“To our knowledge, this study is the first to evaluate the impacts of taking ashwagandha in a nonclinical population of college students and the first ashwagandha human trial conducted in the United States to evaluate the impacts on perceived stress and sleep quality,” wrote researchers from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS).
The research was funded by the UCCS Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences.
The rise of ashwagandha (and stress)
Ashwagandha, used in ayurvedic medicine for millennia, has had a recent spike in popularity in the United States along with other natural remedies to ease pandemic mood and stress.
According to the American Botanical Council’s 2020 market report citing SPINS data, the herb “experienced the greatest sales growth in the mainstream channel, with sales increasing by 185.2% to a total of over $31,742,304 in 2020.”
Traditionally, ashwagandha has been used as an adaptogen to decrease cortisol levels and regulate neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA to improve concentration, increase energy and relieve stress.
Noting that most research on ashwagandha has been conducted in India, the researchers at UCCS identified US college students as a unique population that has widely reported “stress, anxiety and depression, along with feeling overwhelmed and exhausted”, negatively impacting their academic performance and overall well-being.
“Given the increasing rates of young adults’ mental health wellness concerns, this can be a relatively inexpensive, safe and proven recommendation to help young people cope with this important transition to independence,” Margaret Harris, associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences at UCCS, and co-author of the study, told NutraIngredients-USA.
The study recruited 60 healthy college students between the ages of 18 and 50 and randomly assigned them to either an intervention group that consumed a moderate dose of 350 mg full spectrum ashwagandha root extract twice daily, or a placebo group that took glycerol capsules. Both ashwagandha and placebo capsules were sourced from Gaia Herbs and were identical in appearance with no distinctive smell. (Ashwagandha is Sanskrit for “smell of the horse”, in reference to the herb’s powerful olfactory properties.)
For the study design, the researchers adopted a novel mixed method approach, combining experiential data with existing evidence from survey and biometric data. The approach yielded two separate publications.
“This is the first study to conduct a mixed methods that included a qualitative analysis of ashwagandha,” Harris said.
“From an herbal clinical practice perspective, we have always known that it takes adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha one to two weeks to start working. Including the qualitative analysis brings a depth to the findings that simple quantitative analysis can’t capture.”
The quantitative analysis assessed anthropometrics, demographics and surveys on physical activity, restorative sleep, perceived stress and food cravings before and after the 30-day test period. Qualitative data was used to evaluate the lived experience and included daily affect check-ins to capture mood changes, as well as focus groups at the end of the trial. Main themes that emerged included energy levels, mental clarity, sleep dynamics and stress.
The combined results of both approaches demonstrated that ashwagandha increased perceived well-being and improved health outcomes associated with sustained energy, heightened mental clarity and enhanced sleep quality. The assessment also identified the greatest quantitative effect as regulating food cravings.
“The food cravings result was very dramatic and exciting,” Harris explained. “Most studies do not assess this outcome and in fact we were only the second study to our knowledge that assessed ashwagandha’s impact on food cravings.”
For the qualitative findings, the researchers were able to pinpoint the time it took for ashwagandha to take effect, confirming that affect shifted within 9 to 10 days. Towards the beginning of the study, they also noted what appeared to be a placebo effect in both test groups, given that prior studies show that ashwagandha takes a minimum of six full weeks to fully impact stress and sleep.
“Our study was only 30 days, and as time went on, we could see that the differences between the intervention and placebo group started getting larger,” Harris added.
“At four weeks, we reached significance for sleep but borderline significance for stress. I suspect if we did continue going to 6 weeks, the shifts would be even more dramatic for stress.”
In addition to the shorter intervention period, the study acknowledged several limitations such as the predominance of female participants despite the randomized recruitment, as well as uncontrolled variables including nutrition, physical activity and onset of stressful events such as final examinations and COVID-19.
To supplement the research needed through human trials, Harris said that the team would like to conduct the study again in a larger sample size over a longer time frame and add an element of genomics analysis.
“It would be interesting for us to explore who is most likely to benefit using this herb on the various outcomes we explored here,” she said.
“In addition, with our exciting decreased food cravings finding in the ashwagandha group, it would be wonderful to explore whether it can help some people meet their weight loss goals.”
The study authors also recommend that future research incorporate a mixed methods approach to study design.
Source: Journal of Medicinal Food
“The Perceived Impact of Ashwagandha on Stress, Sleep Quality, and Food Cravings in College Students: Quantitative Analysis of a Double-Blind Randomized Control Trial”
Authors: O’Connor et al.
Source: Journal of Medicinal Food
“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”
Authors: Baker et al.