Meet the hot new buzzword in wellness: adaptogens. Although adaptogens have been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years, they’re having a moment in natural health circles right now, including as a way to keep skin looking luminous. If, like most of us, you’re feeling stressed—and your skin is showing it—adaptogens could be the answer.
Adaptogens are herbs that reduce fatigue and the toxic effects of stress. They’re called adaptogens because they adapt to what the body needs, “regulating the body rather than pushing it in one direction or the other,” explains Alan Dattner, MD, a holistic dermatologist in New Rochelle, New York. For example, Dr. Dattner continues, “some people need ginseng because their energy is down, while others need it because they’re too fired up to go to sleep.”
The term “adaptogen” was coined way back in 1947 by N.V. Lazarev, a Soviet pharmacologist. According to Lazarev, an adaptogen must not only regulate the body’s response to stress, but its effects must also be beneficial to the body’s overall well being, as well as nontoxic even with long-term use.
Since the 1940s, thousands of studies have been done on adaptogens, primarily in the Soviet Union, Korea and China. Eleuthero (a.k.a Siberian ginseng), for example, has been found to increase the lifespan of single-cell animals, while rhodiola (a.k.a Arctic root) has been shown to reduce perceived fatigue in humans.
That said, adaptogens have not been approved for use by the FDA, and some question the methodology of the studies that have been done on the subject. However, others point to the long history of using adaptogenic remedies in the Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions and argue that the studies, if not definitively conclusive, are strongly suggestive.
Adaptogens are said to work by normalizing the adrenal system. And “since skin rashes can often be traced back to a hyper- or hypo-adrenaline condition,” according to herbalist Michael Forman, a doctor of Oriental medicine in Miami, “they can also benefit the skin.”
Dattner agrees: “I do a lot of treatment of the digestive system in order to treat skin disorders. Licorice, for example, calms the digestive system and slows the breakdown of cortisone, acting as an anti-inflammatory,” which may help with skin irritations and rashes.
In addition, adaptogens are thought to slow the appearance of aging. “Eleuthero has antioxidant properties that may help delay skin aging by preventing free-radical damage to the skin,” notes Joe Feuerstein, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. Likewise, he continues, “Angelica may have estrogen-like effects on skin to keep it looking youthful.”
Just plain stressed and exhausted? If so, your appearance—including your skin—will show it. However, “if you get a boost from adaptogens like ginseng or maca,” says Dattner, “you’ll give your skin a boost as well.”
Forman recommends taking herbs in a high-quality liquid concentrate with water. And while incorporating adaptogens into the diet may be beneficial, says Feuerstein, “to get to clinically meaningful doses, I use pharmaceutical-grade herbal preparations.”
According to Forman, “Ashwagandha, ginseng and eleuthero are the three most powerful regulators of adrenal activity and can be used long or short term to address skin conditions,” but there are many other adaptogens as well.
Commonly referred to as “Indian ginseng,” “Indian winter cherry” or its scientific name, “withania somnifera,” ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 3000 years. Native to the dry climates of India, the Middle East and Africa, ashwagandha is a nightshade scrub from the same family as the tomato, baring red fruit and yellow flowers and known to treat a wide range of issues, including stress and fatigue. According to the European Commission Health and Consumers Directorate, ashwagandha has a laundry list of benefits including antimicrobial, antioxidant, skin-lightening and -softening abilities. The herb also stands out for its ability to retain moisture in the skin.
Considered a sacred plant within the Hindu belief, tulsi is believed to be one of the most potent anti-viral herbs of Ayurveda and is often referred to as the “elixir of life.” Also known as “holy basil,” tulsi is thought to have originated in North Central India and grows throughout the tropics of the East.Dr. Dattner values this adaptogen for its antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, neuroprotective, stress-reducing and radioprotective properties. “Its antimicrobial effects are used in acne preparations as a fragrant, skin-conditioning agent. It was shown that linolenic acid present in tulsi is responsible for the anti-inflammatory effect on acne. A paste made from tulsi’s leaves can help reduce itching and it may have skin cancer prevention benefits,” he explains.
Trending in your coffee mug and your skin care cream, the perceived health benefits of chaga mushroom are many. “Chaga” comes from an old Russian word for mushroom and has been used to treat a range of internal problems from diabetes to digestive issues. A parasitic fungus, chaga can be found growing on birch trees in the cold climates of Russia and parts of Asia and North America. The mushroom has been sought after for generations and is believed to have antibacterial, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant clout. One study even found chaga to have cellular protection against DNA damage.