Are you stressed? Your skin can show it. Studies show that both acute and chronic stress have negative effects on the overall well-being of the skin and can aggravate a number of skin conditions including psoriasis, eczema, acne and hair loss.
But it’s not just a one-way street. Research has also shown that skin and hair follicles contain complex mechanisms for creating their own stress-inducing signals that can travel to the brain and sustain the stress response.
Stress and the one-way street between the brain and the skin
You may have already experienced the brain-skin connection. Have you ever gotten so nervous that you started to blush or sweat? In this case, an acute, transient stress reaction occurred. However, science suggests that repeated exposure to psychological or environmental stressors can have permanent effects on your skin that go well beyond blushing – and can even affect your general well-being.
The brain-skin axis is an interconnected, bidirectional pathway that can transfer psychological stress from the brain to the skin and vice versa. Stress triggers the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), a trio of glands that play a key role in the body’s response to stress. This can lead to the production of local pro-inflammatory factors such as cortisol and key hormones in the fight or flight stress response called catecholamines, which can direct immune cells from the bloodstream to the skin or stimulate pro-inflammatory skin cells. Mast cells are a key type of pro-inflammatory skin cells in the brain-skin axis. They respond to the hormone cortisol through receptor signaling and contribute directly to a number of skin conditions, including itching.
Because the skin is constantly exposed to the outside world, it is more susceptible to environmental stressors than any other organ and can produce stress hormones in response. For example, the skin produces stress hormones in response to ultraviolet light and temperature and sends these signals back to the brain. For example, psychological stressors can contribute to stressed skin, and environmental stressors can contribute to psychological stress through the skin and maintain the stress cycle.
How else can stress affect your skin?
Mental stress can also disrupt the epidermal barrier – the top of the skin layer that locks in moisture and protects us from harmful microbes – and prolong repair, according to clinical studies in healthy people. An intact epidermal barrier is essential for healthy skin. If disturbed, it can lead to irritated skin, as well as chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or wounds. Psychosocial stress has been directly linked to the exacerbation of these conditions in small observational studies. Acne flares have also been linked to stress, although understanding of this relationship is still evolving.
The negative effects of stress have also been demonstrated in hair. A type of diffuse hair loss known as telogen effluvium can be triggered by psychosocial stress that can inhibit the hair growth phase. In studies on mice, stress has also been linked to graying hair. Research showed that artificial stress stimulated the release of norepinephrine (a type of catecholamine), which depleted pigment-producing stem cells in the hair follicle, resulting in graying.
How can you deal with stressed skin?
While reducing stress levels should theoretically help alleviate harmful effects on the skin, there is limited data on the effectiveness of stress-reducing measures. There is some evidence that meditation can lower overall catecholamines levels in people who do this regularly. Similarly, meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to help with psoriasis. More studies are needed to show the benefits of these techniques in other skin conditions. Healthy lifestyle habits, including a balanced diet and exercise, can also help regulate the levels of stress hormones in the body, which in turn should have positive effects on the skin and hair.
If you have a stress-related skin condition, see a dermatologist and try some stress reduction techniques at home.