One of the buzziest words in skincare these days, “adaptogen” is quickly replacing “probiotic” as the must-have ingredient in a comprehensive daily healthy-skin routine. You may know you need it, but it’s possible you’re not sure what “it” is. Don’t stress (something adaptogens can help with, actually)—help is here.
Adaptogens – a (very) brief overview
Adaptogens are non-toxic herbs that help the body deal with (read: adapt to) stress—both mental and physical—and its effects. Traditionally, they’re taken as oral supplements. Some of the most common ones are: Ashwagandha, Cordyceps, Goji berry, and Turmeric.
Stress Is Not Your Friend
You don’t need us to tell you stress is bad, but perhaps you do need us to tell you why it’s really bad. So here goes. When you encounter a stressor, whether it’s a looming project deadline at work, a dog that’s darted in front of your car, or a particularly intense Peloton session (45-minute Tabata ride with Robin, anyone?), your body responds by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, both stress hormones.
While this “fight or flight” response will help you escape imminent danger, chronic stress (say, for example, a global pandemic) triggers continuous cortisol and adrenaline production. That results in a host of negative consequences, such as increased blood pressure, extra blood sugar (known as glucose), digestion issues, suppressed immune function, muscular pain, and inflammation. And that’s just internally. Stress also impacts your outward appearance.
Stress Meets Skin
When stress levels rise, the body sends blood rushing to vital organs. Sadly, skin is not on that priority list. Add in the increased presence of adrenaline and cortisol, and that cocktail serves up collagen breakdown, decreased circulation, and raging inflammation. You’ll see it manifest on your face (and the rest of your body) as an increase in redness, dry patches, fine lines, dullness, and breakouts. Plus, the lack of circulation means your skin gets less oxygen, vital nutrients, and antioxidants delivered to its doorstep. As if you weren’t stressed enough already…
How Adaptogens Work & Benefits of Adaptogens
Admittedly, there’s a lack of large-scale, peer-reviews studies on the effects of adaptogens using human subjects. However, taken orally, adaptogens appear to level out stress hormone production (by working with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathoadrenal system), in addition to exhibiting an anti-fatigue effect, which helps stave off mental exhaustion, in particular.
Applied topically, adaptogens help repair stress-induced skin damage. They increase blood flow to the skin, provide antioxidant protection, and generally make it look as though you haven’t been up all night, scrambling to complete your big PowerPoint presentation for the executive team’s morning meeting.
Key Adaptogens in Skincare
Different adaptogens have different effects, and the combination that works for you as oral supplements will depend on the effect you’re trying to achieve (increase energy, reduce anxiety, ward off fatigue, boost brain function, and so forth).
However, for skin, there are 11 adaptogens that always work for anyone, no matter what their skin concern:
Açai Berry: Harvested from açai palm trees in the rainforests of South America, Açai berry (Euterpe Badiocarpa) is known for its high concentration of powerful antioxidants that fight harmful environmental stressors, like pollution and toxins, thus neutralizing free radicals and enhancing skin’s barrier function. Also rich in omega fatty acids 3, 6, and 9, Açai berry helps to revive dull, dry skin and restore moisture.
Ashwagandha: Native to India and parts of Africa, ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is an evergreen shrub that has antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties. As a result, it’s often used to treat dark spots, scarring, fine lines, and blemishes and is especially beneficial for those who suffer from skin infections or acne.
Chaga Mushroom: Long used in Siberia and other parts of Asia, Chaga mushroom (Inonotus Obliquus) thrives in cold climates. It contains high levels of betulinic acid, selenium, and other essential vitamins that neutralize the free radicals produced by stress and boost the immune system. Chaga mushroom’s anti-inflammatory properties lead to increased blood circulation, which ensures an even skin tone and nutrient delivery to skin cells.
Cordyceps: A staple of Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are more than 400 species of Cordyceps. The fungi are anti-inflammatories that fight oxidative stress and stimulate protective cells that help keep disease and infection at bay—a boon for the immune system. Plus, Cordyceps also increase the body’s production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is basically a cell’s battery pack, leading to an increase in energy throughout the body.
Goji Berry: Native to China, antioxidant-rich goji berry (Lycium Barbarum) contains amino acids, which help to reduce inflammation, leading to an increase in circulation and an evening of skin’s tone. Goji berry also helps protect skin against high levels of oxidative stress by inhibiting the matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) that break down collagen. All that, and it helps balance and support a healthy skin microbiome.
Maca Root: A plant native to Peru, maca (Lepidium Meyenii) is often referred to as “Peruvian ginseng.” Its root is recognized for its ability to stimulate fibroblasts, leading to an increase in collagen and fresher, bouncier skin. Topical application of Maca root aids in the elimination of acne breakouts and also helps protect against UV radiation (but it’s not a substitute for sunscreen!).
Maitake Mushroom: “Maitake” is the Japanese word for “dancing mushroom,” an encapsulation of the joy people felt after discovering the healing powers of the Maitake mushroom (Grifola Frondosa). It’s a joy you’ll also feel after seeing its transformative effects on skin. Maitake mushroom increases firmness and elasticity for a more rejuvenated appearance. At the same time, its high volume of beta-glucans helps fight inflammation and aid the immune system, while its anti-inflammatory properties increase blood circulation.
Rhodiola: Born in the cold mountains of Europe and Asia, Rhodiola Rosea is an herb whose roots possess adaptogenic qualities. It protects against free radicals, fights hyperpigmentation, brightens skin, and keeps it smooth. Studies have also shown that Rhodiola extract can decrease water loss.
Shatavari: A member of the asparagus family, Shatavari (Asparagus Racemosus) contains a high level of antioxidants, which help prevent free-radical damage and neutralize oxidative stress. It also increases circulation and prevents collagen breakdown.
Trametes Mushroom: Also known as turkey tail mushroom, due to its colors, Trametes mushroom (Trametes Versicolor) contains the compound polysaccharide-K (PSK), which stimulates the immune system and reduces inflammation. As a result, Trametes mushroom has the ability to improve blood flow and cellular DNA repair.
Turmeric: A flowering plant that’s part of the ginger family, turmeric (Curcuma Longa) is native to India and other areas of Southeast Asia. Turmeric is rich in Curcumin, a compound that’s known for its ability to bolster the immune system. Curcumin is also an incredibly potent anti-inflammatory, giving it the ability to quash redness, puffiness, and blemish scarring—and even certain skin conditions, like eczema and rosacea. A super antioxidant, Curcumin also increases circulation and can revitalize skin, while alleviating dryness.
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