Have you ever looked in the mirror the morning of a big event only to discover a huge pimple or noticed that your skin is unusually red and blotchy? Don’t stress, it will only make it worse! It could actually be the case that stress was the trigger for your breakout in the first place. Stress affects our lives in all ways, some motivational and positive, others subtle and more insidious. While not historically recognised as a contributing factor in skin conditions, there is now growing body of evidence to show that stress has potentially harmful effects on the skin. From acne to eczema research shows us that during times of acute stress, rashes and breakouts become worse, sometimes significantly so. It also points to the potential role of chronic low-grade stress as a causative factor in persistent skin conditions.
Stress can affect our appearance in a number of ways including increased perspiration, brittle nails, dry, thinning hair and sensitive more reactive skin. Where there is an existing skin condition, worsening can be seen in the following ways:
- Acne lesions and breakouts become more inflamed, last longer and take longer to heal
- Worsening of the inflammation (redness) and dryness in eczema and rosacea
- Increased tendency to flushing and blushing
- Increased incidence of congestion and oily skin due to sebum production
- Increased sensitivity to irritants and infections agents
These effects are primarily caused by the impact of stress on skin permeability. In most chronic skin conditions there is an abnormality in the skin’s permeability barrier. The body responds by trying to repair the barrier and in the process initiates an inflammatory process in the deeper layers of the skin with the result of worsening skin symptoms. Even in people without existing skin conditions, stress has the ability to reduce skin permeability and increase dehydration and sensitivity. This may go some way to explaining why some people react to certain topical agent only some of the time; generally skin permeability is normal however during times of stress it is affected leaving skin more vulnerable to irritation.
When exposed to stress, hormonal and chemical levels increase. Hormones in the brain trigger the release of adrenalin and norepinephrine, creating the classic flight or fight response – our body’s are readying for an emergency, which most of the time doesn’t occur. Glucocorticoids are also released from the adrenal glands, and when stress is ongoing it leads to the decrease in skin barrier function. Interestingly, while a decreased barrier function often causes water loss, increased oil production can also occur due to the role of stress in the disruption of normal hormonal balance and an increase in substance P. So yes it is possible to have moisture dehydrated skin and be oily (usually through the T-zone) at the same time.
In addition to stress directly affecting skin permeability, chronic stress can also affect the functioning of the immune system. Stress down regulates the immune system making us more susceptible to infection. It also plays havoc with skin conditions that have immune involvement such as psoriasis, eczema, cold sores and shingles, most commonly causing worsening skin condition. Stressed individuals are also more likely to eat and sleep less healthily or be more likely to drink more alcohol further suppressing the immune system.
So how does stress reduction help with the treatment of skin conditions? Firstly, it helps by decreasing the release of pro-inflammatory hormones, which results in less inflammation, redness and rash like symptoms. It also reduces blood vessel hyper-activity resulting in less frequent skin flushing, which is particularly important in rosacea. Time will see an improvement in skin permeability, which means greater hydration and less sensitivity. Oiliness will improve as hormones settle back to normal. This may take up to 3 months. Reducing stress will result overall in better condition both for those with existing skin disorders as well as those with normal skin.
Taking the time to incorporate some simple stress reducing techniques into your daily routine will help improve the condition of your skin:
- Avoid excessive consumption of stimulants such as coffee and soft drink. One caffeine-containing drink per day is ample. For those that are particularly sensitive, drink green tea instead of coffee.
- Exercise can significantly reduce stress levels. The release of endorphins following exercise increases feelings of happiness and wellbeing. In addition it increases circulation and therefore nutrition to your extremities, including your skin.
- Meditation or breathing techniques. Meditation reduces cortisol release and increases immune function – ideal if you are suffering from a skin condition. If you are a beginner, take a class in Buteko breathing or follow a guided meditation.
- Alcohol and smoking suppress the immune system. Smoking has many detrimental effects on the skin and so is best avoided completely. In moderation, alcohol consumption may help reduce stress however it is a fine and individual line, so stick to physician guidelines – one standard drink per day for women and two for men. In addition, try to go without at least 2 days per week.