The saying ‘it’s written all over your face’, is especially true when talking about stress, as studies show it can manifest on the surface of your skin.
Stress, just like those other notorious skin sins – smoking, sun exposure and excess alcohol, can wreak havoc on your skin and add years to your appearance.
Our skin and our nervous system are in constant conversation. In fact, in the womb, your brain and skin grow from the same embryonic cells.
The relatively new field of psycho dermatology addresses the impact of emotions on our largest organ. And it has been suggested that up to 30 percent of skin conditions can be traced to underlying psychological distress which is why massage, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques can often have visibly radiant results on our skin.
Of course, Eastern medicine has believed for thousands of years that the condition of our skin, hair, and nails reveal a great deal about what is going on inside our minds and bodies.
The ancient Chinese art of face mapping is based on the belief that parts of the body are connected. For example, dark under-eye circles can be caused by a lack of sleep or adrenal fatigue; breakouts around your chin can suggest a hormonal imbalance and a wrinkled forehead is believed to signal a congested colon or gallbladder.
So it pays to tune into what our wrinkles, rashes, inflammation, blemishes, age spots, slow healing wounds, hair loss and brittle nails might be trying to tell us.
How stress unfolds
When we are stressed, our adrenals go into fight or flight mode and flood our blood with stress hormones including cortisol. adrenaline and noradrenaline to help us deal with a crisis.
Our body then pumps nutrient and oxygen-rich blood away the tiny capilliaries that feed our skin cells and digestion (which it considers non-essential work) and diverts it to our vital organs ( our heart, brain and lungs).
Thus our heart beats faster, breathing becomes shallow (causing oxidative stress), eyesight sharpens and muscles become pumped with blood enabling us to run from that sabre-toothed tiger or deal with an approaching deadline.
How stress affects our skin
Chronic stress – that means flooding our systems with stress hormones daily for weeks, months or even years – means our skin consistently misses out on the nutrients and oxygen it needs to build healthy new baby cells deep in the dermis ultimately resulting in thinner skin.
Less blood flow to our skin slows lymphatic drainage – hello dark under-eye circles and puffy faces. And slower lymphatic drainage lowers our immunity, making us more prone to infections – which can manifest on the surface of the skin.
Our digestion slows, we absorb fewer nutrients from our food and we may become constipated causing toxic waste products to be reabsorbed back into the blood stream where our body will often try to expel them via our skin.
Stress compromises our sleep too, depriving our kidneys of the time (seven to nine hours) they need to properly filter waste products from our blood, so instead, they get sent to our skin for excretion.
The cortisol connection
Extra cortisol also damages our skin’s ability to retain water, leaving it looking dehydrated. This is because when you are making stress hormones, your body makes fewer sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone) which our skin needs to make collagen and moisture-retaining hyalronic acid.
Stress can also cause our body to release more testosterone which triggers sebum production, leading to blocked pores in the epidermis.
The influx of cortisol elevates your blood sugar causing glycation which damages collagen and elastin – the protein fibres that keep our skin looking plump and smooth.
Excess cortisol leads an increase in aging free radicals causing oxidative stress which also damages the skin matrix and our DNA, both speeding up the aging process.
The overproduction of cortisol can also make our immune system more sensitive to which may explain why some people can develop rashes, itches and psoriasis when they are stressed.
So in summary, stressful times can leave us with dull, dehydrated, saggy and possibly inflamed skin along with thinner hair and brittle nails.
How to lower our stress levels
Learning to manage our response to perceived stressors can help prevent our fight or flight response being triggered by everyday events.
Deep belly breathing and meditation have been proven to calm the central nervous system and lower cortisol levels. Likewise, daily self-massage can help soothe the trillions of nerve receptors that lie just under the surface of our skin.
Eating a diet rich in antioxidants can help protect our skin from stress-induced free radical damage. And including plenty of collagen-boosting, water-soluble vitamin C in your daily diet will help.
When we are stressed we also need more magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. And it’s important to drink at least 1.5 to two litres of water a day.
While you may feel like a glass of wine to wind down in the evenings, avoiding alcohol is a good idea when you are stressed because it can further dehydrate your skin, depleting your stress-busting B vitamins and put added pressure on your liver.
Cutting back on refined sugar will help bring your gut flora back into balance. And a daily dose of probiotic rich food such as sauerkraut will feed the good bugs in your gut where up to 80 percent of your feel-good hormone serotonin is manufactured. Herbs including chamomile, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, lavender, lemon balm , dandelion, rhodalia and the adaptogen ashwagandha can all be helpful to relieve stress and support your body through stressful times.
Good gut bugs also help us manufacture some of those important B vitamins.
Being aware that caffeine may distort your perception of what is urgent and what is not, is also important to observe.
And finally, remember to get enough rest. After all, there is a reason it’s called beauty sleep.
What steps are you going to take to lower your stress levels?