A sluggish thyroid is typically rooted in stress, and ashwagandha can be supportive if you’re struggling with low thyroid symptoms. Discover the benefits of this powerful herb and how it can naturally ease anxiety, inflammation and more.
Stress is major root cause of thyroid dysfunction. Improving your resiliency – capacity to cope with stress – is a key component to maintaining healthy thyroid function. Too many stressors – whether they’re physical, mental, or emotional – compromise your resiliency and lead to cracks in the foundation of thyroid health.
Uncontrolled stress can dampen the signal from the brain to the thyroid, lowering thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), the message that tells your thyroid to ramp up metabolism. (1) Poor resiliency and high stress can also kick up inflammation in the body, impairing the ability of thyroid hormones to bind onto receptors to exert their beneficial effects. (2)
Uncontrolled stress can lead to a slower metabolism.
While treating the symptoms of thyroid dysfunction – whether it’s sluggish bowels, weight gain, fatigue, cold hands and feet, etc. – is important in the short-term, the long-term solution is to address the root causes. A common root cause of thyroid dysfunction is stress. (3)
Adaptogen herbs can help the body cope with stress and have a unique capacity to increase your resiliency. This is crucial in the short-term while you build solid nutrition, movement and lifestyle habits into your daily regime to increase resiliency (and fight off stress) in the long run.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Too much work, too many social commitments, too much screen time and lack of sleep can all place a heavy toll on your nervous system. When stress mounts, your thyroid will feel the effects.
Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha), a traditional herb that grows in drier areas of Africa, the Middle East and India, has been used in Ayurveda – the traditional medicine practiced in India – dating back to 6000 BC as a tonic for the nervous system and warding off stress. (4) The leaves of the ashwagandha plant are commonly used in fevers, the flowers as a diuretic, and the root in particular is revered for its ability to combat stress, inflammation and anxiety. (5) The active chemical constituents in the root include alkaloids and steroidal lactones that exert anti-stress activity. (6,7)
7 Natural Benefits of Ashwagandha
1. Ashwagandha Calms Anxiety. When the emails don’t stop coming in, work deadlines are missed, or you’re just constantly “on the go,” your body is in a perpetual “fight or flight” state of adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones. As a result, you start to feel too revved up or your mind is constantly racing, both of which are common in clients who struggle with anxiety. In animal studies, ashwagandha has performed on par with anti-anxiety drugs like Lorazepam and been shown to reduce brain markers of clinical anxiety to the same degree. (8) Anxiety or anxiety-like symptoms are very common symptoms of thyroid dysfunction and a surefire sign your body is struggling to keep up.
2. Ashwagandha Cools Chronic Inflammation Inflammation is a triple whammy for thyroid sufferers, because not only does it impair thyroid hormone output, it inhibits the ability of your hormones to bind effectively to receptors and exert their metabolism, mood, and mind boosting effects. (9) Chronic inflammation also damages mitochondria function, the energy producing “furnaces” of your cells, leading to constant fatigue and poor energy. (10) Ashwagandha helps to protect your cell membranes from lipid peroxidation, the damage that occurs from chronic inflammation. (11)
3. Ashwagandha Adds Antioxidant Defense The greater your stress load, the greater your likelihood of systemic inflammation in your body and thus too much oxidative stress. These little “fires” across the body create reactive oxygen species (ROS) that wreak havoc on your health and must be put out. This places a tremendous burden on your body’s stress response. Ashwagandha provides robust support to your antioxidant defense system – along with a diet of grass-fed and wild meats, vegetables and healthy oils – and optimizing your antioxidant intake during times of stress is a major support for your health and thyroid. (12, 13)
4. Ashwagandha Boosts Immunity Nothing derails your performance at work or in the gym quicker than a nasty cold or flu. Excessive or chronic stress – without adequate rest and resiliency – typically results in frequent colds and flu, something thyroid sufferers frequently battle during bouts of fatigue. Ashwagandha has been shown to increase white blood cell (WBC) counts, improving your body’s “first line of defense” against foreign intruders. (14) A little ancestral herbal support can go a long way to getting you through long, stressful work days.
5. Ashwagandha Improves Brain Fog A common symptom of thyroid dysfunction is brain fog – that feeling like you’re a little spacey, disconnected, or not quite yourself. Brain fog is one of the most common complaints thyroid sufferers have, and although it’s not debilitating, it makes all your tasks at work and home more difficult. Unfortunately, most people reach for an added caffeine boost to push through brain fog. Ashwagandha has been shown to support improved cognitive function and memory in those with prolonged illness (as well as post head injury). (15)
6. Ashwagandha Increases Work Capacity Animal studies have shown that supplementing with ashwagandha was able to significantly extend time to exhaustion in mice, doubling their total work capacity. (16) In clinical practice, ashwagandha can be very supportive to clients with a sluggish thyroid because it helps to increase resiliency without providing a caffeine-like stimulus – which other adaptogens can induce – and therefore can provide support at work and in the gym.
7. Ashwagandha Supports Nervous System Life is busy. Many people feel like they’re “constantly on the go” or “running on adrenaline” throughout the day. Eventually, your body can’t keep up and symptoms of thyroid dysfunction take root. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps your body “pump the brakes,” helping to shift your nervous system into relaxation mode, so you can recover and rebuild your resiliency. Ashwagandha root has GABA-mimicking activity, and the metabolites of its constituents may promote the health of new nerves. (17)
How To Use Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha can help improve resiliency, and thus thyroid health, and is great support to your nervous system. Look for supplements containing approximately 300-600mg standardized to 1.5% withanolides (prepared from the root) and take at bedtime. Dried herbs, teas and powdered forms of ashwagandha can provide mild support (best as a prophylactic if you’re already feeling good), although they are not typically potent enough if you’re struggling with thyroid dysfunction.
Take ashwagandha at bedtime for optimal thyroid health. (Note - Pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha as it may cause miscarriage. If you’re taking sedatives or antidepressants, make sure to check with your doctor before combining with medical herbs like ashwagandha, as it may increase the effects.
Adaptogens like ashwagandha are very supportive in the short-term, but the long-term solution involves reviewing and addressing fundamental lifestyle factors that are taxing your resiliency (and thus your thyroid). Here is a quick list of common “energy suckers” that take their toll on your nervous system
Lack of sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, with added naps if needed.
Too much caffeine. If you struggle with thyroid dysfunction, ditch the coffee.
Too much alcohol. In the evening, it impairs deep sleep and capacity to recover.
Too much “tech.” If you’re rundown, take at least one day per week “off” from your phone and other devices.
Breathe. Practice deep breathing exercises to activate your vagus nerve and calm your overactive “fight or flight” nervous system.
Increasing your resiliency with ancestral adaptogens like ashwagandha can be a great short-term intervention to increase resiliency and support your thyroid, and when combined with lifestyle interventions to reduce cortisol, can be very effective for mitigating stress-induced causes of thyroid dysfunction.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS