Ashwaganda and reishi and maca, oh my. These buzzy ingredients are all the rage, both in the wellness and beauty space. So, what are they exactly? What can they do? Should you be taking them just because every Insta influencer says you should? Don’t worry, we got you. Consider this your adaptogens crash course.
What is an adaptogen?
“In the simplest terms, adaptogens are herbs or plants that help your body adapt calmly to stress, while also enhancing immunity and balancing hormones,” explains Giselle Wasfie, D.A.C.M., founder of Remix Acupuncture + Integrative Health in Chicago. Most are taken in a supplement form, though there are also some that can be eaten or brewed into tea or coffee-like substances, adds Chinese & Integrative medicine specialist Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, AP. (They’re also becoming increasingly popular topical skincare ingredients, but more on that in a minute.)
What can they do?
Really, the question is what can’t they do? “Adaptogens are an incredible tool for anyone dealing with stress, illness, or general wellbeing,” says Dr. Trattner. So, basically anyone and everyone — we have yet to meet someone who isn’t sick, stressed, or wants to feel better in general. Depending on which one you’re talking about — and we’ll get to specifics — adaptogens can do everything from helping with female reproductive issues to improving liver function to reducing inflammation to boosting energy.
Why are they so popular all of a sudden?
You may just be hearing about adaptogens, likely thanks to social media, but they’ve been around for a long time. Adaptogens have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, as well as in other cultural healing traditions, points out Dr. Trattner. “They’re gaining popularity now because western medicine has no cure except pharmaceutical drugs to deal with the pressures of modern living. These remedies have been tried-and-true for years, and modern society is now looking at tools from the past to help cope with today’s stressful living,” she adds. Wasfie attributes their popularity to their efficacy, too: “They actually work. People can see and/or feel tangible results when using them.”
What’s the difference between ingesting them and putting them on my skin?
Adaptogens are popping up in everything from latte mix to night creams, but if you look at the historical use of adaptogens, specifically in Chinese medicine, the internal and external are connected, notes Wasfie. “If you treat something internally, it can also benefit externally in some capacity,” she says. Still, sometimes using them topically can have more of a superficial effect, whereas ingesting them has more of a systemic effect, she adds.
What are some of the ones I should look for?
Before we give you a laundry list, a quick caveat: Both experts we spoke to note the importance of talking to a pro if you’re considering taking adaptogens. See a licensed doctor of Chinese Medicine, a naturopath, or an Ayurvedic doctor, who will know about their different nuances and can advise how and when to take them, cautions Dr. Trattner. For example, some are best taken at certain times of the day, some can’t be taken together, etc.
Wasfie recommends seeing an herbalist, who can help customize an individual formula just for you. That being said, a few of the most common ones include: Ashwaganda (cortisol reducing), Ginseng (energy boosting), Rhodiola (anti-anxiety), Maca (for female problems), Holy Basil (to improve liver function), and Astragalus (immunity strengthening). On the skincare front, look for what Wasfie calls “power mushrooms,” reishi and cordyceps, which help repair skin and assist in the production of collagen, she says.