How Stress Affects Our Skin

By Carla Oates

When it comes to skin, the saying—it’s written all over your face—certainly rings true as our emotional health and stress levels can directly impact our complexion.

In fact, studies show that stress can influence our skin in a number of ways, contributing to skin ageing (and its associated symptoms including loss of collagen and elasticity), dry skin, impaired barrier function, inflammatory skin issues such as psoriasis, acne flare-ups, rosacea and eczema as well as hair loss and our skin’s natural ability to renew and heal itself.

Not only can stress wreak havoc on your skin but it can also have a strong adverse impact on gut health and therefore skin health, metabolic health, brain health and immune health. In this respect, it seems that the effects of stress are not too dissimilar from other notorious skin sins—including smoking, sun exposure, excess alcohol, a poor diet or lifestyle and lack of sleep. 

Here’s everything you need to know about how stress affects our skin—as well as what you can do to combat its detrimental effects.

The Brain-Skin Connection

You’re probably already aware of the fact that our skin and brain are in constant conversation with one another. How else would you explain those flushed cheeks when you’re feeling nervous? But what you may not realise is just how closely the two are linked. As an example, our skin and brain are affected by the same hormones and neurotransmitters—meaning this bidirectional pathway can translate any stress we experience into our skin, and vice versa.

Put simply, when we feel stressed, our sympathetic nervous system triggers a flush of cortisol (our stress hormone) to be released into our body—subsequently, activating our ‘fight or flightstress response. While this natural instinct ensures we evade danger and are able to respond to any perceived threats that come our way—if exposed to prolonged periods of stress, it can negatively impact our overall health and wellbeing in a myriad of ways and also cause our skin health to suffer.

This is why it’s even more important to pay close attention to our complexion as its breakouts, rashes, blemishes, age spots, slow-healing wounds and inflammation could actually be alerting us to the fact that our emotional health may be in need of a little extra TLC.

How Stress Affects Our Skin

Chronic stress—when our system is flushed with stress hormones like cortisol daily for weeks, months or even years on end—means our skin consistently misses out on the nutrients and oxygen it needs to build healthy new baby cells deep in the dermis. But this isn’t the only effect stress can have on our complexion. Stress can also:

  • Contribute to acne and skin breakouts as excess cortisol can trigger an overproduction of sebum, leading to clogged pores and skin congestion. Cortisol can also slow our digestion, meaning that we absorb fewer nutrients from our food, can become constipated and as excess waste is reabsorbed into our bloodstream, our skin is often required to pick up the slack and try and expel these toxins through our skin. The result: congested, acne-prone skin.
  • Exacerbate glycation, damaging collagen and elastin—the proteins that keep our skin looking youthful, plump, smooth and strong—and contributing to fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Trigger inflammatory skin conditions including eczema (dermatitis), acne and psoriasis—which in itself can become a vicious cycle as these skin conditions can be the cause of stress, while also being triggered by stress.
  • Impair our immune system and our skin’s ability to defend itself from pathogens, infections and external stressors. Reduced blood flow to the skin also means impaired lymphatic drainage—further compromising our immunity—but also contributing to dark under-eye circles and puffiness.
  • Speed up the ageing process by not only damaging our skin’s ability to store water—leading to dehydrated, dull skin—but excess stress is also responsible for the production of free radicals, harmful compounds that damage the skin's matrix as well as our DNA—speeding up the ageing process.

How To Combat Stress For Glowing Skin

As you can see, it’s essential to manage our stress levels—not only for our overall health and wellness—but for the sake of our skin as well. As our largest organ, we need to take care of our skin by learning to better manage our response to perceived stressors and help to prevent our fight or flight response from being triggered unnecessarily.

The best ways to combat stress include:

Mindfulness & meditation: which are both proven to calm the central nervous system and lower hormone cortisol levels. Simply taking 10 minutes a day to practise deep breathing exercises can have a huge impact. In the same way, daily self-massage can also help to soothe the trillions of nerve receptors that lie just beneath the surface of our skin.

Eating a diet rich in antioxidants: which helps to neutralise the effects of damaging free radicals. The more colourful the fruit or vegetable, the bigger its antioxidant punch! A balanced diet that includes lots of vitamin C and zinc is also key as this essential vitamin is vital for collagen production.

Drinking plenty of filtered water: while you may feel you need a glass of wine to wind down in the evenings, avoiding alcohol is a good idea when you’re stressed because it can further dehydrate your skin and put extra pressure on your elimination organs—including your liver and your skin. Instead, focus on drinking plenty of water every day to keep your system flushing through and to help maintain your skin’s moisture levels.

Focusing on your gut health: just like our skin and brain are in constant conversation, so too is our gut and skin—and with research indicating how stress can also compromise our gut health (leading to a myriad of health, wellbeing and skin issues), it’s essential to nurture our inner gut garden if we want to feel healthy, well and vital—as well as enjoy glowing skin. Reducing your intake of gut irritants such as refined sugar, white flours, processed foods and excess meat and caffeine will help, while adding probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir will ensure you deliver a healthy dose of beneficial bacteria to your belly. Herbs including chamomile, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, lavender, lemon balm, dandelion, rhodiola and the adaptogen ashwagandha can also all be helpful to relieve stress and support your body through stressful times.

Sleep: as much and as deeply as possible! Sleep is our time to rest, repair and recharge—and it also lowers our cortisol levels. Remember, there’s a reason why it’s called beauty sleep!

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