Adaptogens: The new placebo effect, or the product claiming to be the panacea we have all been looking for? We are not talking about your general run-of-the-mill grocery store herbs (pesto does not cut it), adaptogens are something a little different. As nutritional therapist Kay Ali points out, not all herbs are made equal, and to classify a herb as adaptogenic it needs to provide ‘the four Ns.’ “It must be nourishing, normalizing (helps to balance bodily functions), non-specific (it supports several body systems simultaneously) and lastly, non-toxic.”
An adaptogen is a herb that increases resistance against the harmful effects of physical and emotional stress, infections and environment
Essentially a special class of healing herbs and plants — adaptogens have been used for thousands of years across the world for their health properties — adaptogens help the body deal with stress. “An adaptogen is a herb that increases resistance against the harmful effects of physical and emotional stress, infections and other environmental factors,” says Dr. Sarah Brewer, a physician and nutritionist.
While individual adaptogens serve different purposes and offer varying benefits, they are unified by their stress-busting powers. “One of the main effects of adaptogens is in boosting oxygen processing and energy production in cells. This improves cell function and increases cell survival as well as normalizing chemical processes in the body,” Brewer says. It does not end there. “Research suggests that adaptogens work via effects on the sympathetic nervous system and on the pituitary gland which plays a key part in regulating hormones.”
“They can increase our energy, stamina and stress resilience as well as improve our immunity, sleep and mood. Some adaptogens have even been shown to reduce inflammation, support blood sugar balance, improve protein synthesis essential for detoxification and help regulate our thyroid and sex hormones,” Ali says. But when it comes to our skin, adaptogens have a role to play, too. “Given that adaptogens work by mediating the stress response, most adaptogens are beneficial for the skin,” Ali says. As anyone who has suffered from a major breakout before a big presentation or interview will know too well, our stress levels and skin condition are intrinsically linked. While the routine we apply topically can make a huge difference, so can treating the skin from the inside out.
You can incorporate adaptogenic herbs into your day to day in a number of ways. One is through skincare, but the quickest is via supplements, most of which are available in capsule, powder or tincture form. “Supplementation is particularly useful as they tend to be a lot more concentrated in their active compounds,” says Ali.
Former Victoria’s Secret model Karolína Kurková is planning on launching her children’s supplement line, Gryph and IvyRose, in early 2019. The line will be child-safe supplements that are cruelty-free, plant-based and vegan. Kurková told WWD one of the supplements you will find in her line is astragalus root, which regulates the immune system.
Another option is to incorporate them into your meals. “Turmeric works brilliantly when combined with eggs or added to sauces; holy basil is delicious as a tea; ashwagandha blends well in smoothies; while reishi makes a delicious hot latte made with nut milk and a dollop of honey,” Ali says. It is time to restock those shelves, both your health and skin will thank you.
There is a plethora of adaptogenic herbs you could fill your cupboards with but if you are just starting out on this journey there are a few hero herbs, to begin with.
Ashwagandha is one of the best herbs for dealing with our increasingly fast-paced digital world. “It’s an adaptogen that both calms and energizes the body making it ideal for the burned-out individual,” Ali says. Research shows that 300mg of ashwagandha extract twice a day for 60 days significantly reduces blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol which improves stress resilience. Not just a stress-buster, it can help induce a peaceful night’s sleep too. As Brewer says, it is apt that “its botanical name Withania somnifera means ‘bringing sleep.’” Clinical trials have shown that ashwagandha activates GABA cell receptors across our nervous system, which results in feelings of calm that are essential for sleep. “In this sense, ashwagandha works very similarly to pharmaceutical drugs like Valium, without the side effects and risk of addiction,” Ali adds.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that both calms and energizes the body
Alongside stress, adaptogens can also stop you from getting struck down by those pesky cold and flu bugs thanks to their ability to boost the immune system. Ginseng root is the champion in this category with a study finding that American ginseng significantly reduced the total number of common colds by 25 percent compared to placebo and significantly shortened the duration of colds by 6.2 days. “Ginseng root extracts are traditionally taken to support the adrenal glands during times of stress and to support immunity. Ginseng stimulates the activity of white blood cells against viral and bacterial infections,” Brewer says.
For women, adaptogens can provide hormonal support with research suggesting that specific adaptogenic plants can target hormonal imbalances, improve fertility, reduce symptoms of the menopause and even help with PMS. “Maca is a brilliant adaptogen that targets hormonal imbalance and it can even stimulate the secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH), which is needed for ovary stimulation while [Vitex] agnus-castus has the ability to mimic progesterone,” Ali says. Brewer agrees. “Black cohosh is the best adaptogen for women experiencing menopausal symptoms and is one of the most widely studied alternatives to hormone replacement therapy,” she says.