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What is ashwagandha and what can it help with?

It’s the natural herb that’s going viral. Here’s everything you need to know about the supplement said to remedy a long list of problems.  

If you’ve seen this natural supplement trending everywhere, you’re not alone. 

It seems to pop up on TikTok and Instagram feeds every day, with everyone from plumped-up influencers to medical professionals singing its praises. 

So why is this particular herb getting so much good publicity? Is it simply another trendy health fad, or do the health benefits stack up?

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When it comes to over-the-counter supplements in little brown bottles, I’m fairly sceptical. 

Growing up the daughter of two paediatricians, my siblings and I were raised to trust modern medicine, but the kind of medicine that requires specialist prescriptions and carefully-measured dosages. Natural remedies paled in comparison. 

If we had an ache, pain, bout of nausea or trouble sleeping, you’d never find us reaching for natural remedies. In fact, the only time my family leaned into the world of naturopathy, was when we tried to alleviate our elderly beagle’s arthritis with fish oil tablets for a month (he happily obliged). 

While it seems like the western world just discovered the natural herb, ashwagandha has been celebrated for its powerful medicinal properties for centuries. Native to India, it’s been a widely-used staple in Ayurvedic medicine as a nervine and sedative to aid in relaxation and sleep. 

Melissa Briggs, an expert in naturopathic medicine, explains why ashwagandha is fast becoming people’s go-to solution for a range of ailments and chronic health conditions. 

“Ashwagandha has many therapeutic uses but is most commonly known for its role as an adaptogen, assisting the body in managing both physical and psychological stressors thus building resilience towards stress,” Briggs explains. 

As a tonic herb, ashwagandha works its magic from within, strengthening and tonifying the body’s organs and systems. Perhaps the most popular trait of the herb today is its adaptogenic effects.

Why are we seeing a rise in ashwagandha now?

Over the past few years, ashwagandha has become increasingly popular in the health and wellness space. In a recent survey by US supplements website, it even took out the top spot as the most Googled supplement, with a whopping 919,742 monthly searches. 

“In the past few years Ashwagandha has grown in popularity likely due to the increase in stress, burnout, anxiety and illnesses, as well as the trend in the importance of health,” Briggs says on the rapid emergence of the herb in popular culture.

“We are seeing more sickness, particularly post-pandemic, including influenza and Covid which can lead to post-viral fatigue and long Covid.”

The naturopath also says the cost of living crisis across the globe is having a detrimental effect on our mental health, with prolonged periods of heightened cortisol causing an increase in stress, anxiety and insomnia.

Over time, Briggs says, living in this kind of state can seriously weaken the immune system and reduce libido. 

But the rise in ashwagandha interest is more than just a reflection of our collective stress. It’s a signal of a broader trend that people all over the world are leaning towards holistic and natural remedies when it comes to their health.

“People are searching for more holistic support over what a doctor can conventionally offer,” Briggs says, speaking to the upsurge in clients at her own East Brisbane-based practice. “If there was one benefit that came out of the pandemic it was that people realised the value of their health and the importance of nurturing this.”

The benefits broken down

While ashwagandha is glorified for its stress-relieving properties, the natural herb is definitely not a one-trick pony. 

As public interest grows, so does the body of research. Studies across the board have shown ashwagandha may be useful in:

  • Improving insulin sensitivity (its ability to decrease blood glucose is reported to be comparable to that of oral hypoglycemic medications)
  • Managing cholesterol 
  • Regulating immune function 
  • Improving cognition 
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improvement of libido and enhancing reproductive function in both men and women

While ashwagandha is considered to be a very safe herb, most medical professionals would advise against taking it during pregnancy, unless supervised by your practitioner. The same level of caution applies to patients on immunosuppressive medications given the direct impact the supplement can have on the immune system. 

Additionally, Briggs notes that ashwagandha increases thyroid hormone production and therefore isn’t suitable for anyone with hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease.

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Food safety: why the five-second rule is a myth

A food safety expert lifts the lid on the ‚five second rule‘ and admits that while it’s gross to consume food we’ve dropped on the ground, he’s guilty of doing it himself.

Look, we’ve all done it – shrugged after dropping a piece of food on the ground and tossed it in our mouths anyway. You might have even shoved something back in your kid’s mouth after they lost their grip on snacks at the park.

We don’t want you to feel bad about it, but we do want you to stop committing this crime against cuisine in the future.

According to Trevor Craig, a food safety expert from the US, snack contamination is instant – so the five-second rule doesn’t hold up as well as we might like.

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“Bacteria can transfer immediately; there’s no biological rule to hold back bacteria,” Craig told Well+Good.

“Bacteria do sometimes have capabilities to move by themselves – though it’s not like they are moving very quickly – but they are able to transfer from surface to surface almost instantly, which is critical to how bacteria and contamination occurs.” 

Gross. So it turns out picking that rogue cracker off the kitchen floor last week might’ve been a bad idea. Just think of all the shoes and pets traipsing through the house – where have they been and what have they stepped on? And that’s just indoors – what if you’ve followed the ‚five-second rule‘ in a public place? 

There is a plus side

Ultimately, „Bacteria are transferred everywhere, including human bodies,“ Craig explains. „The good thing about bacteria is that most of them are not dangerous, and living bodies typically have immune systems to help fight off most bacteria; in fact, some bacteria can fight off other bacteria, which is the concept of probiotics and good gut health.“ 

Good news for us, but food doesn’t quite have the same level of defence. “Food doesn’t have an immune system,“ says Craig. „So once exposed to bacteria, a food product can support its growth and can then pass it onto the next thing that touches or ingests it.”

Funnily enough, Craig admits that he too commits the crime from time to time. “I don’t always follow my own advice and have eaten things I’ve dropped at times. I’ve popped a few almonds in my mouth after dropping them,” he confesses. “I’ve dropped slices of onion on the floor, washed them off, and then used them to cook.”

But it’s definitely a habit to avoid you can – why would you increase your exposure to germs if you can avoid it?

Can dropped food be salvaged?

Craig told the publication that washing something can remove some of the bacteria and lower the risk, but not everything can be washed, or washed to the extent it would need to be.

“The longer the bacteria are on the food, the more it has a chance to grow in numbers and spread.”

The best tip Craig can give is to not eat anything you drop on the ground, however, if you can’t stand the thought of even the tiniest food wastage and you’re dying of starvation, make sure your home is spick and span, at all times.

“Think of the surface and what that looks like and how it’s treated. You and a restaurant should be pretty good about regularly cleaning tables, and the risk should be low.”

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PCOS diagnosis and treatment guidelines explained

With an updated 2023 guideline, Australia leads the charge in understanding, diagnosing, and treating Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).

When it comes to women’s health, certain conditions, sadly, remain undiagnosed, under-researched, and frequently misunderstood. One such condition, which affects an astonishing 13 per cent of women, is finally gaining attention.

In collaboration with international partners, Monash University has unveiled a groundbreaking evidence-based Guideline to change how people approach Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). This isn’t just a step forward – it’s a leap towards understanding, diagnosis, and treatment.

PCOS has been oversimplified for far too long as solely a reproductive issue, but it impacts metabolic, psychological, and even pregnancy-related health. Notably, PCOS is a formidable barrier for many women dreaming of motherhood, Australia’s predominant cause of infertility. With an annual healthcare toll exceeding $800 million in Australia alone, the ripple effect of this condition is undeniable.

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The free, expanded and updated 2023 Guideline and the accompanying intuitive AskPCOS Patient App, were created to serve as a compass for every woman navigating the often-difficult terrains of PCOS.

The Guideline is a global effort, produced with input from over 100 professionals and patients from 71 countries and six continents who contributed their knowledge and experiences. Their united voice has resulted in an enormous, evocative resource with 254 suggestions and practice opportunities.

These include everything from diagnosis to lifestyle, emotional wellbeing, fertility considerations, customised therapies, and PCOS-specific care and support. When compared to its predecessor from 2018, the 2023 guide has substantial improvements.

There is a shift in diagnostic criteria, with hormone tests replacing ultrasounds. It also advocates for personalised health experiences, revealing innovative care tactics, strengthened evidence-based medicines, and an improved approach to pregnancy care.

Professor Helena Teede of Monash University was a key driver behind the revised Guideline. As a prominent global academic in PCOS, she was aware of the issues that need immediate attention, such as increased weight gain, increased risks of diabetes and heart disease, and more effective infertility therapies. 

The essence of this guideline is not just its knowledge but also its empathy in providing PCOS patients with „the healthcare and outcomes they deserve,“ according to Professor Teede. Too often, the focus for treating PCOS is on individual behavioural solutions that fall short, „further impacting health and fertility,“ Teede admits.

This updated Guideline debunks long-held stereotypes, notably those around weight and lifestyle, and „seeks to support those with PCOS and reduce the stigma,“ Teede adds.

Lorna Berry contributed firsthand insights from her experiences with PCOS, including her frustrations, sense of hopelessness, and search for trustworthy information. „Living with PCOS is challenging enough, but the struggle to find reliable information feels like an uphill battle,” she explains, “I fought for my PCOS diagnosis.” 

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre of Research Excellence in Women’s Health in Reproductive Life (CRE WHiRL) and the Medical Research Future Fund supported the research. 

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Endocrine Society, Society of Endocrinology, and European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology co-founded the Guideline to usher in a better, more informed future for patients with PCOS.

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