If there is one thing that I have learnt recently - it is that stress can really wreak havoc on the skin. Stress and its effects on the body is something I have always known about but it hasn't really had a tremendous effect on me personally. This was up until recently, about 2-3 weeks in the lead up to my wedding where I started to break out around my right cheek.
For someone who has generally been blessed to have pretty good skin and with such a big day coming up, something that may seem so trivial suddenly became such a big deal. I racked my brains as to how and why this started to happen. Was it a product? An ingredient? My generally healthy diet (although chocolate intake may have increased closer to the big day)? After going through everything, the answer was quite simple. It was that dreaded wedding stress that many brides talk about. So many things were happening, there were so many things to do, I wasn't sleeping, not properly eating and in a nutshell I was pretty stressed!
At the time I was in the process of talking to Cassandra Hilton, founder of Ocinium, resident beauty genius and naturopath about her skincare line and learning about the term organic cosmeceutical (read more about it here). In our chats, I randomly asked her what I could do about my skin, which was clearly freaking out. She was kind enough to give me some tips and on the lead up to the big day I adopted what I could. Whilst my skin wasn't amazing, it was significantly better and I noticed a shift in my skin's general health when the craziness of the big day was over. Coming back from my honeymoon, I told Cassandra that I wanted to write a blog post on stress and she was kind enough to contribute and help me understand the science behind it all. What I learnt is that recent research shows that our skin is an immediate stress perceiver and is a target of stress responses. My research also confirmed that stress, our skin and how our body works is complex and is also commonly linked to other factors such as genes, lifestyle and general health. However, in saying that stress can contribute to our skin's behaviour and along with Cassandra's help, I went to find out how and why.
So What is Stress Exactly?
Psychological stress occurs when people are under mental, physical or emotional pressure and occurs when someone feels that the pressure undergone is more than their adaptive power. As Cassandra explains "stress triggers a wide range of physiological and behaviour changes and responses as the body tries to adapt to stress".
When stress occurs, the brain picks up that the individual is under pressure and stress hormones such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), epinephrine and glucocorticoids are released. These hormones act to trigger a wide range of physiological and behaviour changes and responses that try to help the body adapt to the pressure. Sometimes the stress responses may be too much or too little for the body and this can trigger unwanted physiological events in the body.
How Does Stress Impact My Skin?
"The skin is a key stress mediator, acting as a primary sensory organ with a highly developed functional peripheral hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system where stress hormones and their receptors are produced in the skins cells" Cassandra continues. Further explaining that this is one of the reasons why that during times of stress our skin responds with breakouts, inflammation and irritation.
To be specific about how stress can effect the skin Cassandra goes on to say that "stress can cause detrimental physiological and functional consequences in the skin that accelerate trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), impaired barrier function, delayed wound healing, inflammation, infection and accelerate ageing." She also notes that "multiple skin conditions can be triggered or aggravated by stress such as acne, eczema (atopic dermatitis), contact dermatitis, psoriasis, alopecia areata (hair loss), pruritus (itch) and erythema (redness) and rosacea".
Acne, for example is a very common skin disorder that does affect the general population at some point in their life. It is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as 'a skin condition characterised by red pimples on the skin, especially on the face, due to inflamed or infected sebaceous glands'. The way acne develops is that there is generally an increased colonisation of the acne bacteria (Propionibacterium acne), increased sebum production from the skin's oil producing glands, inflammation and hyperkeratinization (when the cells of the follicle become 'sticky' and do not shed normally onto the skin's surface). Studies have shown that increased acne severity is significantly associated with stress levels. Scientists have linked that the release of hormones contribute to increased sebum production and also affects the metabolic formation of fat (lipogenesis) in the cells that produce sebum in the skin (sebocytes). On top of this, these hormones also contribute to inflammation in the skin.
The scientific community has established that conditions such as eczema can be exacerbated and aggravated by stress. Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a chronic inflammatory skin disorder that causes the skin to become itchy and inflamed. It is important to note that stress does NOT cause eczema, instead it can make the symptoms worse or trigger an 'itch'. Scientists have found that stress can impact those with eczema by affecting the skin's barrier function. People with eczema already have a dysfunctional barrier function in their skin, meaning that the skin has increased sensitivity to allergens and bacteria, increased TEWL and low threshold for itch. The mechanisms as to how stress can impact this is still relatively unknown but many studies show the link between stress and decreased barrier function of the skin. Stress not only contributes to a dysfunctional barrier function of the skin but it can also make eczema symptoms worse (ie. further inflammation, itch etc for skin). In a normal response to stress, sensory nerves will release neurotransmitters (think of these as chemical messengers) in the brain, organs that product hormones and the nervous system that will help to regulate inflammatory and immune responses. It has been found that some people who suffer from eczema have a dysfunction of these critical neurotransmitters, thus when stress occurs, affects how the body and skin copes with the increase in hormones which then therefore can affect their symptoms of eczema - most likely making it worse than normal.
As you can see, the link between skin conditions such as acne or eczema can be quite complex (how our bodies work are in no way simple) and more often than not, stress may not be the only factor contributing to these conditions. However, what I personally have learnt is that stress not only has an influence on our mental wellbeing but it also really does affect our bodies, our skin being a prime example.
What Can I Do To Reduce Stress?
As Cassandra explains that "the skins response to stress will increase inflammation, irritation or sensitivity to ingredients and products. And while this may be a time where you go on a desperate hunt for a solution through the local pharmacy aisles or scrounge through your beauty drawers and cupboards, the over use of products or the introduction of a new regime is not always the best option to save face."
She suggests to pare back skincare routines and simplifying it with "organic or natural beauty products that will assist to reduce inflammation (antioxidants and essential fatty acids) and facilitate regenerate and reparative healing to normalise skin behaviour and functioning." When I was quite stressed with the wedding and I spoke to Cassandra, she also recommended that if my skincare routine has adjusted to actives, ingredients such as retinol and Vitamin B3 are a great starting point.
Besides skincare, "there are many activities that can assist to regulate the 'brain-skin-connection' and reduce the up-regulation of cortisol, it’s really a matter of finding what works best with you" Cassandra notes. Studies have shown that meditation, yoga, pilates, thai chi and general breathing techniques all have therapeutic benefit for the management of stress. Whilst personally I find it hard to switch off and enjoy in these somewhat calming activities (I personally hate yoga...don't shoot me), boxing and running are things that I enjoy that really help me manage stress levels and clear my mind. Cassandra herself find its hard to meditate as her brain can never switch off also. It is all about finding an activitity that works best for you to help clear the mind and reduce your own stress levels.
Finally "don’t overlook the impacts of environmental and lifestyle stressors on the skin, these include sleep deprivation, environmental pollution, smoking, alcohol, poor dietary choices, nutrient inadequacies or deficiencies, lack of physical activity which have been strongly indicated as factors contributing to skin conditions" says Cassandra. It is important to remember that our bodies are complex and that stress may just be one piece of an extremely complex puzzle that can possibly trigger or make a skin condition worse. It is always important to consult a professional for any skincare or psychological advice, however we can always make small adjustments to our life to help stop, clear our minds and just get back into things again.
How does stress affect you and what do you do help maintain your stress levels? I would love to find out what helps you to relax so please share in the comments section below!
A huge thank you to Cassandra Hilton of Ocinium Skincare for contributing and helping me to write this post!