A Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association found that 2020 marked the first significant increase in American adults’ average stress levels since the annual survey began in 2007. The rise is undoubtedly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, but nonetheless, stress has become its own epidemic in our country. As we look for ways to combat the daily tension that affects our minds, bodies and skin, one big wellness trend can’t be ignored: adaptogens.
How They Work
Used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic healing practices, “adaptogens are herbs that, when consumed in foodsand supplements, help us create a state of resistance to a variety of stressors, including psychological and physiological stress,” says David Winston, RH(AHG), clinical herbalist and author of Adaptogens; Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief. “They gently enhance and promote normal function for the endocrine, nervous, immune and reproductive systems.” Essentially, adaptogens have the ability to help our bodies adapt (hence the name) to everyday changes and stressors. “They support the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that controls our stress response, hormones, sleep quality, energy reserves, immunity, and mood stability,” explains Danielle Duboise, cofounder of wellness company Sakara Life.
They help us attune to the fight-or-flight rush of cortisol and adrenaline that happens when we’re stressed, so we’re not constantly pumped with inflammation-causing hormones. “Many of us live in a constant state of stress, and our bodies don’t know the difference between running late to a meeting and a lion chasing us,” adds Duboise. “When our bodies are in homeostasis, physiological stress levels naturally come down, and we can breathe deeply and feel powerful and beautiful inside and out.”
Winston says newer research shows adaptogens also work on a cellular level, preventing the stress-induced shutdown of our mitochondria, our cells’ powerhouses. “This explains why adaptogens can be so useful for treating conditions such as fibromyalgia, which is caused by HPA axis depletion and cortisol-induced mitochondrial dysfunction.”
Though these super herbs are currently considered the darlings of the wellness industry, experts emphasize they are not a substitute for a healthy diet or lifestyle, and they are not a cure-all. “Adaptogens will not make up for the fact that you are eating terribly, not getting enough sleep or exercise on a regular basis, smoking cigarettes, or in an unhappy marriage,” says Winston. “Where they can help is when someone who takes good care of themselves is going through a difficult time—maybe they have a new baby in the house or they’re working extra hours.”
A great deal of hype and misinformation surrounds the benefits of herbs too. “Though many herbs do fairly astounding things, not all fit the true criteria of an adaptogen, which means you must use discretion as a consumer,” notes Duboise. In fact, according to Winston, there are only nine herbs with strong evidence for internal adaptogenic benefits: Asian ginseng, American ginseng, schisandra, rhodiola, eleuthero, ashwagandha, cordyceps, rhaponticum, and shilajit. Some adaptogens are soothing; others can have a stimulating effect. “This is where the concept of ‘body intelligence’ comes in, meaning you should pay attention to how your body reacts,” says Duboise. “These herbs are tools, but not a silver bullet, so get quiet with yourself, tune in and believe in the power of plants as medicine.”
Adaptogens adjust to what the body needs, so as long as the recommended dose is taken, they are generally safe. However, those who are pregnant or have existing medical conditions should consult a doctor first. “These herbs have a cumulative effect, so their potency is derived from taking them on a consistent basis,” says Duboise. “Creating rituals and noticing how your body feels is a great way to assess whether they’re enhancing your life and bringing you vitality, energy and pleasure.”
In addition to Winston’s nine proven adaptogens for the body, several other herbs—reishi, turmeric, astragalus, chaga mushroom, holy basil, and others—also possess antioxidant and healing benefits for the skin, though they don’t function the same as when they’re consumed. “Herbs classified as adaptogens have benefits for the skin, but there is no evidence that it is because they are adaptogens,” Winston explains. “It is because they may also contain phytochemicals that have wound-healing, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, or emollient activity.” Nonetheless, “when skin is stressed, inflammation increases and hormone fluctuations cause a boost in cortisol that decreases circulation and compels our sebaceous glands to produce more oil,” says Josh Rosebrook, founder of his eponymous skin-care line. “This can be congesting for many skin types and exacerbate inflammatory conditions such as eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, and acne. Herbs help bring the skin back into balance with an array of micronutrients.”
According to New York dermatologist Dennis Gross, MD, stress can also manifest as dry patches, redness, dullness, tired eyes, flare-ups, lines, and wrinkles—some experts agree skin is always stressed due to UV rays, pollution and other aggressors. “When applied topically, adaptogens can increase blood flow to the skin and immediately reverse signs of stress,” says Dr. Gross. “But, as great as adaptogens are for the body, in order for them to really have an impact on the skin, they must have a proper delivery system—you can’t just rub mushrooms on your face.”
Joe Cloyes, cofounder of skin-care brand Youth To The People, formulates products with reishi, rhodiola and ashwagandha, which he says are ideal for overexfoliated skin that needs to be healed and calmed. “Their main goal is to nourish and protect the skin barrier.”
Five superstar herbs boasting both internal and external benefits.
Ashwagandha: When consumed, this herb has proven stress-reducing powers—Duboise says it also contains good-for-your-blood iron and helps balance out hunger hormones—but Winston warns that because it also stimulates the thyroid, it’s best to consult a doctor before using. On the skin, ashwagandha is not only a potent antioxidant, but also a great ingredient for calming down stressed, irritated skin.
Asian Ginseng: Experts often recommend this stimulating adaptogen for those who are elderly or depleted of energy. It’s also commonly found in Korean skin care, and “particularly effective in anti-aging formulas to combat dullness and lackluster skin,” notes skin-care blogger and YouTuber Renée Chow.
Chaga Mushroom: This particular mushroom tends to grow and survive in some of the most extreme environments, which makes it incredibly resilient and gives it both immune-boosting and skin-protective properties. “It can help neutralize free radicals, reduce inflammation and increase firmness and hydration in the skin,” says Dr. Gross.
Holy Basil (Tulsi): Categorized as a “possible adaptogen” by Winston, holy basil is a calming herb and can be helpful for those who get brain fog or have metabolic syndrome. When used topically, Bay Harbor Islands, FL dermatologist Stacy Chimento, MD says its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties make it beneficial for someone with acne, atopic dermatitis or seborrheic dermatitis.
Rhodiola: Duboise says this herb has been studied extensively in regard to its DNA repair capabilities and support for adrenal fatigue, which occurs in situations of high stress—that burnt-out feeling—when intense fatigue sets in. As a skin-care ingredient, Dr. Chimento praises rhodiola’s high concentration of antioxidants, which fights free radicals and hyperpigmentation
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