Holidays can evoke stress and anxiety. Counter those internal and external tensions by adding two December anti-stress herbs to your medicine cabinet: ashwagandha and Brahmi. Plants contain thousands of phytochemicals, a huge range of substances that can affect us physically, mentally and psychologically when ingested. For this first article on stress, get ahold of some ashwagandha, a popular medicinal plant used extensively in Ayurveda that has the ability to act as an adaptogen — a nontoxic substance, often a plant extract, that increases the body’s ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or restore normal physiological functioning. Calming ashwagandha root powder and stress-reducing breathing practices may just soothe your frazzled nerves this season.
Traditional medicine and culinary uses of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is a member of the Solanaceae family, also known as the nightshade family, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and tobacco. Ashwagandha, translated from Sanskrit, means the smell of a horse because its roots smell of a sweating horse. There are two varieties, Withania somnifera and Withania coagulans. The former’s berries are used to coagulate milk to make cheese. Several of the many Hindi and Urdu common names for Withania species contain the word panir, meaning cheese, such as “cheese flower.” One example is panir ke phool, referring to the berries’ rennet-like capacity.
For healing, an Ayurvedic cook might create a number of extracts, powders, pastes, pills or poly-herbal combinations, including the rasayana ashwagandha (berries, roots, seeds or leaves), to provide you with the strength of a horse and also some extra virility, no matter what your gender. The beauty and simplicity (and I use simplicity to imply elegance of thought here) of Ayurveda is the rich knowledge gained from observation for millennia about the most effective way to ingest a plant. For the best delivery, a plant may be extracted in hot water, used in a milk decoction, ground into a paste or cooked and infused in ghee or into any number of forms too many to mention here. Most Ayurvedic texts suggest mixing ashwagandha root powder in a milk decoction and sipping before bed to help with stress, anxiety and sleep.
With its multiple uses, ashwagandha regulates many systems and has the ability to balance them, and studies confirm what Ayurvedic practitioners have deduced. Some studies evaluate the whole plant while others focus on particular water or alcohol extracts of the fruit, root, seeds and/or leaves. Why? Because different plant parts may concentrate different plant chemicals. Some plant chemicals are similar to water, so water can extract them; others are more attracted to alcohol, so they come out when extracted in alcohol. In a 2011 article in Phytochemistry Reviews, authors found ashwagandha’s many plant constituents have free radical scavenging capacity, as well as anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-stress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory and rejuvenating properties. Though the mechanisms of action are not fully understood, ashwagandha appears to influence the endocrine, cardiopulmonary and central nervous systems. Toxicity studies reveal no side effects, but always consult with a certified health practitioner before ingesting any herbal medicine.
Yoga breathing for stress
When I studied Hatha yoga intensely at Bihar Yoga Bharati in Bihar, India, my multidisciplinary yoga teachers emphasized that pranayama translated into breath (prāṇa) expansion (ayāma). And the tools to expand the life force resided in prana nigraha, or breath control.
Did you know there is an actual nasal cycle? And that yogis studied this cycle and developed detailed breathing practices to influence the cycle and therefore your health? Normally you utilize both your nostrils for breathing, but during the course of a day one nostril dominates over the other cyclically. In fact, studies show a strong breath is more attuned to sensing molecules that are more volatile or lighter, whereas a slower breath senses the heavier molecules. The ability to sense a range of smells allows one to revel in an exponential number of complex smell signatures (including pleasant and not so pleasant), and therefore one has the expansive means to relish a more multisensory palate.
Breathing exercises do not have to be complicated to be effective. Again, you will note a theme here. Simplicity, repetition and daily practice are the key. So if your feeling stressed or anxious during this holiday season, take a break at any point of the day, sit comfortably in a chair and try the following simple breathe-control practice called nadi shodhana, or channel-cleansing exercises. Begin with the simple alternate nostril breathing to re-center yourself when you sense stress.
One round of nadi shodhana is as follows:
1. Take your right hand and make a loose fist with your knuckles facing you.
2. Raise the thumb, pinky and ring finger.
3. Place your thumb on your right nostril, gently closing it, and inhale through your left nostril, slowly.
4. Place your ring finger gently on your left nostril, release your thumb and exhale from your right nostril slowly.
5. Inhale through you right nostril, close your right nostril.
6. Release your left nostril and exhale through your left nostril slowly.
7. Repeat 5-10 times.
Ashwagandha Root Milk Decoction
½ cup whole milk or water
½ teaspoon of Ashwagandha root powder
Honey to taste
1. Heat milk on a low setting, add root powder and stir for 3 minutes.
2. Let the decoction sit for 2 to 3 minutes, then strain.
3. Add honey and sip. You do not have to strain the powder, and you may ingest it, though some do not enjoy the gritty feel.
For a reliable source for organic plants, botanicals and spices, try Frontier, and for Ayurvedic products, try Banyan Botanicals. Before taking any substances, always consult with your chosen health-care professional. To ensure proper yoga training, seek the advice of a certified yoga specialist.
Photo: South Asian plant specimens. Credit: Sarah Khan