Don’t worry, it’s not just you. Between COVID-19, our hectic lifestyles and the always-switched-on digital world we live in, stress has become part and parcel of our lives. But unfortunately, it’s not great news for your health (or skin). Stress can take its toll in many ways, which is where adaptogens come in. Here’s everything you need to know about these stress-busting herbs.
What are adaptogens?
“Adaptogens are an incredibly useful tool to help the body deal with and adapt to stress,” explains Australian herbalist, founder of The Wellness Group and co-founder of GMC Cosmedical, Madeline Calfas. “Adaptogens are herbs that can help the body to adapt to, cope with and endure stress. These herbs are safe and work in a gentle manner to help the way that your adrenal hormones respond to what is known as general adaptation syndrome,” she adds.
Founder of My Tribe Type Amanda Daniel adds, “Adaptogens are plants, herbs, roots, berries and mushrooms that may assist the body to modulate or ‘hack’ its stress response and they can help balance hormones. They are non-toxic and have been used by ancient cultures for hundreds of years.”
"Adaptogens are an incredibly useful tool to help the body deal with and adapt to stress."
Madeline Calfas, Australian herbalist
Stress and your body
“Stress can actually be beneficial for the body,” notes Calfas. “It is an adaptive process, but it can become quite dangerous and even debilitating when it is a constant presence in our lives. Today’s 24/7 style of living means there is no downtime, and no opportunity for our adrenals to switch off.”
“The general adaptation syndrome is the stages your body goes through when undergoing stress,” Calfas adds. “There are three stages - alarm reaction, resistance and exhaustion. During the alarm reaction phase, the adrenal cortex (the outer part of the adrenal gland) produces and secretes adrenal steroids (corticosteroids). Chronic exposure to stress has the ability to result in the adrenal glands working overtime, and potentially leading to adrenal failure," explains Calfas. "Signs of adrenal failure include burnout, brain fog, apathy or lack of motivation, fatigue, weight gain and joint pain.”
How adaptogens work
As the name suggests, adaptogens help our bodies 'adapt' to physical and environmental stressors. “Adaptogens have properties that assist with balancing our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. Its function is to communicate the dance between our brain and our body’s stress response as well as affect many of our functions like, digestion, immune system, hormones, thyroid and energy,” explains Daniel.
The benefits of adaptogens
Adaptogens work by increasing the body's adaptation to external stressors. Calfas notes that there are three different types of adaptogens:
- Stimulating adaptogens that enhance mental performance, physical stamina and stimulate the body.
- Calming adaptogens that help to soothe and calm the body and adrenals when there are elevated levels of stress.
- Anti-inflammatory adaptogens whose primary effect may not be adaptogenic, but whose ability to reduce inflammation (a source of stress for the body) gives them the title of adaptogen.
Depending on the individual, Daniel says adaptogen supplements can take from two to eight weeks to work.
Types of adaptogenic herbs
There are many adaptogenic herbs out there and each one works in a different way and tackles a different set of symptoms. “Some of the most common adaptogens include herbs such as astragalus, Korean ginseng, shatavari, withania, gotu kola, rhodiola, reishi, schisandra, and passionflower,” says Calfas.
Here are just a few adaptogens and their benefits to get your started:
Korean ginseng - “It works by regulating stress via the endocrine and immune systems. It can be used for short-term treatment of stress, and over a longer period of time to minimise the impact on the ageing process,” says Calfas.
Ashwagandha - “It has both calming and stimulating effects,” notes Daniel. “Some people enjoy it before bed with warm milk and vanilla. It can be taken for better sleep and winding down, as an immunity and thyroid food, and for treating anti-anxiety, fatigue, PMS, as well as providing a libido boost.”
Reishi mushroom - “Reishi is a medicinal mushroom that is considered to be one of the great original adaptogens herbs. It is often used for symptoms of deficiency syndromes that are associated with tiredness and fatigue,” explains Calfas.
Schisandra - “It’s a calming nervine immune tonic that is mildly stimulating and great for focus and mental performance,” says Daniel. “It also supports the liver and detoxification.”
When it comes to choosing the right adaptogen, Calfas recommends talking to your practitioner, naturopath and herbalist who can prescribe the best adaptogen for you and ensure there are no contraindications or drug/herb interactions.
“The primary aim of an adaptogen is to restore equilibrium and balance back to the body.”
Madeline Calfas, Australian herbalist
Who should take adaptogen supplements?
“Adaptogens can offer a safe and effective option for people under both acute and chronic stress, mental health issues and physical stress,” says Calfas. “They can be used in conjunction with conventional treatments, or as a stand-alone treatment.”
She adds, “Adaptogens are an incredibly useful tool to help the body deal with and adapt to stress. However, it is important that adaptogens are not used as a means to carry on with the current stressful situation.”
“Rather than using them as a way to work harder, work longer hours and maintain the current stress intensity, it is important that adaptogens be used in conjunction with other tools to help reduce the stress impact. If there isn’t any change to the stressor, then there is a real risk that the adaptogens may eventually be unable to help the body adapt to the stress.”
Adaptogens in skincare
While adaptogens are commonly taken as supplements to help the body manage stress, they can also work wonders on our skin when applied topically. “Stress affects our skin from the inside and the outside,” says Daniel, who notes that the high antioxidant profiles of adaptogens make them fantastic for the skin. “For centuries adaptogens have been used topically as healing poultices and healing treatments. They are an organic beauty treatment that can assist with defending our skin against the oxidative ageing response while building stress protection.”
Calfas adds, “Generally speaking, oral adaptogens are used more for adapting the body to physiological and psychological stress, whereas topical applications are used for skin stressors including acne lesions and can help with free radical damage and skin healing."
5 adaptogen products to try:
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