If you’re like us, it seems like the more stressed you get, the more fat you end up with around your midsection. And it’s not your imagination: Hormones that rise when you’re stressed tell your body to deposit fat in your belly to be used as fuel in case of emergency. The connection is so strong, scientists have coined the phrase “stress belly.” What can help? More and more people who suspect stress is causing weight gain are turning to an herb called ashwagandha for weight loss. When New Jersey grandmother Paulette Szalay tried a 15¢-a-day version of the supplement to help with anxiety, she found it jumpstarted her stalled thyroid and helped speed off 105 pounds. Keep reading to learn more about the science behind ashwagandha for weight loss, doctors recommendations for how to use it, real life women’s experiences — and to discover if the herb can help you feel calm and get lean.
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha — also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry — is an evergreen shrub with a thick carrot-like root and red berries that are used for their medicinal properties. The plant is rich in several bioactive compounds, including some called withanolides, which have proven anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Used as a remedy for stress-related issues since ancient times, ashwagandha “is gentle and powerful, an ‘adaptogen’ that helps the body improve its hormonal balance,” explains Kulreet Chaudhary, MD, former director of Wellspring Health at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego. Like other adaptogens, including ginseng, rhodiola rosea and holy basil, it helps the body adapt and thrive when we’re dealing with stress.
Fun fact: Ashwagandha has a pungent aroma, and it’s name means “smells like a horse” in Sanskrit. Ayurvedic practitioners who rely heavily on the herb say it’s also powerful like a horse.
How ashwagandha fights stress
Withanolides and other compounds in ashwagandha have been shown to help bolster our adrenal glands and counteract the biochemical impact stress has on our bodies. In one study, a group of folks dealing with chronic stress, ashwagandha led to a dramatic drop in the stress hormone cortisol. So it’s not surprising that separate tests have found ashwagandha can improve or eliminate issues caused or worsened by stress — including anxiety, elevated blood sugar and insomnia. (Click through to learn more about the health benefits of ashwagandha.)
The ashwangandha–weight loss connection
Another benefit of healthier adrenals and falling cortisol: Our waistlines shrink naturally, according to NIH findings. Because while cortisol drives fat storage, especially around the belly, as levels come down, excess fat is released. (Click through for more on the link between cortisol and ab flab and how keeping stress low lessens belly fat.) Lower cortisol just feels good, too. Ashwagandha users report meaningful improvements in things like optimism, feelings of well-being and sense of control. That helps explain another benefit: Users’ need for stress eating began to disappear, which can help triple the speed of weight loss, working even if you don’t change the way you eat.Dr. Chaudhary says she relies on ashwagandha at times when life gets hectic and she might stress-eat without realizing. “I double my dose in November,” reveals the author of The Prime: Prepare and Repair Your Body for Spontaneous Weight Loss. “It lets me enjoy baked goods patients bring as gifts without overeating or gaining.”(Click through to learn more about adrenal fatigue in women.)
Ashwagandha and thyroid
The latest research shows 21 million of us may develop a thyroid issue at some point in our lives, with the most common conditions leading to low energy and stubborn weight gain. Ashwagandha may be able to help. That’s because the herb stimulates our endocrine system, which in turn stimulates the thyroid — a little gland in the neck that powers metabolism and energy levels. One study even found ashwagandha may boost thyroid function and production of thyroid hormones by more than 41 percent. (Click through for more on taking ashwagandha for thyroid health.)
Ashwagandha success story: Paulette Szalay, 59
Laura DeSantis Olsson, GettyNot long ago, Paulette Szalay went for a gastric bypass consultation, hoping it would end a long struggle to get lean and healthy. “I remember the surgeon saying, ‘You’ll have to lose 20 pounds before we can schedule the procedure,’” she recalls. Paulette was devastated, even as the doctor explained weight loss would reduce risk of complications, speed recovery and improve long-term success. “For most people my size, 20 pounds wouldn’t be much. But I was different,” she shares. Ever since she’d been diagnosed with a slow thyroid, her body was basically stuck in gain-gain-gain mode. She tried diets but kept getting bigger and sicker. She was always tired, her reflux and blood pressure steadily worsening. “I believed surgery was my best hope to feel good again. Then I find out I can’t have it unless I lose weight. And trouble with losing weight was why I needed the surgery. I didn’t know if I could do it,” Paulette admits.
How Paula’s weight loss journey began
Slowly, Paulette began making better food choices. And she researched strategies to try. She read sugar, gluten and dairy were thyroid irritants. “I like protein, fruit and veggies, so I figured I’d focus on those things,” she recalls.Paulette made an appointment with Matthew Butera, RDN. He confirmed she was on the right track. “Protein will help protect your muscles and metabolism during weight loss,” he said. It would also deliver amino acids to heal damage to her thyroid — and it could kill hunger too. He encouraged her to keep going for lots of veggies and fruit. And he was a fan of small doses of good fat to soothe hidden inflammation linked to a slow thyroid and other health problems.Paulette used the Fitbit app to keep track of what she ate, aiming for about 100 grams of protein and 1,500 calories a day. Dropping up to 10 pounds a week, she made a new appointment with her surgeon. The doc delivered startling news: “You’re down 40 pounds,” she said. “You’re doing it on your own. You don’t need surgery.” And soon routine blood work revealed her thyroid levels were so much better, her meds were cut by half.
How ashwagandha made all the difference
Then weeks passed with no progress, so Paulette went back to Matt. He suggested mixing up her exercise and cutting portions. She tried; it didn’t help. She noticed her stress had been ratcheting up. That’s when a friend recommended ashwagandha. Later that night, an internet search revealed the supplement was proven to lower stress and boost thyroid function. With Matt’s blessing, Paulette bought some — Walmart’s Spring Valley brand, which cost just 15¢ a dose. By her second dose, she could tell it was working. Paulette felt more relaxed and the scale was moving again. She told her doctor, who ran more tests — and cut her thyroid meds in half again.
Paulette today: 105 lbs slimmer
Paulette, 59, is now down 105 pounds. She’s weaning off thyroid and blood-pressure meds. I doubted I could even lose 5 pounds,” she recalls. “But once I started, I chipped away little by little. It got easier as I went, especially after I found ashwagandha.”Paulette, a science teacher, even ended up with a second career. While was chatting with a student who had a side gig as a model, Paulette confessed modeling was her secret dream. “My student talked to her agent. Long story short, she’s my agent now too,” she smiles. “I’ve done billboards, commercials, runway shows. I would never have had the energy or confidence for this before. I love my new life!”
How much ashwagandha to take
Most ashwagandha studies use doses of up to 1,000 milligrams daily for up to 12 weeks. Paulette started with a 500-milligram dose. The herb is generally considered safe for short term use, but always talk to your healthcare provider before adding any new supplement and to find the best dose for you. Also important: While Paulette credits ashwagandha with helping her get off thyroid meds, she did so under a doctor’s care. Never stop or reduce a prescription medication unless a doctor tells you to do so.
When is the best time to take ashwagandha?
Studies suggest ashwagandha builds up in our systems, working gradually rather than immediately. So you can take it whenever is convenient for you. But if you’d like to use it to help improve your sleep, considering stirring powdered ashwanganda along with other spices like turmeric into an evening glass of milk for a drink dubbed “moon milk”. Click through to learn more about moon milk.
Eat like this to make the most of ashwagandha
To enhance the benefits of of ashwagandha, at most sittings, pair thyroid-healing protein, antioxidant-rich produce and good fat. Avoid potential thyroid irritants, namely sugar, dairy and gluten. An occasional gluten-free dessert or starch is fine. Here are 3 meals ideas, plus a bonus snack recipe to get you started:
1. Omega-3 Omelet
Prepare an omelet using omega-3 eggs, healthy oil (such as olive, avocado or coconut) and lots of veggies and herbs
2. Salmon-Topped Salad
Top a large mixed salad with tuna or leftover cooked salmon, olives and a drizzle of olive-oil vinaigrette
3. Sheet Pan Dinner
Toss chunks of chicken breast and your favorite veggies with olive oil and seasoning; roast at 400ºF until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Bonus recipe: Happy Thyroid Pop ’Ems
Vladislav Chusov/GettyNutrients in these treats help protect and heal the thyroid.Ingredients:
1 cup unsweetened coconut shreds ½ cup almond butter ¼ cup protein powder 3 Tbs. honey or allulose syrup 3 Tbs. brewed coffee 2 Tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder 2 Tbs. almond slices, toastedDirections:
In food processor, blitz all ingredients. Roll into 18 balls. Garnish with extra coconut, if desired. Keep in fridge or freeze. To learn more about the benefits of ashwagandha, click through:Expert Help For a Little-Discussed But Common Menopause Symptom: CrankinessDoctors Have Pinpointed the Cause of That Wired-and-Tired Feeling — And The Inexpensive Herbal CureThis $10 Organic Root Relieved One Woman’s Stress, Insomnia, and FatigueThis article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.