

Based on other research cited in the introduction, we also know Ashwagandha can support sleep, thyroid function, HPA axis function, stress response, and hormonal balance, all of which can contribute to your mood.* 

More research is needed to make a definitive scientific conclusion about this traditional use. However, it does provide one more piece to the puzzle of how Ashwagandha may benefit brain health and overall mental/emotional well-being.

How To Start Taking Ashwagandha To Support Focus, Calmness, and Overall Brain Health*

If you’re interested in trying Ashwagandha for cognitive health, mood, or stress, taking a supplement is the easiest way to do so.*

When choosing a high-quality Ashwagandha supplement, insist on the following:

  1. Certified organic Ashwagandha
  2. No artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or fillers

    So talk to your practitioner about the right dosage for you (or check out this article for some helpful tips), and plan to take your supplements regularly for at least 4-6 weeks for the best results.

    Want to learn more about Ashwagandha’s historical uses and health benefits? Check out The Essential Guide To Ashwagandha: Everything You Need To Know.

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