According to a report in the Alternative Medicine Review, an estimated 75-90 percent of primary care visits may be related to stress. (1)
Stress has been linked to a host of health concerns involving immunity, cardiovascular system, sleep, mood, bone, brain and cognitive function, breathing, muscle tension, circulation, fatigue, metabolic concerns such as blood sugar and hormonal issues, and more. (2,3,4)
While stress plays a huge role in the predisposition to numerous health concerns, its impact on the immune system may be “the first domino,” or where the break down starts. (2)
Understanding how to mitigate stress, particularly in the winter, can help you successfully navigate winter’s challenge to the immune system.
According to Ayurveda, winter is an environmentally stressful time of year. Called vata season, it is cold, dry, harsh, and challenging to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems.
The skin, sinuses, gut and respiratory tracts can dry out, altering the inner and outer skin’s natural environment that supports immune-boosting, beneficial bacteria.
One of the world’s most well-studied, stress-fighting adaptogen, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), is harvested during the fall.
The root of this plant has been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda. It was added to soups and stews to support healthy immune function and fight stress. (3)
The link between stress and healthy sleep has been well-established. Stress overstimulates the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) causing stress hormones, like cortisol, to stay elevated into the evening, postponing sleep. (5,6)
In one study, ashwagandha was administered to stressed adults for 60 days. The subjects reported significantly less stress based on a stress assessment scale along with less stress hormone (cortisol) production. (6)
Named after its ability to support sleep, somnifera translates to “sleep inducer.” Ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties have been shown to support healthy sleep even while under stressful conditions. (3)
In a systematic review of over 60 studies derived from PubMed, SCOPUS, CINAHL, and Google Scholar on ashwagandha as a remedy for anxiety, ashwagandha significantly outperformed the placebo using multiple assessments such as the Hamilton Anxiety Scale and the Perceived Stress Scale. (9)
In one of the studies using the Beck Anxiety Inventory, ashwagandha outperformed psychotherapy for anxiety—a 44% reduction was seen in the ashwagandha group compared to a 5.5% reduction in a placebo group. (9)
As for immunity, which is compromised by stress, there are many studies that have linked ashwagandha to healthy immune function.
In one study, mice supplemented with ashwagandha experienced a natural boost in white blood cell count, which is associated with healthy immune and normal antibody function. (7)
In another study, when animals were supplemented with ashwagandha, there was a six-fold increase in lymphocytes, supporting healthy lymphatic and immune function. (8)
For years, I have been giving my family daily ashwagandha for immune, stress, sleep, and mood support during the winter.