When you were a teenager do you remember getting a case of an angry red, acne breakout or hives the day before that big date or mid-term exam? I sure do and so do many of my patients. It’s true, stress can wreak havoc on your skin and be the culprit in sudden outbreaks of acne, itchy rashes, hives, dryness, and even sagging. In fact, a whole new field of medicine, called psychodermatology, focuses on why the skin is so responsive to our emotional state of mind. Here’s what I tell my patients about the emotions/skin connection and how you can control it.
Why Does Stress Affect Your Skin?
When a patient comes in with a particular skin upset, the first thing I ask them is how’s their life going? Are they under a lot of stress or are things generally okay? Studies show that about 30% of dermatology patients have an unaddressed life stressor occurring at the same time as their skin condition. The answers from my patients to these questions point me in right direction in both treating their skin condition and preventing it from recurring.
Interestingly, the brain and skin are made up of the same cells and, as such, influence each other. As I explain to my patients, just as someone can get an upset stomach when they’re nervous, or a bad headache when they’re tense, or their blood pressure goes up when they get angry, your skin can similarly react to stress. Here are some of the typical stress/skin conditions that I see:
Sudden Acne Outbreak: You get nervous, or tense, in reaction to a certain event, and your body over produces cortisol, a stress hormone. The elevation of cortisol in turn creates a lot of sebum (a waxy oily substance) which, combined with skin bacteria, creates acne.
Hives: A stressful situation causes your body to flood with histamines, as if you’re allergic to stress and your body is trying to reject it. Taking an antihistamine relieves the hives and the itching but finding a way to control how your body reacts to the stressor is also important.
Wrinkles, Dryness, Itchiness: These can all be a sign of internal inflammation, which can be a reaction to stress as well. Perhaps you need more Omega-3’s in your diet, antioxidants, or water.
Sagging skin. Sagging skin can also be caused by stress through either a life event or just from dieting. You don’t get enough sleep and/or are forgetting to drink enough water and/or have decreased food, vitamins and minerals intake. Your skin can become lax and lose its tone. Once you start sleeping more, eating better and getting more fluid intake, your skin usually recovers.
On the flip-side, skin outbreaks and conditions can themselves be the cause of stress through diminished self-esteem and/or depression about how you look. When it comes to your skin, it’s important to consider the mind-body connection in helping a patient feel and look their best.
How You Can Minimize The Stress Effect On Your Skin
Short-lived skin outbreaks from nervousness like the big date example can be handled using the following methods:
- Cleanliness. Keeping your skin as clean as possible can help prevent an outbreak from over-reacting sebum glands. Also, refrain from touching your face a lot or leaning on hands, to prevent bacteria from hands transferring to your face.
- Hydrate, hydrate! Drinking enough water will help flush out impurities from your body and prevent constipation which can also contribute to skin flares.
- Moisturize. Helps fight dryness and itchiness. Look for one that won’t clog pores or use pure extra-virgin olive oil mixed with a little aloe vera.
- Retinol-A. A form of Vitamin A that exfoliates dead skin cells and helps heal acne and diminish wrinkles and age spots as well as thicken skin.
- Glycolic acid. This can help heal acne flare-ups quickly and help reduce redness.
- Cosmetic covers. There are some excellent mineral powder based skin cover products on the market with concealers that reduce inflammation and cover the outbreak.
- Benadryl. Keep a bottle of over-the-counter Benadryl on hand to treat an outbreak of hives. Be sure, however, that the outbreak actually is hives and not measles or chicken pox. Best to let your doctor determine.
More long-term stressors such as chronic illness, marital problems, death of a loved one, all can rob the healthy appearance of your skin. In addition to the above suggestions, also try:
- Relaxation. Relax through aerobic exercise and/or massage therapy, reflexology.
- Counseling. Addressing, and finding solutions to dealing with, ongoing stressors can help your skin be healthier. These might including cognitive and behavioral therapy strategies to help you learn how not to react to certain situations.
- Natural relaxants/mood elevators. Try a few drops of tincture of Valerian in caffeine-free tea such as chamomile, or red Roiboos. Warm baths using herbs like lavender, rosemary, basil, sage are stress-busters that help you let go of built up tensions.
- Vitamins and Minerals. Be sure you’re getting enough B vitamins that stress can deplete and antioxidants like C, E, D, resveratrol, CoQ10, and minerals like magnesium. Super Primrose Oil is a rich source of linoleic acid that helps fight inflammation.
- Sleep. Lack of sleep can create a whole domino-effect of bad health responses and shows up first on your skin. Get 6-8 hours a night.
In addition to feeling stressed out, none of us like to be embarrassed, or depressed, by unsightly acne outbreaks or feeling that we look older with dry, wrinkled, sagging skin! The good news is, though, if you can get your stress levels under control, and make good effort to pay attention to skin hygiene, nutritional intake, get fresh air and sunlight, exercise and rest, you can prevent, or greatly minimize, your skin reacting badly to whatever stressors come your way!
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
Effects of Stress On Skin, http://www.webmd.com/healthy-beauty/features/effects-of-stress-on-your-skin
Stress and Your Skin, http://www.parade.com/health/healthyskin/stress-and-your-skin.html
photo credit: webmd.com