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The role of adaptogens in skin care

….if any! “Adaptogen” may sound scientific, but it’s not a term used in science or medicine.

According to Wikipedia, “As of 2020, the term was not accepted in pharmacological, physiological, or mainstream clinical practices in the European Union”. Also, according to Wikipedia, “adaptogens or adaptogenic substances are used in herbal medicine for the purported stabilization of physiological processes and promotion of homeostasis”(purported as in “there is no there, there.”) 

Incidentally, what do you know about science in the former Soviet Union? Dictatorships are not good for science, as scientists are human and will try to “find” results that comply with the dictator’s opinion. For example, the Soviet Union invented Lysenkoism, a fake science version of genetics. The problem with fake science is that it doesn’t work, i.e., it doesn’t have predictive power, and it will not help improve life or eliminate disease. On the other hand, scientists working for the soviet regime got to keep their heads, so maybe the adaptogenic theory was useful to survive the stress of communism (Google “Doctor’s Plot in 1953”).

Figure: The fake science of Lysenko didn’t lead to plenty but starvation.

Adaptogens is one of the pseudo-scientific words used in word salads. You may be surprised that this concept was started in the Soviet Union by a toxicologist named Nikolai Lazarev. During World War II, various stimulants were given to pilots and members of submarine crews; the aim was a pill that could improve mental and physical performance. The Nazis bypassed phytochemical research: they provided their troops with methamphetamine (a.k.a. crystal meth), commercial name Pervitin.  Later on, cocaine was added to the formulation to add euphoria, increase potency through drug interaction, and reinforce addiction.

Lazarev used the term in 1947 to describe substances that increase resistance to stress. Of course, the Soviet Union was a pioneer in these studies. The first studies on the stimulating effects of Schisandra chinensis (magnolia berry) were published in Soviet Union WWII military journals; their scientists screened plants searching for “adaptogenic” effects. The objective was to develop drugs to increase the human capacity to survive in situations of intense or prolonged stress while maintaining the ability to perform physical and mental work

…Conversely, at Skin Actives

My background is in botany and plant physiology. I later moved into biochemistry and molecular biology and used all of that to understand how different chemicals influence skin biology. When I study an ingredient, I look for the scientific evidence supporting its use. I like it best when there is a clear mechanism of action, but I will settle for a clear benefit to the skin or the underlying tissue. The effect has to be measurable, and the chemical must be safe for human use.




Panossian A, Wikman G. (2010) Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 19;3(1):188-224. doi: 10.3390/ph3010188. PMID: 27713248; PMCID: PMC3991026.

Szopa A, Ekiert R, Ekiert H. (2017) Current knowledge of Schisandra chinensis (Turcz.) Baill. (Chinese magnolia vine) as a medicinal plant species: a review on the bioactive components, pharmacological properties, analytical and biotechnological studies. Phytochem Rev. 16:195-218. doi: 10.1007/s11101-016-9470-4. Epub 2016 May 12. PMID: 28424569; PMCID: PMC5378736.

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