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Keeping up with the surge of “cure-all” wellness fads is a job in and of itself. In our column Wellness Inspector, we do the work for you, closely examining these trends to see if they’re worth your hard-earned pennies—or whether they’re just hype.
In Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, certain plants and fungi are used to treat different health concerns. These plants and fungi, which are known as adaptogens and have recently been recast as super supplements, have actually been in use for centuries—”adaptogen” is simply a modern-day moniker, and adaptogenic beauty is its by-product.
These days, adaptogens are pervasive throughout the health and wellness industry (you can find them in everything from smoothie recipes to skincare), and according to experts, that’s not going to change anytime soon. Take it from Sandra Carter, Ph.D. and founder of Om Mushroom Superfood. “As the Western world catches up to the ancient traditions of the East, more and more people are recognizing the amazing benefits of functional mushrooms and adaptogens,” she says.
According to Richard Firshein, D.O., founder and CEO of Laylahealth, “adaptogens are a loose collective of herbs, roots, and fungi that are believed to help the body in times of stress. They range from Ayurvedic herbs such as Ashwagandha to mushrooms, such as reishi and Maitake, to roots, such as licorice. The science on each of these varies, with some being stronger than others.”
Proponents of these herbs and fungi claim they can do everything from manage and prevent the effects of stress to boost the immune system and more. According to Jenelle Kim, DACM, founder and formulator of JBK Wellness Labs, these claims are founded in research. “Adaptogens are unique from other substances in that they can balance the immune system and the endocrine system, and they help the body to maintain optimal homeostasis,” she says. “Adaptogens work at the cellular level to improve the function and vitality of every cell in the body, thereby increasing the health of the entire organism.”
Their stress-defending properties are one of the reasons adaptogens have seen a massive resurgence in the wellness industry as of late. “Adaptogens help us manage stress—and with the many challenges of this past year, people are seeking out natural products that they can use daily to help them with anxiety, depression, and other stress-related issues,” Dr. Carter says.
Adaptogenic beauty sits at the intersection of beauty and wellness. The theory is that through ingesting adaptogens you can benefit your hair, skin, and nails from the inside-out. According to Michelle Ranavat of Ranavat Botanics, the link between internal health and external beauty is one that’s intrinsic to Ayurveda. “There are several studies within the Ayurvedic journals and also the greater medical community that state adaptogens help our bodies adapt to stress. This is relevant because stress is the underlying cause of so many health concerns—including the skin—and controlling it can help with inflammatory issues like eczema and acne.”
She says adaptogens can even help combat signs of aging: “Knowing that stress is an underlying cause of premature aging and inflammation to the body, controlling the root cause can help a number of skin concerns. Adaptogens can stabilize blood sugar, aid with immune system regulation, and have a positive impact on hormone balancing. We say things like ‘I was so stressed, I aged 10 years.’ Those statements have some truth to them— in that stress does cause aging, so herbs that can help our body cope with stress better are important for aging well.”
What’s more, is that many popular adaptogens are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich. Take shiitake mushroom, for instance. Dr. Kim says it has potent anti-aging properties thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. Reishi mushroom, on the other hand, “has powerful moisturizing benefits, and antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.” Then there’s Songyi (which is otherwise known as pine mushroom)—Dr. Kim says it is a special ingredient that “targets skin elasticity and collagen production.”
Dr. Firshein believes that beauty starts from within, noting that adaptogens such as horsetail herb can strengthen hair and nails, whereas licorice may improve hormone balance, which can lead to healthier-looking skin.