I remember walking into the clinic on the first day of my apprenticeship in Chinese medicine. I walked into the old style clinic replete with plants, vaguely plant-like smells, and a serene Buddha. As I looked around the place that was going to be my second home for the next 3-4 years, I was immediately drawn to the rows and rows of dried herbs in large glass jars sitting on shelves in the dimly lit rear of the clinic.
There were so many (and they were all labeled in Chinese). I was intrigued and more than a little overwhelmed.
There was so much to learn in those first few months. Different words, different theories, a whole different way of thinking about health and how the body works. I learned to take careful histories, the intricacies of diagnosis, finding points and inserting acupuncture needles, and prescribing herbal formulas.
In the rare spare moments, I hung out with the herbs. My teacher encouraged me to take time with them, learn about each one, and get to know them.
My immediate favorites were the group of herbs called the adaptogens (this is a western term, not an Eastern one). We often referred to them as tonic herbs. They were a wonder to me. They could calm a person who was stressed or energize a person who was fatigued. It was as if the herbs knew what the patient needed and used their energy to “normalize” them.
Ginseng, Gotu Kola, reishi mushrooms…became my good friends.
Women (and men) have been using herbs and plants to improve their skin for all of recorded history and probably since the dawn of time. Every culture seems to have its favorites, and a few of these cross cultural lines and have been widely used around the world for eons.
Herbs can be used for many different skin conditions and, correctly combined, can treat many more. These are the medicinal herbs of Chinese medical and Ayurvedic dermatology.
Tonic or adapotgenic herbs are sometimes used in formulas to deal with skin problems, but they are more often used in formulas to make skin look its best and healthiest especially as age begins to leave its mark on your face.
What are adaptogenic herbs?
The term “adaptogen” was first used by Russian scientists in the 1940’s, but they’ve been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for millennia. To be called an adaptogen, a plant has to be:
- Non-toxic when taken in normal amounts
- Help the body to adapt or normalize function across a variety of bodily functions
- Help the body smooth out the effects of stress, no matter which way the stress response goes
These herbs help balance the body, calm the mind, help with the anxiety and depression associated with stress, or the fatigue. In Asia, they are considered to the herbs of longevity, vitality, and healthy aging.
There are many plants that act as adaptogens and you’ve probably heard of some of the most popular ones: ginseng, ashwaganda, reishi mushrooms, rhodiola, shizandra.
Adaptogens for skin health
I can’t think of an organ that’s routinely subjected to more external stress than your skin. Sun, wind, snow, rain, pollution, dry heat, cold are constantly assaulting it. While the skin is beautifully designed to deal with outside insults, it can always use a little help.
Add to that how your skin reacts to internal stressors- emotional stress, dietary stress, lack of sleep, allergies- and you have a good case for using adaptogens in your skin care.
Chronic stress is bad for you and bad for your skin. You know how you look after a particularly stressful period? Not great, right?
Stress hormones (like cortisol) coursing through your body for long periods of time cause dark circles under your eyes, breakouts, inflammation, irritation and redness, collagen breakdown, and fine lines and wrinkles. It can contribute dry or flaky skin. It can also make existing skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, roasacea and acne worse.
There are lots of stress reduction techniques that can help: meditation, exercise, breathing, yoga, mindfulness practice.
Taking adaptogenic herbs has been shown to help too (and have centuries of empiric evidence behind them).
Delivering adaptogens directly to your skin can help too (also centuries of empiric evidence behind them).
Both Chinese and Ayurvedic dermatology use adaptogenic herbs that the skin is particularly fond of. Using these herbs in skincare products can help the skin’s appearance by calming it and delaying changes that happen in your skin’s appearance and function over the course of time.
Some of the best adaptogenic or tonic herbs for your skin are gotu kola, reishi mushrooms, ashwaganda, licorice root, gingko, ginseng, and green tea.
Gotu Kola is a skin superstar
Gotu Kola has been used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. It is used internally as an adaptogen/tonic and is known for boosting memory, offsetting stress, balancing all three doshas (Ayurveda), and promoting longevity.
In Chinese medicine it’s often referred to as the “the fountain of life.”
Turns out, gotu kola does great things for your skin as well, especially nourishing and promoting firmer, tighter skin, and a healthy glow.
A more modern explanation of why gotu kola is so effective for skin is the amino acids, anti-oxidants, peptides, and triterpeniods that are packed into this little plant.
Diana Ralys owner of Radiance Wellness Spa in Santa Monica, CA explains:
Triterpenoids, which play a role in plants’ self-defense mechanisms, are part of why gotu kola is so beneficial to the skin. “Studies have shown that triterpenoids are responsible for stimulating collagen synthesis,” says Ralys. “Gotu kola is also known to contain vitamins B and C, as well as phytonutrients like flavonoids, volatile oils, tannins and polyphenol. These components help promote wound healing, and provide antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.”
Love gotu kola.
Herbs are best combined for the maximum effect
Even as good as gotu kola is, it’s rare that one “superstar” ingredient gives big results. The magic happens when star ingredients are skillfully combined with other ingredients.
In a good formula, you’ll see several ingredients from different categories that work together for a synergistic effect. It’s similar to how ingredients in a recipe make something more and better together than on their own. The brownies are so much better than bitter chocolate or flour on their own.
Still in love
I still love adaptogens and it turns out they're as good for your skin as they are for your body. Which is why they are in every product at SunWindSnow.
These days we use standardized herbal extracts for clean, efficient and effective skincare. Every once in a while, though, I love to go over to the herb jars and hang out with my old friends.
One of the things that makes SunWindSnow formulations different is how we combine ancient herbs with cutting edge botanical technology to make proven, clean, effective skin care products.
Want to learn more about clean natural skincare? Visit us at SunWindSnow and take the skin personality quiz today.