How Stress Contributes to Aging, Inflammation, and more (and what you can do about it)
The struggle for smooth skin is real: from creams to serums to diets, most of us have tried plenty of avenues to get our best skin possible.
However, if you find you’re doing everything “right,” and are still struggling with acne or dull, tired skin, you may want to check your stress levels.
The Stress-Skin Connection
Interestingly, the stress-skin connection goes deeper than you might think. Normally, a single stressful situation releases hormones that activate our fight-or-flight system in order to help us either flee danger or fight it. In the case of physical stress and threats, this is a good thing, as it helps us survive in dangerous situations. When the situation is over and we’re safe, our stress hormones go down, and our bodies return to baseline.
However, here’s the kicker: our bodies are unable to distinguish between emotional, mental, and physical stress – and as we’re all aware, emotional and mental stress are pretty common in our day-to-day lives. When we’re constantly in this fight-or-flight state due to work, financial, or relationship stress, stress then becomes chronic and starts to cause a whole host of issues … including issues with our skin.
When we’re chronically stressed or anxious, the fight-or-flight hormones that are released are constantly flooding our bodies, which can cause inflammation, excess oil production, and even accelerate aging.
We’re peeling back the layers of this interaction of stress and your skin, so you can understand how it affects certain skin conditions, and what you can do to get your skin glowing again.
How Stress Can Harm Skin
Before we get into ways to improve skin health by reducing stress, it helps to understand exactly what stress is doing to our largest organ.
1. Increases Inflammation
Those elevated hormones and chemicals we mentioned earlier that are released during stress? It turns out that being exposed to these for long periods of time can drive up inflammation throughout our entire system. This is a serious concern, not only due to the fact that many skin issues such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema have roots in inflammation but also because nearly all major diseases are now thought to be caused by inflammation.
Recent research has revealed that our skin is the first “perceiver” of stress. As our largest organ and the one responsible for acting as a “barrier” against external threats, many of the hormones released during stress relay directly to our skin’s surface, where they produce and interact with pro-inflammatory cytokines that can cause or exacerbate skin conditions. For example, researchers have found that a pro-inflammatory neuropeptide that is released during stress has been directly linked to people with inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis.
Other studies show that acne is primarily an inflammatory disease, which as we can see, could be made worse by inflammation caused by stress.
2. Causes Excess Oil Production
Stress has been found to release certain neuropeptides that increase sebum production. Sebum is the natural oil our skin produces to keep itself moisturized and supple; however, too much sebum has been associated with inflammation and acne, as the theory goes it can clog your pores and allow the acne bacteria to thrive.
3. Can Accelerate Signs of Aging
If you find you’re dealing with premature wrinkles or an overall dry, dull complexion, stress may definitely be playing a role. Studies have shown that stress, even emotional or psychological, can increase oxidative damage. Oxidative damage is caused by the production of free radicals that damage our DNA.
Along with increasing our risk of disease, oxidative damage can speed up the signs of aging such as wrinkles and sagging, since it breaks down the DNA (and therefore the proteins) that keep our skin strong and supple.
4. Could Thin Out Skin and Break Down Protective Barrier
The outer layers of our skin act as a protective barrier against all kinds of environmental “dangers,” ranging from chemicals to bad bacteria and viruses. When this barrier is weakened, we become more susceptible to infections, bacteria (cue the acne bacteria), and chemicals that can increase inflammation and damage our outer epidermis.
Researchers have found that stress has a negative effect on our skin barrier, causing water loss and making it difficult for the skin to repair itself. Other studies also show our skin repairs more slowly under high stress than when we aren’t stressed.
Tips to Reduce Stress to Improve Skin Health
We know the feeling: it might seem like nothing will improve your stress levels aside from getting rid of the stressor itself, whether that’s a sucky boss, a stressful relationship, or financial issues.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do that can not only alleviate immediate stress and relax your nervous system, but also practices that can reduce chronic, long-term stress.
It turns out the “zen” aura many yogis seem to carry may be due to more than just a mindset. Studies have shown that doing yoga has a significant positive effect on stress due to helping regulate nerve impulses and keeping your nervous system on an even keel.
Not to mention, doing plenty of inversion poses (where your head is below your heart, like in downward dog) can increase circulation and nutrients to the skin of your face, improving tone and possibly inducing a glow.
Aim for 3-4 days of yoga a week, for at least 30 minutes a session.
Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help your body adapt to the negative effects of stress by boosting your immune system, reducing fatigue (both mental and physical), and increasing your resistance to perceived stress. Studies show they reduce the harm caused by all types of stresses, whether they’re from pollution or a bad week at work.
Interestingly, studies also show adaptogens can reduce the exhaustion you feel from being constantly stressed, which can often add another layer of stress because it becomes hard to get things done.
Popular adaptogens include ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, ginseng, licorice root, and schizandra. Keep in mind these are a long-term option for stress, taking a week or so to start kicking, them strengthening your body and mind over time.
3. Hemp Extract
Hemp Extract or cannabidiol is a non-psychoactive (meaning it won’t get you high) compound found in the cannabis plant and has been widely studied for its potential ability to help soothe the nervous system and reduce stress. Studies show it interacts with your nervous system and your own endocannabinoid system to help regulate symptoms of stress, including anxiety and low mood. (Read more about how hemp extract interacts with your nervous system here)
While there are no standard doses of hemp extract, and even high doses have been deemed safe, be sure to start with a lower dose and work your way up. Your best bet is to choose a cannabidiol isolate, which is pure cannabidiol with no added ingredients, or a stress complex that includes hemp extract in its formulation (Green Helix – Acute Stress Relief ).
Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of contact with nature, such as walking on a trail or gardening, can significantly lower stress hormones. While it’s unclear the exact mechanisms nature helps reduce our stress, it could be a combination of reflective time, fresh air, and movement.
Try to take a “nature pill” of a 20-30 minute walk or other contacts with nature 3-4 days a week for the best stress-reducing benefits.
5. Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing
When we’re stressed, our breathing typically becomes rapid and shallow. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight-or-flight response.
Deep breathing, on the other hand, activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for reducing our heart rate and relaxing our body. Studies show that a specific type of deep breathing, called diaphragmatic breathing, can significantly reduce stress hormones, specifically cortisol.
Additionally, researchers have found that people that practice yoga that includes deep breathwork have higher levels of glutathione, a potent antioxidant, in their blood. Antioxidants like glutathione help reduce oxidative damage from free radicals, which can age and damage the skin.
To get the stress-reducing benefits of deep breathing, sit or lie in a comfortable position, placing one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your chest. Begin by breathing deeply into your lower abdomen – you should feel your belly pressing out against your hand as you inhale, and your chest should barely rise.
Now, exhale fully until all of the air has left your lungs. Repeat for 10-15 minutes a day, as needed.
As you can see, stress has far-reaching effects – even as far-reaching as our skin. Reducing stress levels may, at the very least, give your complexion a boost and help keep inflammation and acne at bay, if not improve inflammatory conditions exacerbated by stress, like psoriasis and eczema.