What Are Adaptogens? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Photo: ©Gabriel Bucataru/ Stocksy

The beauty world is chock-full of trendy buzzwords, and the latest I’ve been puzzling over is “adaptogen.” It’s a word that gets thrown around when describing plants I can’t pronounce (see: ashwagandha, reishi) on the labels of supplements and beauty products. If you are also mystified by what adaptogens are and what they do, keep reading.

According to the juice-bar-turned-wellness-empire Moon Juice, adaptogens are plants that “help expand your body’s capacity to handle mental, physical and emotional stress.” To put it another way, adaptogens are believed to promote homeostasis, which you may remember from biology class as the ability of the body to maintain a stable internal state—even when the outside world changes. An example of homeostasis we’ve all experienced is getting hot: When we get overheated, a chain reaction of signals causes our bodies to sweat and flush so that our core temperature stays around 98.6 degrees. (Next time you get embarrassingly sweaty on a hot day, thank your body for having your back.)

So the idea is that adaptogens help our bodies maintain balance in the face of stress. Today, the leading theory seems to be that adaptogens work with the adrenal glands (which produce hormones like adrenaline and cortisol) to help your bodily processes stay steady when you’re under stress. Granted, not a whole lot of research has been published yet about the efficacy of adaptogens. But long before modern scientists got wind of adaptogens, practitioners of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine were all about them. Read on for some adaptogens with a history of use in traditional healing that are having a moment today.

While adaptogens might not be a quick fix for stressful situations, some do show promise for mitigating the effects that chronic stress can have on your body over time. They also may help promote overall wellbeing and manage issues like inflammation, anxiety and fatigue. If you’re looking to incorporate adaptogens into your routine, check out a few of the Beautylish team’s adaptogenic faves below.