If you’re struggling with acne or other skin conditions, you may not have thought about stress being a trigger for your skin problems. In this blog post, my clinic associate Louise Goulding explores how addressing your stress may be the missing link when it comes to managing your acne.
Stress is something that we are all affected by. It’s unavoidable. It can affect us in so many different ways and have so many variable causes.
Poor sleep. Not enough ‘me’ time. Instagram scrolling. Juggling too many plates. Tough relationships. Anxieties about social events. Work deadlines.
How many of these resonate with you?
Whatever is causing your stress, you CAN learn to adapt to it, and give your body the tools to be more resilient and stay more in harmony. So that you can reduce the impact it has on your skin.
But what’s stress got to do with acne?
When we are stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released. This is our ‘fight or flight’ hormone, which allows us to effectively deal with the stressful situation. Back in our cave dwelling days, this would be fighting the threat (eg a big bear)… or running away from it. Quickly!
But in today’s modern world, a stressor is so different to being hunted by a predator. It’s all those things mentioned above… which seem to be present so continually in our modern lives. And whether we are inundated with many small stressors, or one or two bigger ones, the result is that our cortisol levels remain high for much longer than they should.
And this can lead to the onset, or worsening of acne for a number of reasons.
Cortisol and sex hormone imbalances
The stress hormone cortisol usually dampens down the effects of the hormone insulin (which is responsible for keeping our blood sugars in balance).
But under chronic stress, cortisol levels remain elevated – and this means that insulin rises too. Unfortunately, when insulin levels are continually raised, this also raises levels of testosterone.
While testosterone has many benefits, it also encourages the production of sebum, an oily waxy substance made by the glands in our skin. Some bacteria thrive in this oily, fatty rich sebum, which can lead to inflammation, blocked pores… and acne.
Stress, inflammation and the gut microbiome
Stress also leads to changes in our gut microbiome – the populations of billions of bacteria and other organisms that live in our gut. In stressful situations, more pathogenic bacterial strains are able to dominate. This can affect the strength of our gut barrier, allowing bacteria and undigested food to pass through into the blood stream. Unfortunately, these can cause inflammatory reactions around our body, leading to more acne breakouts.
Inflammation is also a vicious cycle too, because inflammation, particularly in the brain, creates internal stress in the body. This once again drives even more cortisol levels, leading to more promotion of acne. And so the cycle repeats itself….
Digestion, stress and acne…
When our fight or flight mode is activated, this slows down our digestion. This is because when we need to run for our lives, digesting food isn’t a priority. Instead all our energy is sent to our extremities… our arms and our legs, so that we can stay and fight, or turn and flee. Not so useful for modern humans! But unfortunately we still react to stress in the same way as our cave people ancestors!
The problem is that a slow digestion means we can’t digest and absorb our nutrients effectively. So not only is there a constant stream of cortisol driving oily skin and inflammation, but a less than optimal digestion means our skin can’t get the nutrients it needs to repair.
The ongoing cycle of stress and acne…
Once acne appears it can have devastating effects on someone’s confidence and mental well-being. And this in itself is enough to lead to a vicious cycle whereby stress exacerbates acne, which leads to further stress… and the cycle continues.
So what can we do about stress and acne?
It’s not as easy as ‘just remove the stressors’. Quite often we can’t remove them. But there are some things we can do to help counter the effects of raised cortisol…
1) Protein. With every meal.
When we combine protein with carbohydrates it has the effect of slowing down the absorption of the sugar from the carbohydrates. This will lead to less of an insulin spike, which is important for keeping testosterone levels at a normal level.
2) It’s all about the plants.
If you can provide your good bacteria with the food they need to thrive, this can slow down, or even hinder the growth of the more pathogenic strains, even when you are stressed.
Eat colourful fruit and veg, different types of grains, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds… all of these will help reduce the stress induced inflammation from your gut. See how many different plant based foods you can eat across the week.
3) Dance. Lift. Stretch.
It’s a fine balance with exercise. Moving regularly can reduce the cortisol stress response in the brain. However overly intense exercise (especially without the right nutrition and adequate recovery time) can exacerbate elevated cortisol levels.
Pick something that you enjoy, whether that’s countryside jogs, yoga, dancing or strength training.
4) Sleep soundly.
Optimising sleep is an effective tool for helping manage cortisol levels. A regular sleep schedule (even at weekends), a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve phones or TVs and limiting caffeine intake after lunchtime are all things that can help improve the quality of your sleep. Which in turn will help you manage your stress induced acne that bit better.
5) And breathe.
Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to over achieve, and in doing so we are constantly on the go. We could all do with just slowing down a bit. Here are some tips to manage your busy schedule:
- Be realistic about what you can achieve in a day.
- Sit down to eat instead of eating on the go.
- Focus on one job at a time instead of spinning multiple plates.
- And take some time to breathe in some fresh air.
These are small but simple techniques to shift your body from fight or flight, into rest and digest.
Need further support with your skin health?
If you would like to find out more about how nutritional therapy can support your skin, please do get in touch. Louise is our skin specialist, and has a range of packages and functional testing options to suit your individual needs. You can apply to work with her here.