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Are Adaptogens the Real Secret to Better Skin and Sleep?

Some experts say yes. Here, we explain what they are, where to find them, and how to use them.

holding adaptogen in mouth
Photography by: TongRo Images Inc/Getty

Along with CBD and clean skincare, adaptogens sit high up on the list of this year's beauty and wellness buzzwords. What are adaptogens? At the most basic level, adaptogens can be categorized as stress managers. "They have a measurable influence on things like stress hormones and physiological changes due to emotional or physical stress," explains Agatha Noveille, author of The Complete Guide to Adaptogens. Who doesn't need a little extra help managing all the stress in their lives? It's easy to get sucked into labels and packaging promises, but once you fully understand what adaptogens do, you'll soon see that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to adding this category of products into your wellness routine. In order to reap the benefits of adaptogens, you'll need to find the one that works best for you.

 

Here, three experts explain exactly what adaptogens are, how they work, and how our bodies can best benefit from them.

 

Related: Nine Ways to Improve Your Skin and Hair While You Sleep

 

What are adaptogens?

Adaptogens are stress managers, and though they can technically be natural or synthetic substances, the name has become a common way to reference a group of herbs that have adaptogenic qualities—or the ability to give your body what it needs to come back to homeostasis. Unlike vitamins D and K, the body doesn't naturally produce adaptogenic substances, so what they're actually doing once in our bodies is supporting our endocrine, immune, and nervous systems to help us adapt to stress. "It's what helps us cope mentally and emotionally with stressful situations so that we respond more positively in the face of long-term stress," says Noveille.

 

How do adaptogens work?

Steven Izen, founder & CEO of Lokai, which just launched a line of adaptogen tonics called Elements, further explains. "The stress hormone, called cortisol, is our primary fight-or-flight hormone, and its release triggers an adrenal response causing physiological changes such as spikes in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Unfortunately, when you experience ongoing stress, your body is flooded with this stress hormone, which can cause fatigue, distraction, restlessness, and occasional stress," says Izen. Adaptogens operate like a thermostat to read when your adrenal response is too high or too low and work with your body to help balance cortisol levels.

 

What are some of the most common adaptogens?

If you're looking at ingredient labels, check for these common herbal adaptogens. Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea), also called the "golden root," has been used for centuries by Tibetan healers, Chinese emperors, and Vikings to promote health and endurance. It helps enhance energy and mental performance under stressful conditions. Schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), which has long been used in ancient Chinese medicine, is said to increase mental performance and concentration while also decreasing mental fatigue. 

 

Holy Basil is another popular adaptogen, and its adaptogenic properties have been known to help relieve the effects of occasional stress and promote tranquility. It also helps lower stress (cortisol) levels and promotes a healthy mood. Ashwagandha (withania somnifera) is known as one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. It promotes sleep and physical health. Last but not least, you might also come across tulsi (Occimum tenuiflorum), which is often infused into massage oils because of its mood-boosting aroma.

 

Related: Skincare Glossary: Decoding Five Popular Ingredients

 

What are the benefits of adaptogens?

Using herbal adaptogens as supplements can help support physical aspects of our health like mood, energy levels, immunity, mental clarity, and stamina. You can even get some inflammation reduction (inflammation is after all a reaction to stress) from herbs like Holy Basil which can be found in Agent Nateur Holi (Youth) The Oceanic Adaptogen powder. 

 

While they have benefits both when applied topically through skincare and when taken orally, you'll see a significant impact when ingested through products like Shanti Wellness Tranquil Adaptogenic Capsules. "Even though adaptogens all work generally the same way by supporting our response to stress, each herb has different areas where it really shines," says Noveille. For instance, rhodiola has been studied for its ability to support the cardiovascular system. It's also an ingredient in The Nue Co's Nootro Focus supplements that help your brain re-adjust when you hit a mental block. Schisandra has been studied for its liver-supporting capabilities, and shatavari and ashwagandha have an affinity for women's hormonal health. You can get ashwagandha Probiogen's Stress & Mood Balance Probiotic

 

"In skincare, adaptogens reinforce and support our skin's resistance against stressors that can accelerate visible signs of aging, including dehydration and oxidants/pollution," explains Dr. Howard Murad, M.D. Holy Basil is one adaptogen that works great topically because of its high level of antioxidants and soothing benefits. "It helps the skin counter irritation and resist and defend from oxidative stress," says Murad. Murad included Holy Basil in his Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel along with AHA/BHA/TXA acids and lipids. In this formula, the Holy Basil is what keeps the potency of the acids from irritating skin, so it can be used daily. The Holy Basil also works to fight off oxidative stress, such as pollution and calms the skin. The combo of ingredients speeds up cell turnover so that skin is smoother, brighter and more even in a shorter period of time.

 

Are there any risks to taking them?

It's always possible to get too much of a good thing, and adaptogens are no exception. Murad says that while taking too many adaptogen or the wrong dose is not necessarily dangerous, it may cause minor disturbances like a headache or insomnia. Noveille agrees and actually recommends limiting yourself to two or three servings of adaptogens per day between supplements, teas, or other recipes. She also says that certain adaptogens may not have the same effects on everyone. If you tend to have a high-strung or aggressive personality, some adaptogens, like ginseng, may leave you feeling jittery. It's important to pay attention to the way you feel when you start using adaptogens and notice what's working or not working for you. Changing the time of day, taking less, or switching to a different adaptogen can make a big difference.

 

Since there aren't a ton of foods that are naturally high in adaptogens, you can try adding powered forms to your recipes. "Adaptogens such as mushrooms and holy basil can be ingested as part of a meal while others, such as ginseng, are best consumed in tea or drink form," says Murad. Dope Naturally uses raw cocoa in its Relax Me blend as its calming adaptogen. Remember that supplements can be tricky—not only do they have to work, but how well they play with other vitamins and ingredients that you may be taking is equally as important. "If you're taking prescription medications, you should check with your doctor before adding adaptogens to your wellness routines. This is because some adaptogens have the potential to change how efficiently our bodies eliminate or utilize medications," says Noveille.