Ep 176 – The Rogue Pharmacist: The Power of Adaptogens

adaptogens found in skin care

As the name implies, adaptogens help the skin adapt. Like many other ingredients, adaptogens, an industry buzzword, are known to reduce stress, target oxidation, and even increase blood flow. On this episode of The Rogue Pharmacist, Benjamin Knight Fuchs, RPh, discusses what adaptogens are and why estheticians should know all about them.

Associated Skin Care Professionals (ASCP) presents The Rogue Pharmacist with Benjamin Knight Fuchs, R.Ph. This podcast takes an enlightening approach to supporting licensed estheticians in their pursuit to achieve results-driven skin care treatments for their clients. You can always count on us to share professional skin care education, innovative techniques, and the latest in skin science.


About Ben Fuchs:

Benjamin Knight Fuchs is a registered pharmacist, nutritionist, and skin care chemist with 35 years of experience developing pharmacy-potent skin health products for estheticians, dermatologists, and plastic surgeons. Ben’s expert advice gives licensed estheticians the education and skin science to better support the skin care services performed in the treatment room while sharing insights to enhance clients’ at-home skin care routines.

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0:01:33.3 Maggie Staszcuk: Hello, and welcome to ASCP and The Rogue Pharmacist with Benjamin Knight Fuchs. In each episode, we will explore how internal and external factors can impact the skin. I am Maggie Staszcuk, ASCP's Education Program Manager, and joining me is your favorite skin care formulate and pharmacist, Ben Fuchs. 


0:01:50.2 Ben Fuchs: Hi, Maggie. Good to see you again. 


0:01:52.1 MS: Good to see you. So we're talking about adaptogens today and they are a buzzword for many reasons, and estheticians may have heard this regarding CBD and skin care. So what are adaptogens and why should estheticians know about them?  


0:02:08.4 BF: Well, the key to understanding adaptogens is in the word. An adaptogen is a molecule or a substance that helps you adapt. And by adapt, basically we're talking about responding to stress. There's two kinds of active chemicals in the body. The most common active chemicals in the body we call nutrients. Nutrients are chemicals or molecules that the body uses to make things happen, to make us secretions or to form various compounds in the body to facilitate chemical reactions. And back when they started studying nutrition in the late 19th century, in the beginning of the 20th century, they suspected there were molecules in foods that were so important for the body that if they were missing, diseases would happen. And they started to explore these things, and that's when they started to discover the vitamins, and they came up with a list of vitamins, and vitamins are technically defined as substances that are essential to life. If you don't have a vitamin, eventually you'll get a disease, and then eventually you'll die. 


0:03:03.8 BF: But what they missed was that there were also compounds in the body or compounds in foods that could be used by the body that weren't necessarily used to make things happen, weren't necessarily used to produce substances in the body, collagen, for example, or skin cells, for example, but still had a role to play, and that role that these molecules played while not essential in the sense that they would cause death if they were missing, were important for helping the body deal with life. And they found that these molecules were rich in plants. They always knew the plants... Throughout history, we've known that plants, vegetables and fruits were important for health, but when they discovered the vitamins, they kind of stopped, they didn't explore further, probably because these molecules were so tiny, we didn't have an ability to detect them. And these molecules that were important for the well-being of the organism, while not essential, were still very important, got the name adaptogens because they helped the body adapt even though they weren't used in the chemistry of making a body, they performed more of a protective role. 


0:04:05.1 BF: And that's really what an adaptogen is, it's a molecule that isn't necessary for life, you can live without adaptogens. It's a molecule that's not used to make substances in the body, nonetheless, it helps improve the quality of the life of the organism, that's what an adaptogen is. Not absolutely necessary, but it helps act as a stress modifier, it helps the body adapt to the vicissitudes, the ups and downs that occur in life, the attacks for example, from solar radiation or perhaps from bacteria or parasites. It kinda helps the body deal. And what's so fascinating about adaptogens is they're like gifts from plants, it's kind of like plants helping us deal with life. It's like fruits and vegetables, yeah, they have vitamins and they have proteins, and they have amino acids, and they have essential fatty acids and the things that build our bodies, but they also give us an extra gift, the gift of molecules that help us deal, and that's what adaptogens are. They're molecules that help us deal. 


0:05:02.3 MS: So a couple of questions for you. You're saying that the body doesn't need it, it's not used to create the body, but the body does use it. 


0:05:12.4 BF: Yes, exactly. The body uses it to protect itself, mostly to protect itself from oxidation, from rusting. So when a substance in the body starts to break down, it releases oxidative compounds, things called ROSs, reactive oxygen species, and these oxidative compounds can contaminate, if you will, the rest of the body and cause it rust will. Well, adaptogens have an anti-oxidant property, rust protective property, and that's one way they work, but one of the main ways they work is they act at the level of the gene, they up-regulate, they turn on genes that are responsible for protection. So while that adaptogen itself is not absolutely necessary, its effects are tremendously beneficial, and this nature of... Called epigenetics, this ability that they have to regulate genes, to turn on genes that are responsible for helping the body cope is really, really important, even though it's not essential, so you can live without an adaptogen, but you can live much better with an adaptogen. 


0:06:09.4 MS: Interesting. So adaptogen is a new word for me, and you're saying it's a molecule or it's a compound, but would we not refer to it as a vitamin, for instance?  


0:06:23.1 BF: No, a vitamin... And that's a really important distinction. A vitamin is defined as a molecule that you must have. In the world of nutrition, we say it's essential, essentiality means must have. For example, air, air is essential. Without air, you die. Without vitamin C, you die. Without vitamin E, you die. Without vitamin D or vitamin K or all the eight different vitamins, say six different vitamins, the B complex being one, considering it as one vitamin, vitamin C, the B complex and then vitamins D, E, A and K, you die. First, you have a disease, a deficiency disease like rickets for vitamin D or pellagra for a niacin or scurvy for vitamin C, and then eventually you die. So you need to have vitamins. Without them, you die. They're essential. There are also amino acids that are essential. There's also two fatty acids that are essential, and these nutrients that we say are essential and the minerals are essential, are said to be essential because you die without them. Adaptogens, they don't fall into that category, so they're not must-haves, there's no essentiality to an adaptogen, but that doesn't mean they're not important. You may not die without one, but you're not gonna have... 


0:07:32.8 BF: You're gonna be more susceptible to the damage caused by stress, and we know that stress is associated with diseases, so while missing an adaptogen isn't necessarily gonna cause a disease, the stresses of life may accrue without adaptogens and that can cause diseases. And of course, we know that stresses, burdens on the body are really the ultimate cause of disease and the ultimate cause of breakdown and the ultimate cause of aging. So you can live a lot better life with adaptogens, these gifts from the plant world, basically things like flavonoids, you probably heard that term, like bioflavonoids, those are adaptogens, you can live without flavonoids, but you can little up better with them. They're basically compounds that have a shape that the body responds to in a positive way, not necessarily integral to biochemistry, but very positive for the life of the organism. 


0:08:21.3 MS: Is there anybody who should avoid adaptogens?  


0:08:24.5 BF: No, they're completely... This what's so cool about these things, they're completely benign, they're completely non-toxic. In the world of medicine that we're immersed in, we're used to drugs that have properties that we can use for improving health, perhaps. Now, I'm a pharmacist and I don't really see drugs as being beneficial to the body except in the short term, but they all have toxic profiles. So while you may need a high blood pressure medicine or anti-hypertensive to lower your blood pressure in the short term, there's gonna be a toxicity that's associated with it, there's a price to be paid with these molecules. With adaptogens, you get all of these wonderful anti-stress benefits, all of these life management benefits with zero, zippo toxicity, that's unheard of in the world of medicine or in the world of pharmacy or pharmacology. So no, there's no reason why you wouldn't want an adaptogen. There's no limit to the amount of adaptogens that you can benefit from, and the more adaptogens you have in your life, the better it's gonna be, the easier it's gonna be for your body to adapt. 


0:09:22.9 MS: So when we're talking about skin care and having adaptogens in our skin care, some of the things we've discussed before is the ability for the skin to absorb or use those ingredients. Is there an issue there?  


0:09:34.7 BF: Yeah. Because an adaptogen basically works inside of a cell, so the cell is going to have to be able to access that adaptogen that you apply topically, and that's not necessarily easy to do, so you have to somehow have a base or a vehicle that will carry that adaptogen through the stratum corneum to the lower levels of the skin, and then you have to have some kind of delivery system to get that adaptogen into the cell. So they may work, you have to pound the adaptogen in, but they're certainly not... They don't have the same kind of vital nature that a vitamin does, for example. There's no adaptogens that are as important as vitamin C for the skin, or is vitamin E for the skin. So an adaptogen topically may... If you wanna throw everything at the skin, but the kitchen sink, that's the saying, then you might wanna use some adaptogens on top of the skin, but they're not gonna perform the same kind of benefits that say vitamin C will or retinoids will or even vitamin D or vitamin K. So if you want everything, adaptogens are great. 


0:10:38.4 BF: But you can't really isolate adaptogens, you have to put a whole ginseng, you have to put an extractive ginseng or an extract of CBD on the skin. I don't know necessarily that it'll be beneficial to put a specific adaptogen from a plant, specific molecule on your skin to get the adaptogenic benefits, and if you did, those benefits wouldn't be anywhere near as important as a vitamin. 


0:11:00.1 MS: To use CBD or ginseng as an example, there are skin care products that have those ingredients, are they adaptogenic?  


0:11:09.8 BF: Theoretically, they would have adaptogenic benefits if you could get those molecules out of the ginseng, out of the extract into the vehicle, your cream or your lotion or whatever product you're using, and then have some kind of system for delivering those adaptogens into the lower levels of the skin where the cells are, the living cells are, because an adaptogen is only gonna be beneficial for living cells. If a cell is not alive, it's not gonna have any benefit from an adaptogen, so you gotta somehow get to those living cells in order to to get the benefits from it. It wouldn't hurt, but there's more important things probably for the skin than adaptogens. 


0:11:42.9 MS: Yeah, and that makes sense. So generally speaking, whether it's topical or internal, what skin care benefits are we getting from adaptogens?  


0:11:51.5 BF: Stress management. So for example, we know that there are certain ingredients that are important because they stress the skin, for example, alpha-hydroxy acids, those are important by virtue of the fact that they are stressing the skin. We often talk about exercising the skin, right? So exercising the skin is exfoliating the skin, kind of improving your skin cells' ability to flow off, to desquamate, but that can create a certain stress on the skin as well. So in conjunction with a stressful ingredient like a glycolic acid or a lactic acid or perhaps even a retinoid, which exerts its benefits, you wanna have that kind of stress using something like CBD or using something like ginseng can help protect the skin from the stress of these ingredients that you really want to stress the skin to sort of mitigate or soften the blow, if you will. So you can still get the benefits of the stressor without having too much stress. 


0:12:45.2 BF: So adaptogens kind of adjust, they know if there's too much, they lower, if there is too little, they raise. So with a stressful ingredient like a retinoid or an alpha-hydroxy acid, using an adaptogen with it may mitigate some of the stresses without reducing the effectiveness of the stressor. 


0:13:05.1 MS: And you had mentioned the adaptogens fight against oxidation, which... 


0:13:09.4 BF: Yes, they're oxidants, that's one of their main roles. 


0:13:13.1 MS: Okay, so in my mind, that would be like anti-aging and preventing pigmentation and all those kinds of things?  


0:13:18.5 BF: Absolutely, yes. Now, pigmentation is kind of interesting, and I just did that seminar in the last month. Pigmentation is kind of interesting because pigmentation is something that the body wants to do. When we pigment, that's something that the body is using to protect itself. Melanin is a protective molecule. So you wouldn't necessarily stop pigmentation because when the body wants to pigment, it wants to pigment, it's hard to hack into that, just tell the body not to pigment, but what you could do is you could possibly reduce the unstable pigmentation. The pigmentation process is jumpy when we're under stress, when our body is producing a lot of stress-inducing compounds because of life stresses or hormonal stresses or toxicity stresses, you may be able to calm down a jumpy pigmentation system, for example, by using adaptogens topically, but I wouldn't say that you could use an adaptogen as an anti-pigmenting agent. 


0:14:10.9 MS: What is the top adaptogen?  


0:14:14.8 BF: Probably ginseng. 


0:14:16.9 MS: Ginseng? Really?  


0:14:17.0 BF: Yeah, probably ginseng. 


0:14:17.3 MS: Okay. 


0:14:17.8 BF: That's the most famous one, that's the one that got... That got a lot... I don't know if you remember, but about 20 or 30 years ago, that was being used a lot, was being talked about a lot as a tonic, and that's really what adaptogens are. They are tonics. A tonic is something that you can take to help you feel better or help you form better or help you function better in life. That's really what adaptogens are, they're tonics and probably the most famous one I would say is ginseng, Siberian ginseng probably or Korean ginseng. It's the genetic... The real benefit to adaptogens involves a gene, up regulating genetics, the genetics that are important for stress management. So when we're under stress, our body response to stress, specifically cells respond to that stress by turning on genetics that will produce proteins, genes that will produce proteins that will help you deal with the stress. Well, adaptogens support that process, they support the process of genes responding to stresses, they enhance the genetic response to stresses. So they're not doing anything themselves necessarily at the level of the gene, but they're helping support the genetic response to those stresses. 


0:15:21.5 BF: And technically that's called epigenetics or epigenetic factors, and that's really where adaptogens shine, and that's why you wanna be eating... Fruits and vegetables should form the bulk of most of our caloric intake, I believe, because of their adaptogens. Animals, as important as things like milk are and eggs are, there's not really adaptogenic compounds in those kinds of foods, in the animal foods, it's the plant kingdom that gives us adaptogens and also the fungal kingdom gives us adaptogens. Fungus, mushrooms are really, really adaptogenic. 


0:15:49.3 MS: That concludes our show for today, and we thank you for listening, but if you just can't get enough of Ben Fuchs, the ASCP Rogue Pharmacist, you can listen to his syndicated radio program at brightsideben.com. For more information on this episode or for ways to connect with Ben Fuchs or to learn more about ASCP, check out the show notes. 


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