What are adaptogens?

A plethora of highly sophisticated (and hard to pronounce) herbs are now at the very forefront of beauty and wellness innovation – but what are they? And can they help us to achieve true mind/body balance? Perdita Nouril investigates


What are adaptogens?

Blueberries, almonds, kiwis and beetroot – you’re probably au fait with all these nutrient-rich superfoods. Rhodiola, ashwagandha, astragalus and Siberian ginseng, however, aren’t likely to ring quite as many bells.

Fortunately, this is all set to change thanks to a growing body of influential beauty and wellness brands that are tapping into the power of these ancient herbs. Known as adaptogens, their brilliance has, for a long time, been recognised by two of the most ancient medical sciences in the world – traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda – but by and large, they’ve missed out most of us Westerners.

But, as interest in these types of practices grows (Psychologies’ health and wellness director Eminé Ali Rushton is a stalwart fan of Ayurveda, and last year authored The Body Balance in a bid to decode the science for the 21st century), along with the commonplace dissatisfaction that is often felt when relying solely on modern medicine, people are becoming increasingly willing to try natural alternatives. Getting sick, and then ‘curing’ complaints has become old hat, and the wellness movement has triggered an interest into how we can support the whole body, instead of focusing on how to improve one particular organ or system.

‘We are moving away from a reductionist approach to something that is much more holistic. Prevention, not cure, is the new standard for living well and adaptogens are key to doing this because they nourish, regulate and strengthen the whole body,’ explains Henrietta Norton, founder of bespoke supplement brand Wild Nutrition.

Nature that nurtures

So how do adaptogens sustain our health? The clue, of course, is in the name – they have the unique ability to ‘adapt’ their function according to your body’s specific requirements. Where adaptogens grow is paramount to explaining why they have developed this highly impressive ability. They tend to flourish in inhospitable habitats; think arid deserts, cold mountains, or dry, desolate terrain. In order to survive in these locations, they have developed particular compounds in their physical form, which convey a resistance to environmental stressors. And luckily for
us, when we consume these compounds, the benefits are transferred – up to a point.

There are two main key qualities that set adaptogens apart from other herbs or plants, explains Sebastian Pole, founder of Pukka Herbs and leading Ayurvedic expert. ‘They are able to normalise body systems while being non-specific, meaning they can act on multiple parts of
the body simultaneously. They are also non-toxic and safe to use over a long period of time.’

Treating common ailments

Think of them as a thermostat, explains Elouise Bauskis, NutriCentre herbalist and naturopath. ‘When the thermostat senses that the room temperature is too high, it brings it down; when it’s too low, it brings it up,’ she says. ‘Adaptogenic herbs can calm you down or boost your energy at the same time without over-stimulation, helping your body to achieve a state of homeostasis; your body’s natural ability to balance internal and external stress.’

As a result of highly pressured 21st century life, many of us exist in a constant state of negative homeostasis and when that happens, our anabolic and catabolic systems can’t function – leading to fatigue, depression, insomnia, anxiety, weight imbalance and low libido. An abundance of research suggests these common ailments can be treated with the healing power of adaptogens.

Initial studies were carried out by the former USSR in a bid to enhance the productivity and performance of soldiers, athletes and workers without the use of dangerous stimulants. It was taken so seriously that by the 1960s, the study of adaptogens became a field of biomedical research in its own right. The two branches of research that followed were the routine screening of plants for biologically active substances and research into the effects of stress. By the mid-1980s, Russian scientists had already published around 1,500 studies on the numerous health benefits of adaptogenic herbs, with similar findings later coming from Germany, Japan and India.

From plant to product

Today, this groundbreaking research has been the driving force behind many brands’ decision to include adaptogens in their products. Ashwagandha root has consistently exhibited the ability to significantly reduce cortisol levels and improve a person’s resistance towards stress. ‘For women, it’s a particularly great all-rounder as it supports female hormone cycles helping with PMS symptoms,’ reveals Norton, who has made ashwagandha root the main ingredient in her Wild Nutrition Bespoke Woman Daily Multi-Nutrient, £30.

Pukka Herbs, meanwhile, has recently taken on a herbal research specialist and has found that the process of supercritical extraction enables Pukka to draw out a higher level of a plant’s key medicinal constituents. Its Wholistic Shatavari, £15.95, is packed with highly concentrated
shatavari root, which is also a hormonal harmoniser but has the added benefit of being able to help with menopause and sleep problems associated with perimenopause.

Present in both nutritional supplements and beauty formulations is rhodiola. Nutritionist Gabriela Peacock has harnessed its powers in her Restore Me nutrition programme to help boost energy. It’s renowned for fighting depression, as it increases the sensitivity of your neurons (thinking cells) to the presence of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitters.

S5 Skincare, on the other hand, has included rhodiola in its Restore Cream, £39, and Balance Fluid, £39, because it reduces environmental stress by helping the skin adapt to temperature fluctuations. ‘Adaptogens are a game-changer in beauty, as they help your body to use its own resources and enable your skin’s cells to access more energy and utilise oxygen efficiently. In turn, the skin can be restored to its optimum level both in terms of functionality and appearance without the use of additional chemicals,’ explains acupuncturist John Tsagaris.

His latest SkinPointEight Age Adapt Face Mask (£120 for four), combines the innovative design of a fast-acting sheet mask with ginseng, astragalus and schizandra – adaptogenic herbs that protect skin from the cellular oxidative stress caused by pollution, facilitate detoxification and support production of collagen in deeper layers helping the skin to be firmer, elastic and rehydrated.

Siberian ginseng, liquorice and rhodiola are also at the heart of Russie Blanche skincare, which has married natural and scientific innovation to create its Cellular Youth Serum, £146, which helps deal with inflammation and collagen breakdown to reduce fine lines.

Adaptogens, in all of their chameleonic brilliance, are the ultimate bridge-builders – the inextricable link between nutrition, wellness and beauty, and the secret weapons of those brands that are wholeheartedly moving towards a truly holistic offering.

Photograph: Gallery Stock