The role stress plays in our lives can be both good and bad. The role it plays in how we look is however, not good. Stress affects not only how we feel but how our skin looks. A growing body of research points to stress as being a significant causative factor in the development of many skin conditions from psoriasis, to acne, to sensitive and dehydrated skin. The worse thing is, the more we stress about it, the worse it tends to get.
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.
Some of the side effects of stress include brittle nails, dry, thinning hair, sensitive skin reactions and increased perspiration. 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. The classic flight or fight response is triggered by the release of adrenaline and norepinephrine – our body’s are readying for an emergency, which most of the time doesn’t occur. The adrenal glands release glucocorticoids which in ongoing, chronic stress leads to weakened functioning of the skin’s barrier. The disruption of normal hormonal balance and an increase in substance P can lead to weakened barrier function causing not only water loss but also increased oil production. 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. Skin conditions that have significant immune involvement are worsened. These include shingles, psoriasis, cold sores and eczema. 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. Drink green tea instead of coffee if you are sensitive.
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. Reduced cortisol release and an increased immune function are among the positive side effects of meditation – 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.
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