I am going to be honest with you.
During my undergraduate and graduate studies in the nutritional sciences at Cornell, we didn’t learn a whole lot about herbs, beyond their potential interaction with western medicines, that is. However, we did devote hundreds of hours to learning how to identify sound research, analyze and interpret its findings, and apply those findings in real-world scenarios.
Where am I going with this? Well, I was introduced to ashwagandha not too long after joining InsideTracker, a blood analytics company focused on helping you improve your health through evidence-based nutrition, supplement, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations. And, I was further intrigued when I started chatting with Logan Christopher, the CEO of Lost Empire Herbs, about how they source their ashwagandha from local growers. A pretty cool process ( Side note: check out Logan and Zane’s (of the Lost Empire Herbs team) experiences with InsideTracker).
At InsideTracker, we recommend (if your results, like elevated cortisol levels, suggest it) taking 300mg of ashwagandha twice a day (morning and night). Now, I know ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine (a system of medicine with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent) for hundreds of years and is believed to bestow the strength and virility of a horse onto those that take it.[1 ,2] There is even evidence of ashwagandha being used to thwart anxiety, depression, inflammation, and immunosuppression, among a multitude of other things. So it comes as no surprise that the demand for Lost Empire Herbs to have it stocked is so high! Despite all these numerous benefits, for the purpose of my little experiment, I used ashwagandha primarily for its effect on cortisol, a hormone commonly deemed “the stress hormone.”
Why cortisol? Simple. It’s a hormone produced in the adrenal glands that gets released into the bloodstream during periods of stress. One key function (of many)? To make more glucose available in the bloodstream for quick energy bursts. You know, for that time a few thousand years ago when that bear came around the corner seemingly out of nowhere and you wanted to live out your full life expectancy, so…you ran! While a great evolutionary trait, elevated blood glucose levels aren’t exactly favorable long-term.
Let me set the stage for you:
Why did I seemingly waste time talking about my day-to-day life? Not to say that my life is anymore stressful than the next person. No. In fact, I am almost positive a good amount of you reading this may lead lives 100 times as hectic (and/or as interesting?…..). And heck, I don’t even have kids yet! What am I saying is this: you might want to think to yourself, if this lifestyle brings about rises in cortisol levels, maybe I should have mine checked?
So that is what I did. Working for a blood analytics company, it was relatively easy to have my blood work done.
What did the results say?
My results came back with an elevated cortisol level (19.8 ug/dL). While this wasn’t a clinically high level, it was higher than it should be for me, considering my height, weight, age, race, ethnicity, my lifestyle choices, and how I train/eat/supplement.
Not only was my cortisol elevated, but this stress appeared to be correlated with an elevated blood glucose level (not a definitive causation, but certainly plausible given cortisol’s effect on blood glucose levels).
The new goal?
Take an ashwagandha supplement (without any other herbs/supplements that could potentially ‘muddy the waters”) for a few months to see if the 28% drop (~4.4 ug/dL) in cortisol, seen in a study investigating the effect of ashwagandha on those suffering from chronic stress, would extend to me as well.
The next challenge: finding a reputable ashwagandha supplement given the difficulties that exist when trying to navigate the minimally regulated supplement industry. That’s when a mutual friend, Travis Stoetzel, introduced me to Logan. After doing a podcast episode with Logan, and chatting with his brother Zane, I knew these guys were onto something. Let me put it this way… go to your local supplement store and ask them to show you an actual picture of the farm where the herb you’re about to ingest was grown. Chances are, the muscle-bound “bro” behind the counter is going to give you a pretty blank stare.
Needless to say, I sprang for the Lost Empire Herbs Ashwagandha Tincture.
After a few days, I received my ashwagandha tincture in the mail. One whiff of this thing and I knew I had the real deal. Let’s just say ashwagandha means “smell of horse” for good reason.
Since the ashwagandha was in tincture form, it was a little difficult to take InsideTracker’s recommended 300mg twice a day. So, I reverted to the Lost Empire Herbs herbalists and went with a dropper full (30 drops) twice a day.
Pro Tip: espresso seems to hide the “horse taste” pretty well; I went with decaf to avoid any sort of caffeine/ashwagandha interaction.
After a few months of taking the tincture religiously, I noticed an effect. I felt like I had more energy throughout the day, and the same daily stressors (sprinting to the gym, answering emails, etc.) seemed to bother me just a little bit less. Now, I know I am the type of guy to eventually convince myself that something is working (placebo anyone?). So the key for me was to recheck my blood work.
The results were shocking!
My cortisol levels fell from 19.8 ug/dL to 6.0 ug/dL, a 12.9 ug/dL drop! Now, I am by no means saying this was directly due to my ashwagandha supplementation. There are simply too many confounding factors. Did I get better sleep the week before my second test? Were my workouts less challenging? Was I more physiologically adapted to an increased workload/volume? It’s too difficult to tell with all these variables to consider. Since some studies have indicated that ashwagandha may inhibit the release of cortisol from the adrenals and possibly inhibit neurotransmitters that play a role in the perception of stress, it is plausible that some of this decrease was due, in part, to the ashwagandha supplementation. [5,6]
In addition to the fall in my cortisol levels, there was also an effect on my blood glucose levels.
As with the cortisol results, I’m not going to attribute this drop from 88 mg/dL to 69 mg/dL (a 19 mg/dL difference) directly to the ashwagandha, or to the lowered cortisol, for that matter. It could have resulted from the increase in the amount of soluble fiber I started consuming after I discovered my elevated glucose level (again, not clinically elevated, but higher than it should be for me ). But, cortisol raises glucose levels through stimulating gluconeogenesis, the creation of glucose from noncarbohydrate substances such as amino acids, for example. Therefore, theoretically, constantly elevated cortisol levels could lead to elevated blood glucose levels, which may also play a part in some metabolism related chronic diseases (this cause/effect here is not proven).[7,8]
Key takeaways from my experiment:
- Blood work helps distinguish how your daily stressors are actually affecting your health. It’s like driving a car without ever checking to see if it has a gas or diesel engine. How do you know what you should fuel it with?
- While ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen, in that we don’t know the exact physiological mechanism by which it affects biomarkers such as cortisol, it appears that (for me) there may have been a correlation between proper, safe supplementation and a lowered cortisol/blood glucose level.
- I feel great! Yes, this is totally subjective, but hey… with all the craziness in our lives, shouldn’t we shoot for “feeling better” even if it does just turn out to be a placebo effect?
- Real food first. Aim to eat real food, not too much of it, and make your foundation plant-based (i.e eat your fruits and vegetables). It seems simple, but this goes a long way. Use supplements as powerful dietary aids, not the initial dietary power punch.
- Track your biomarker levels to see if ashwagandha (or anything else you may be supplementing with) has a positive (or possibly even a negative) effect on your body.
- Always check with your doctor before starting a new supplement. If you are allergic to members of the nightshade plant family, Solanaceae, please stay away from Ashwagandha.