The brain-skin connection: 6 ways stress messes with our complexion

by DAILY SABAH-Stress can cause spikes in oil production, leading to acne lesions forming on the skin. (iStock Photo)

By now we all know that stress takes a heavy toll on our body in both the physical and mental sense, but what about its most visible signs? Our skin is most often the first place to show signs of distress

There are so many factors that affect our skin’s appearance and health. From the sun’s harmful rays and eating a diet high in processed foods and saturated fats to getting insufficient sleep and daily stressors, our skin is impacted by almost anything and everything. These past few months have been especially hectic for our skin, considering the stress we have experienced from all the economic volatility, uncertainty surrounding our future and health concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Such excessive amounts of sudden and prolonged stress we’ve experienced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of us to lose sleep and endure intense waves of anxiety, causing changes in both our brain and body chemistry. These changes have led to an increase in the formation of free radicals, which could accelerate the aging rate of our skin cells, showing up as visible wrinkles on our faces and bodies, says dermatologist Serpil Pırmıt.

Pırmıt says stress has six major observable effects on the skin and gave some suggestions to fight it.

Stress makes skin age faster

Chronic stress can make you look older than you are. You may feel that your skin is drier or you may be seeing more fine lines, wrinkles and have a generally dull appearance which happens as a result of the decrease in collagen and hyaluronic acid synthesis in the skin due to elevations in the cortisol hormone, the primary stress hormone, which goes into overdrive after long or excessive bouts of stress. Stress can also accelerate the aging process of the skin by increasing the formation of free radicals. Abandoning healthy habits when under stress, such as working longer hours, disruptions in sleep patterns, not following a healthy and balanced diet, consuming too much caffeine and alcohol or smoking can give you dark or puffy areas under the eyes, causing you to have a tired appearance. The skin also loses its former shine and looks pale and dull.

Stress dries skin out

As your body enters fight or flight mode while under stress, levels of cortisol and adrenaline hormones increase in the body. With the increase in adrenaline, the sweat glands are stimulated and more sweating occurs. Since too much water loss quickly causes the body to become dehydrated, if you do not consume enough water, your skin can dry out, from the inside out. Meanwhile, cortisol disrupts the synthesis of hyaluronic acid, a naturally-occurring chemical in our bodies that helps us retain water to keep our tissues well lubricated, resulting in dry skin. At the same time, on particularly stressful days, you may be more inclined to skimp on self-care and forgo the moisturizer, which can compromise the skin barrier and impede the skin’s natural exfoliation cycle. This can lead to a flare-up of eczema in sensitive skin. Hence, Pırmıt says, it is beneficial to use the right moisturizer to strengthen the skin barrier and minimize irritation.

Stress ramps up oil production

On the opposite end of the spectrum, stress can also make skin oilier and greasy, leading to clogged pores and acne. This happens when large amounts of cortisol are released into the bloodstream due to stress, alerting the body to secrete more oil from the sebaceous glands. Although this is more common in people with oily or combination skin, other skin types may also notice more oiliness. In addition, due to dehydration, there may be a delay in the healing of wounds which happens because stress hormones disrupt the skin’s self-repair process.

Stress can cause hair loss

Stress causes people to experience different symptoms relating to scalp and hair health: While some people complain of greasy hair, others are left to deal with dry, brittle locks or a flaky scalp. It is normal to see more hair shedding when you are under a great deal of stress. Some people may also experience both thinning and intense hair loss (more than 100 strands a day). While this shedding can occur months after the stressful situation, some people may also suffer from alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss in patches or over large areas of the body.

Stress makes nails more brittle

Since stress is always a part of life, the important thing is to learn how to handle it and manage stress levels, Pımıt says.

“Stress, which affects our skin, hair and the whole body, can also cause slowing in nail growth or lines on the nail surface, leading to breakages and even peeling. Stress creates a chemical response that causes the skin to be more sensitive and reactive. It also makes solving skin problems more difficult,” she says.

So if you are noticing that your nails aren’t just growing or keep breaking off, perhaps it could be due stress.

Stress exacerbates skin conditions

Many skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, vitiligo and urticaria can be exacerbated by stress due to the inflammatory response that occurs in the body due to the cortisol and adrenaline hormones secreted under stress. Studies show that 30% of dermatology cases originate from a psychological problem. To make matters worse, this creates a vicious cycle, the more stressed the person is the worse the skin condition gets, and the worse the skin looks or feels the worse the patient feels, adding to the existing stress.

5 ways to protect your skin against the effects of stress

• Be mindful of your skin and monitor it for changes. When you notice something out of the ordinary, check to see if you have been under a lot of stress and look for ways of relief.

• Do not neglect your skincare. Use mild, nonfoaming cleansers to cleanse the skin and reduce excess oil on the skin, and don’t forget to keep skin hydrated by using a moisturizer suitable for your skin type – both for your face and body. Moisturizing and keeping skin hydrated is all the more important if you have a compromised skin barrier or sensitive or eczematous skin.

• Use sunscreens with a high sun protection factor to shield the skin from harmful rays (and slow down aging).

• If you have oily or acne-prone skin, you can consult your dermatologist to prevent exacerbations. They might be able to describe prescriptions that reduce oiliness or increase cell turnover, thus helping to keep the pores clean.

• Learn how to manage stress. “Managing stress requires a multifaceted effort,” says Pırmıt.

Having a solid sleep routine, exercising two to three days a week, going for walks outside, reading books, chatting with friends and practicing meditation or yoga are great ways to cope. Engage in activities that will help you feel calm and rested, she adds.


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