By Rebecca Ambrose
It’s pretty much a given that we all have stress in our lives. The car won’t start, we’re running late for work, where in the world are the car keys, and we’ve misplaced our phone. Again! We all sometimes experience periods of low-level stress, but occasionally we can have an extremely stressful life event occur. Did you know the way our bodies respond to stress can have a profound effect on the condition and appearance of our skin? While both chronic and extreme stress takes a toll on our entire body, let’s take a look at how stress can affect the largest organ of our body: our skin.
Stress not only has the effect of making us feel pretty terrible, but it also causes a flood of hormones to release into our bodies. One of these hormones, cortisol, is often called the primary “stress hormone” because it’s one of the main hormones our body releases when our “fight or flight response” kicks in as a response to stress. The release of cortisol is not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps our bodies perform various functions, but when we have extended periods of high cortisol levels, it can become detrimental and can contribute to ailments such as anxiety, weight gain, sleep disorders, and hormonal imbalances which can lead to other issues such as hair loss, fertility problems, and acne, just to name a few. While there can be many things that lead to higher than normal cortisol levels such as certain medications, pituitary gland disorders, certain diseases, and even tumors in rare cases, chronic stress is one of the main factors in our adrenal glands releasing too much cortisol.
If your skin is already prone to acne, high cortisol levels can worsen breakouts. Cortisol, along with another hormone called androgen, can over-stimulate the production of our skin’s natural oil, sebum. When excess sebum combines with Cutibacterium acnes (formerly P. acnes bacteria) and dead skin cells in our hair follicles, they create inflammation, resulting in acne breakouts. This can become a vicious cycle, as acne flare-ups can lead to more stress when the resulting redness and hyperpigmentation lingers long after the actual cysts and pimples have healed. Talk about unfair!
Stress can also worsen other inflammatory skin conditions similar to acne such as rosacea, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, eczema, etc. Too much cortisol increases inflammation in the body, which in turn exacerbates these types of skin conditions. Again, it can become a chain reaction leading to even more stress, as patients can often experience anxiety and depression trying to deal with worsening dermal conditions. Inflammation can also impair different pathways the skin uses in wound healing and recovery, increasing the time it takes for skin to heal.
Chronic stress has also been linked to accelerated skin aging. We already know that all the fun stuff such as too much UV exposure, smoking, high alcohol consumption, too little sleep, etc. can affect the way our skin looks. But when we are under extreme stress, our bodies can respond in ways that result in premature aging. Chronic stress has been linked to shortening our telomeres, which act like little caps on our DNA, and that can lead to increased cell damage or death. Poor diet, especially one high in inflammatory foods like sugar and processed foods, has been linked to decreased cellular function in the layers of the skin, breaking down the collagen fibers and leading to wrinkles and skin laxity, as well as things like fluid retention and the dreaded undereye circles and bags. Stress can disrupt our sleep patterns, leading to a reduction in the amount of quality sleep we receive. During this deeper sleep, our skin switches into repair mode, helping to heal damage from oxidative stress we accumulate during the day, as well as building new collagen and elastin bundles. Plain and simple, when we don’t get good quality sleep, our skin suffers.
As overwhelming as all this can be, there are several different things that you can do to help negate the effects of chronic stress. Sometimes just thinking about making a change in our regular routine can feel like an insurmountable task, but just adopting one or two of these habits can help you feel better, and can open up the possibility of incorporating other healthy changes. As you start to see the physical and mental benefits of doing this, the more you realize how these techniques and practices are improving your quality of life and can lead to an improved sense of well-being.
One of the easiest ways to reduce stress might surprise you, and best of all, it’s free! Breathing is an involuntary function our bodies perform without the majority of us even giving it another thought. Unfortunately, when we become anxious or stressed, our breathing patterns change and deeper breaths turn into shorter, shallower breaths. Our sympathetic nervous system controls our fight-or-flight response, and when it’s activated our bodies respond with increased heartbeat, sweating, shallow breathing, etc. By focusing on our breath and changing the pattern to deeper, lung-filling breaths, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system which controls our body’s ability to calm down and relax. When we practice deep, abdominal breathing, our heart rate slows, our minds quiet down, and a sense of well-being replaces panic. There are several sources out there on the internet to access breathing exercises, and it’s one of the quickest ways we can reduce stress in our lives.
Exercise has long been touted as a way to improve health and well-being, but it also has the effect of releasing chemicals known as endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the body’s natural mood-lifters and can contribute to a more positive outlook on life, boosting a person’s sense of self-esteem. Regular exercise also has the effect of regulating various metabolic and psychological processes in the body, including our natural sleep cycles, and can also help balance our hormones. Yoga, in particular, has been shown to have many benefits, as it is considered a “mind-body” type of exercise, incorporating controlled breathing techniques with physical movement. Studies have shown that yoga not only helps with increased strength and flexibility, but also helps reduce chronic pain, improves the quality of sleep and digestion, and reduces stress and anxiety. It is always a good idea to check with your physician before starting any new exercise routine to make sure it’s safe for your body and to avoid worsening any existing conditions or injuries.
Meditation has become an increasingly recognized ancient method of helping to calm the mind, promoting mental clarity, and reducing physical response to stress. Studies have shown that even 10-15 minutes a day can generate an inner peace that can improve one’s quality of life, as our thoughts influence our physical health. This practice has been shown to reduce heart rate, levels of anxiety and pain, promote a positive mood, alter the levels of serotonin and melatonin in our brain, and help suppress cortisol levels. This is also something you can do just about anywhere – you don’t have to have a dedicated “meditation space” in order to enjoy the calming effects. There are several books, websites, and apps that are available to help you with guided meditation, and how-to tips for beginners that can be very helpful with getting started if this is something you’ve never tried before. Another tip to help promote a relaxed state can be listening to calming music or soothing background sounds found in nature. These can relieve anxiety and even induce a deeper sleep when used at bedtime.
There is more and more evidence that our diet has a tremendous impact on not only how our bodies function, but also how we feel. It has been proven that the average American diet contains huge amounts of inflammatory foods, so focusing on consuming more natural, unprocessed foods can have a healthy influence on our overall well-being. Inflammatory foods include fast-food, foods deep-fried in refined vegetable oils, packaged and processed foods and foods with added sugars, as well as dairy, gluten, and foods that promote sensitivities for some people…the list goes on. Too much sugar has been linked to a faster breakdown in collagen, as it promotes glycation in the skin. Glycation is a process that causes protein fibers to become stiff, leading to a loss of elasticity and sagging of the skin. In short, too much sugar can cause wrinkles, and no one wants that! Most of these types of foods are nutrient-deficient and unfortunately can create cravings, which makes it harder to stop eating this way once you start. Focusing on a more nutrient-dense diet including essential vitamins and minerals, healthy fats, antioxidants, etc. will help your body not only function better, but will help improve brain function as well. This leads to an overall beneficial effect. Avoiding too much alcohol and caffeine is also recommended. Even though these substances can help you feel better in the short term, they can lead to dehydration, interfere with sleep patterns, and worsen anxiety and your ability to cope with stress. And let’s not forget how essential hydration is. Drink water, and lots of it! The recommended amount is eight 8oz glasses every day, but more is always better.
Did you know that certain natural agents known as adaptogens can help with stress? Adaptogenic plants and herbs are unique in that they belong to a special class of healing plants that help your body’s response to stress, leading to a better tolerance of stressors when they do occur. They have been used for thousands of years in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine in the form of preventative therapies. Some of the more popular adaptogens out there are turmeric, ashwagandha, holy basil, panax ginseng, rhodiola, astragalus root, licorice root, ginger, and also cordyceps mushrooms, just to name a few. Adaptogens are often found by themselves or in combination with each other in the form of supplements, teas, and powders. These types of plants may help you manage your body’s response to the damages of chronic stress, but it is important to check with your physician before incorporating any of them into your diet to avoid interactions with medications you may already be taking.
In conclusion, stress is an unavoidable aspect of everyday life, and while we can sometimes feel helpless when confronted with it, there are several things that you can do. One of the worst things about stress is how it makes you feel out of control, but knowing that you can take charge and make some positive changes in your life may help you handle it better, and help you overcome some of the more negative effects stress can have on your body. Reinforcing healthy habits can lead to a healthier, more vibrant you!