To mark World Menopause Day earlier in the week, there is no better time to showcase the hormone-friendly super herb, Ashwagandha. It has so many benefiical properties it’s easier to list what it doesn’t help! So flick on the kettle, put your feet up and meet this amazing herb.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is also known as Indian Ginseng or Winter Cherry. You can see the beautiful red berries in the graphic above, which shelter in the delicate pouches. It is a member of the nightshade family of plants and is used widely in Ayurvedic medicine. The Sanskrit word ‘Ayurveda’ can be roughly translated as ‘the science of longevity’ or ‘sacred knowledge of life’. Ayurveda has been used for over 5000 years old so it knows a thing or two about health and wellbeing.
Traditional uses include grinding the root for use as a rejuvenating tonic, especially in stress- related conditions. It nourishes the nervous system, helping to promote relaxation, sleep and, in turn, improves mental health, immunity and general wellbeing. It tones, supports, strengthens and revitalises bodily functions, and helps to reserve and sustain vitality throughout the day.
Menopause brings many stresses, physical and emotional, so you can see how it would help at times of hormonal shifts. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, meaning it adapts to your body’s needs. That is the intelligence of nature. It is for this reason that a gentle herbal remedy or supplement is preferable than, say, consistent and regular amounts of synthetic medication. Adaptogens contain active plant compounds that restore equilibrium. There is growing evidence about this wonder herb because of its many health benefits, so let’s talk
about how it can help you.
Ashwagandha for Hormonal Harmony
The key to why Ashwagandha is so helpful for women during any hormonal shift (puberty, fertility, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause), is because it is an adaptogen that has an affinity with the hormonal (endocrine) system.
The endocrine system is like an orchestra, constantly fine tuning each of the glands to maintain harmony in your body. The conductor of this orchestra is the Pituitary, or Master Gland. When all the endocrine glands are in harmony, we sail through life blissfully unaware that our body is working for us, 24/7, 365 days per year. The body’s preferred state is homeo-stasis (stability, equilibrium, balance) and your body, and all its intricate, interconnected systems work constantly to achieve this. Amazing, isn’t it?!
At times of hormonal shift, there will be a call on the body to produce more or less of certain hormones, dependent on the body’s needs at that time. At menopause, the body in its infinite wisdom, knows it is time to reduce fertility given a woman’s natural longevity versus availability to care for a child through to adulthood. The same happens in nature. By extending longevity, conventional medicine has thrown a spanner in this natural fertility cycle. Just because science enables a 60+ year old woman to become pregnant beyond her natural fertile years, carry a child and give birth, doesn’t mean it is wise to do so.
We begin to see symptoms from the push/pull of the body’s need to adapt. And this is why Ashwagandha comes to the rescue for women at all stages of their hormonal journey because it is an adaptogen – the clue is in its name. It helps us find calm and serenity at times of profound change, including the huge hormonal shift that is menopause.
Ashwagandha has a rare quality of energising and calming at the same time and is why this super-herb is perfectly suited to balancing the ever-changing hormones, and enable the endocrine orchestra to remain in harmony.
The Thyroid Connection
An important gland in the endocrine system is the thyroid, which plays a critical role throughout a woman’s hormonal journey. Ovary and thyroid function are connected so, too, are the levels of hormones they secrete (oestrogen and thyroxine respectively). As oestrogen levels decline, so, too, does thyroxine and is why underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) is common at this time.
What does that list remind you of?
The thyroid gland secretes three hormones:
T3 and T4 are partially composed of iodine which is all but absent from our diets (you can read more in the brilliant book, The Iodine Crisis by Lynne Farrow. Help is at hand because research has shown that regular use of Ashwagandha increases T3 and T4 levels.
These two hormones influence the production of thyroxine and, more importantly, how much the body absorbs and uses, which affect metabolism. When you have a blood test for hormone levels, always ask for T3 and T4 levels. Medical science does not attach much importance to T4, active Thyroxine, but it is critical to assess metabolism. The hormone blood tests usually used do not include T4 levels, so you have to specifically ask for this.
The Stress Connection
Stress is called the silent killer for a reason. There are innumerable ways that stress can affect an individual, dependent on their triggers – what stresses one person, another will sail through. You can read more about the Catch-22 of Stress, Insomnia & Mental health here.
A common problem at menopause is hot flushes and night sweats. Decreasing levels of ovarian oestrogen stimulates the adrenal glands to create small amounts of oestrogen to ease the peaks and troughs. When the adrenals are stimulated, it involves the stress hormones also produced by the adrenals and, for this reason, we get short-lived whooshes of heat and perspiration (the way the body gets rid of excess heat).
Relaxation techniques, lifestyle and dietary changes can help massively here. There are lots of tips in my Menopause blog here
A great book is Natural Alternatives to Menopause by Dr Marilyn Glenville. Meanwhile, know that help is at hand from our wonder herb of the month. Ashwagandha targets cortisol production and reduces its peaks and troughs, to help you manage your stress levels. And when cortisol is balanced, menopause will be like a pleasant voyage versus a storm!
By supporting the adrenal glands, with the diet and lifestyle tips contained in my menopause blog (and gut health blog – see below), you will promote healthy sleep. This is because the stress hormones and insulin are tamed through diet and stress management. Raised levels of stress hormones, in particular Cortisol, makes sleep all but impossible. It keeps you red alert as hard as you may try to relax. Another key hormone at night time is Melatonin – it helps us become more receptive to sleep – but raised stress hormones prevent the slumber- inducing effects of melatonin.
Anything to help the body come off of ‘red alert’ will benefit you on so many levels, to include immunity, mental health and even longevity. Ashwagandha is an adrenal support par excellence.
Ashwagandha for Mental Health
Sleep and mental health have a bidirectional relationship, meaning that a problem in one causes a problem in the other. A key factor in mental health and good sleep is gut health. Your microbiome is the engine room for your gut flora, which supports mental health, sleep and, in turn, immunity. You can read more on the Holy Trinity of Sleep, Mental Health & The Gut in my blog here
Maturing Gracefully, and Naturally
The lucrative menopause industry is obsessed with anti-ageing, and the forever young promoters prey on a menopausal woman’s vulnerability and sense of waning beauty. But fear not, there are effective natural alternatives available to you, despite what the Press and medical industry say otherwise. Ashwagandha is high in antioxidants which neutralise harmful free radicals which, among other more serious things, create visible signs of ageing, such as fine lines and wrinkles. Ashwgandha boosts oestrogen and collagen levels, which diminish as we enter menopause, to help restore a natural youthful glow. It also maintains healthy hair and volume.
How to get your Ashwagandha fix
Herbal teas are a safe and pleasant way to introduce herbs into your daily routine. One or two cups daily would be great. I love Pukka Teas and their Menopause Serenity blend is perfect.
Ashwagandha supplements are available for convenience but always speak to a qualified therapist and your GP before taking supplements, particularly if you are on medication or have underlying health issues.
Check out the excellent Natural Dispensary – an online shop packed full with an impressive range of branded natural health products and supplements. Place your order through me and I’ll send you a link through which you can pay and get delivery direct to your door. As a thank you from me, you’ll receive 15% off RRP.
Caution: if you are on pregnant or breastfeeding, or on antidepressant medication,
please consult your local herbalist for expert advice
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