You read about them regularly, hear about them nonstop and would be hard-pressed to find beauty and wellness products that don't tout the properties of these sometimes hard-to-pronounce ingredients. We're talking about adaptogens and all that they have to offer.
But before we get into the of-the-moment adaptogen, ashwagandha (it’s scientifically known as withania somnifera and sometimes goes by Indian winter cherry or Indian ginseng), let’s get acquainted with what adaptogens are, how they work and why they should be on constant rotation in your beauty and wellness routine.
Adaptogens are substances belonging to a special class of herbs comprised of a blend of amino acids, vitamins, and herbs that assist the body’s ability to respond to stress or a reaction by reducing cortisol levels, in turning help the body to modulate stress and create balance. Originally used as an ancient form of Indian healing and medicine, today, adaptogens are all about alleviating stress and instilling a state of calmness, a major necessity in our fast-paced, hectic world. “Ashwagandha is the main adaptogen to help the body and mind deal with external stressors. It allows us to adapt to the current situations we are in while supporting our immune and nervous systems and adrenal health,” says Daniela García, wellness expert at The Joy Alchemist. “With modern life, we are overstimulated, overly stressed and we barely connect with nature to help us decompress! So, the support from natural plants has become pivotal in our health,” she adds. “Here, in the western world, we are awakening to the damaging side effects of pharmaceuticals, so it is inevitable to tap into these ancient roots, tools, and rituals that offer complete support with no side effects to our health.”
About half a dozen herb-based adaptogens—ashwagandha, mucuna, moringa, tulsi, shilajit, and Triphala to name a few—have roots in Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine that was practiced around 6000 B.C. “These herbs were used to support body immune functions, digestion, endurance, focus, and overall support for well-being,” says García. “Each adaptogen has its own specific benefits. However, adaptogens, in general, support our body to adapt and balance whatever needs to be regulated. Each one acts differently for each person based on what the specific imbalances and needs are.” Because adaptogens have a positive effect on stress related to environmental changes, they are also often recommended as a natural option for treating stresses that the body internally harbors, including insomnia and even mild cases of anxiety.
According to Nanda Stephan, founder of Charm Aesthetics in Clinton, NJ, ashwagandha is by far one of the most note-worthy adaptogens. “It’s the crown jewel of the 5,000-year-old system of Ayurveda and is getting a boost from human clinical studies that are being conducted today,” she says. Esthetician and herbalist Negin Niknejad adds that ashwagandha, which translates to "smell of the horse” in Sanskrit, is becoming more mainstream due to the fact it is a strengthening herb that raises testosterone levels (it is suitable for both females and males). “It is strengthening and nourishing to the nervous system, which makes it an adaptogen as well,” she explains. “There’s really nothing I dislike about it except the minor fact that it is in the nightshade family and nightshade plants (darkly colored vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers) are not suitable for everyone's digestion system.”
Consumed either in pill form—that’s how it’s constituted in Hush & Hush's DeeplyRooted supplement—a liquid or as a finely milled powder, ashwagandha provides a multitude of benefits to the body. Stephan says this revered herb is poised to become more well-known as it combats the effects of today’s stresses and fatigue and provides enhanced vitality.
HOW IT WORKS
As New York dermatologist Josh Zeicher, MD, explains, “Ashwagandha extract has shown to lower both cortisol and CRP (C-reactive proteins) levels in stressed adults. It also exhibits antioxidant benefits.” Ashwagandha communicates to the body that stress is imposing a negative impact, in turn helping to normalize the functionality of the organs and body. In doing so, the herb helps strengthen the endocrine system, which controls hormone production. When an adaptogen, like ashwagandha, is introduced to the endocrine system, it impacts the functionality of the stress hormone cortisol. “It reduces stress, boosts the immune system and, one of the miracles of adaptogenic herbs, is that it aids the body in handling future stress,” says Niknejad. “Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha work on the health of the adrenals, which manage our bodies hormonal response to change and stress. We are a slave to our hormones!” A study published in the Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association reported that chronically stressed adults that supplemented with ashwagandha had about a 30% reduction in cortisol levels, on average.
Beyond stress, “Ashwagandha has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and is highly prized as a remedy to strengthen hair and control hair loss,” explains Stephan. “Stress is a known cause of hair loss, but thanks to the herb’s ability to offset stress, both the hair itself and the volume of the hairs can be preserved,” she says. “The antioxidants in ashwagandha are known to treat the corrosion of tissue and stimulate melanin, therefore helping to delay premature graying.”
“Collectively, the anti-inflammatory effects of ashwagandha may help explain its benefits in treating hair thinning,” says Dr. Zeichner. “The idea is that by reducing inflammation and minimizing hormonal effects, ashwagandha can help the follicles function to the best of their ability.”
However, it is important to know that results are not immediate--they can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to be noticeable, which is why compliance is so important. (Every expert we interviewed for this story recommended sticking to a diligent regimen for at least three months before noticing the effects.)
The herb’s beauty benefits aren’t limited just to stress and hair growth. In fact, Stephan says ashwagandha is a great anti-aging tool for the skin, too, since it protects and improves it by blocking free radicals. “It assists in the retention of moisture while boosting DHEA, a precursor to both testosterone and estrogen and stimulates the production of vital compounds and proteins for healthy skin hydration. DHEA and estrogen help keep skin youthful by stimulating the production of collagen. Increased collagen production helps to restore lost elasticity, repair tissue and maintains firmness.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
No matter what you choose to use ashwagandha for, the super herb has a place in just about everyone’s beauty routine. From reducing stress to getting your hair back on track to restoring elasticity, this time-tested herb proves to be powerful and results-oriented time and time again.