Stress is part of our lifestyle, and it is also a phenomenon that is crucial for our development, survival, and “fight-or-flight” response. As a matter of fact, stress was developed as a protective mechanism to respond to a potentially dangerous situation or environment. However, stress is a constant factor in our daily lives. It can establish complicated health issues that correspond with physiopathology of cardiovascular heart disease, panic attacks, impaired memory and cognition, hypertension, digestive problems, and even autoimmune disorders. Furthermore, stress modulation by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, heat shock proteins (Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1), cortisol, and nitric oxide (NO) can be controlled with the use of adaptogens. Indeed, adaptogens such as Ashwagandha can interact with several molecular pathways to regulate the endocrinological balance and reduce the detrimental effects of stress on our wellbeing.
Mechanisms of the stress response.
Any form of external stimuli can initiate the stress response. However, the physiological mechanism is mediated by the HPA axis.
The physiological response to stress starts with stimuli that are perceived by the hypothalamus. These stimuli can be:
- Traumatic stimuli.
- Emotional or psychogenic stimuli.
- Diurnal rhythm.
- Pressure sensitivity.
- Pro-inflammatory cytokines or inflammation.
Once the hypothalamus recognizes these stimulants, the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) secretion starts a downstream reaction through the HPA-axis. Following this first signal, the pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to promote the secretion of adrenal glucocorticoids like cortisol. This mechanism is far more complicated since gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin seem to have a critical role in releasing CRH from the hypothalamus. In addition, the interplay of an inflammatory milieu consisting o an elevated concentration of IL-1, IL-2, IL-6, and inflammatory mediators like TNF-a can influence the secretion of CRH.
Once the stress response starts, we can expect behavioral and physiological adaptation changes.
• Altered cognition and attention span level
• Increased alertness
• Altered sensory threshold
• Sharpened memory and sensation
• Stress-induced analgesia
• Suppression of feeding behavior
• Suppression of reproductive behavior
• Oxygen and nutrients directed to the CNS and stressed body sites
• Detoxification from toxic products
• Altered cardiovascular tone
• Containment of the stress-response
While the adaptative effects of stress might seem varied, they are too good to be true since a chronic state of stress might develop depression, accelerate cognitive aging, metabolic syndrome, impaired reproductive function, growth retardation, and interference of cell-mediated immunity. These before mentioned complications are due to an excess of circulating cortisol that impairs the role of multiple tissues and systems. Therefore, it is crucial to modulate cortisol secretion to prevent these stress-associated conditions.
The Ashwagandha root is an adaptogen from traditional Ayurvedic medicine. This root is a member of the Solanaceae family and has a long history of use as a vitality improver, as it is used to eradicate fatigue.
Nowadays, studies with Ashwagandha prove that it has multiple health benefits like reducing inflammation, neuroprotective, adaptogenic, memory-enhancing, sleep-inducing, and anxiolytic properties. Furthermore, in animal studies, the use of Ashwagandha improved the stress response, reduced free radical induced-oxidative stress while being safe and well-tolerated.
In human studies performed in obese adults, Ashwagandha improved mental wellbeing, eating behaviors, and reduced stress by maintaining endocrinological balance, including adequate testosterone concentrations.
Recently a study performed over eight weeks in patients with anxiety and stress treated with different concentrations of Ashwagandha root reported exciting results. Furthermore, this study used two different doses of Ashwagandha and compared the results to a placebo-controlled group. In this study, the group treated with Ashwagandha 250mg/day showed a statistically significant reduction in stress levels, better sleep patterns, and lower serum cortisol. However, when these results were compared against the placebo-controlled group, the anxiety reduction was not significant. In addition, those subjects receiving 600mg/day of Ashwagandha had substantial improvements in stress, anxiety, and a statistically significant improvement in sleep quality.
Improving stress management and sleep quality are basic mechanisms to enhance our wellbeing. Indeed, applying alternative aid to downregulate the stress mechanism doesn’t only make us feel good. Still, in the long run, it lowers anxiety, depression, improves hormonal transport and sensitivity, which translates to better reproductive mechanisms. Consequently, keeping cortisol levels under control results in better metabolic health and increases bone density and muscle mass, which is also improved by a healthy sleep pattern. These simple improvements ensure a good quality of life, promote mobility, and potentially have beneficial effects on back pain. – Ana Paola Rodríguez Arciniega, MS
Salve, Jaysing et al. “Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study.” Cureus vol. 11,12 e6466. 25 Dec. 2019, doi:10.7759/cureus.6466
Johnson, E O et al. “Mechanisms of stress: a dynamic overview of hormonal and behavioral homeostasis.” Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews vol. 16,2 (1992): 115-30. doi:10.1016/s0149-7634(05)80175-7
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