Some people lose their appetites under stress, I am one of them. But for many others, the opposite is true—when feeling stressed, their instinct is to reach for something to eat, preferably carbohydrates. Indeed, chronic stress has been associated with unhealthy eating behaviours such as overeating, impulsive snacking, emotional eating and compulsive eating in people throughout the developed world.
While many factors contribute to the way different individuals interact with food, there may well be biological reasons for the tendency to overeat under stress. Research published in 2012 found an inherent mechanism of the physiologic stress response, referred to as activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—to significantly increase sweet cravings in people prone to binge eating on fried foods, sweets, soft drinks and/or alcoholic beverages. Chronically elevated cortisol levels trigged by constant exposure to stressors are associated with increased visceral adiposity, and psychological stress alone has been linked to weight gain.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an apoptogenic and traditional Ayurvedic herb whose use dates back thousands of years. Today, it is known to provide scientifically verified stress-balancing benefits. Studies suggest Ashwagandha may help to normalize cortisol levels and promote general mental and physical wellbeing in many diverse ways. One of these may be to help reduce the incidence of stress-related overeating in people who struggle to maintain a healthy, comfortable weight.
A 2017 double-blind, placebo-controlled trial conducted in Pune; India investigated the effect of Ashwagandha on overweight adults with chronic work-related stress. All participants had high Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) scores and a BMI between 25 and 40. Study parameters excluded participants with a predisposition to weight gain due to medication, endocrine dysfunction or a genetic condition, as well as patients with a diagnosable eating disorder.
A total of 52 test subjects were randomized to receive capsules containing either Ashwagandha (300 mg root extract, 5% withanolides) or an inert filler of identical appearance and were instructed to take one capsule with water, two times per day, for eight weeks.
PSS scores were assessed at baseline, after four weeks, and at the end of the study. Before-and-after body weights, BMI, and serum cortisol levels also were compared, along with responses to a series of detailed questionnaires evaluating food cravings, eating behaviours and happiness levels.
The results of this well-designed study showed a significant benefit for Ashwagandha on all parameters. PSS score of both groups was decreased at 4 weeks and again at 8 weeks, but subjects taking Ashwagandha experienced a significantly greater degree of reduction in perceived stress than those taking placebo. Mean serum cortisol levels also declined significantly more in the treatment group compared to the placebo group.
In terms of psycho-behavioural outcomes compared to the placebo group, the Ashwagandha group showed statistically significant reductions in “Uncontrolled Eating” and “Emotional Eating” components of the TFEQ eating behaviour questionnaire, as well as significantly decreased “Lack of Control” scores on the FCQ food cravings questionnaire.
Finally, while members of both groups lost weight over the course of the study, the reductions in body weight and mean body mass index (BMI) were significantly greater in the Ashwagandha group than the placebo group after 8 weeks.
Ashwagandha is known to exert anxiolytic and anti-stress activity. In this study, enhanced feelings of calm and self-control helped subjects taking Ashwagandha to refrain from using food as a stress-coping mechanism. These findings suggest Ashwagandha may help to mitigate stress, reduce food cravings and improve eating behaviours in chronically stressed people seeking to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
By Diana Allen, MS, CNS, Product Development Manager, Moss Nutrition.
- Choudhary D, et al. Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med.2017 Jan;22(1):96-106.
- Järvelä-Reijonen E, et al. High perceived stress is associated with unfavourable eating behaviour in overweight and obese Finns of working age. 2016 Aug 1;103:249-258.