By Carla Oates
Stress is a natural part of our busy modern lives—and while a little bit of stress is normal, ongoing or chronic stress can wreak havoc on our health, as well as our skin.
This is because stress is not just an emotion that we feel—it is both a physical and mental response to our life’s experiences and given there are so many factors that can trigger stress, we need to be aware of how it can impact us on a day to day basis.
Given that we are also living during a global pandemic, we can be forgiven for experiencing somewhat heightened feelings of stress at the moment as there is so much beyond our control. But learning to manage stress and understand how it can impact not only our mental health, but also our physical health and wellbeing, is essential if we are to feel healthy, well and vital.
But First, What Is Stress?
Put simply, stress is a natural physiological response that occurs when we’re faced with a challenge—known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When this happens, this triggers a cascade of cortisol (our stress hormone) to be released into our bloodstream. On a basic level, this stress response is a natural instinct designed to ensure we stay out of danger and are able to respond to any imminent threats—raising our heart rate, sending blood to our muscles (so we can run away from the tiger at our heels!) and ensuring we are getting enough oxygen to think and act clearly.
Short-term bouts of acute stress are therefore totally normal and even beneficial. It’s when stress becomes a chronic or constant presence in our lives that we can fall victim to its detrimental effects and it can impact our wellbeing in a number of ways and manifest in health problems and physical symptoms and conditions as far-reaching as anxiety, depression, insomnia, raised blood pressure, reduced sex drive, headaches, muscles aches, stomach ulcers, heart disease, fatigue and irritability.
Here are just three of the ways stress affects our health...
Stress & The Gut
While you might not immediately link an emotion like stress to gut health—the truth is that your brain and gut are intimately connected. Known as the gut-brain axis, this bidirectional pathway allows the two to converse—impacting and influencing one another. So, when you’re feeling stressed, your gut certainly knows about it!
In the first instance, stress has been shown to actually alter the balance of bacteria in the gut and damage the delicate gut lining. The cascading effect that this has is that stress can therefore contribute to leaky gut—or intestinal permeability—meaning that the ordinarily tight junctions of the gut wall become more permeable than normal, allowing endotoxins to escape into the bloodstream. This contributes to inflammation—which as we know is one of the leading causes of disease—so learning to identify stressors, manage and mitigate its effects can not only support gut health, but our overall state of health as well.
Feeling stressed can also impact our gut in more direct ways, affecting the pace of digestion and release of gastric juices. This is why you often experience loose bowel movements when you’re feeling stressed or anxious and why stress is also an important factor for those who experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It's also why when we're stressed, many of us turn to overeating as a way to find comfort.
Stress & The Immune System
When it comes to our immunity, our gut is the gatekeeper! More than 70 percent of our immune system is housed in our gut, meaning that during stressful situations, we become more vulnerable to pathogens and infections as high levels of cortisol can actually suppress our immunity. A robust and thriving immune system is therefore only possible when we learn to manage stress and ensure our microbiome is balanced, diverse and thriving. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and practices such as physical activity, yoga, journaling, meditation and mindfulness are all simple ways to help manage daily and long-term stress—while focusing on a nutrient-dense diet full of green leafy fibrous vegetables, low-GI carbohydrates, prebiotics and probiotics, can all help to maintain a healthy microbiome and stop stress in its tracks.
Stress & The Skin
In the same way our gut has a constant dialogue with our brain, it’s also in constant conversation with our skin. This gut-skin axis means that in the same way stress can damage our gut, it can also damage our skin. Gut inflammation—due to stress—can therefore contribute to skin inflammation as cortisol breaks down collagen, the protein essential for firm, strong, plump (and youthful-looking!) skin. It also impedes collagen production—a double whammy for your complexion. If you’re finding your skin looks saggy, dull or lacklustre—it could be an indication that your stress levels are running high.
Inflammation caused by stress can also contribute to more sensitive skin and a myriad of skin conditions as our immune system is suppressed. Acne, psoriasis, rosacea and eczema are all inflammatory skin conditions that can be triggered by stress in some people so if your skin is feeling red, rashy or angry, it’s worth investigating any underlying sources of stress in your life and discovering stress management tools to help you cope.