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The Brain-Skin Connection: Is Stress Affecting Your Complexion?

The impact of stress can be physical – sweaty palms, knots in the stomach or, as new research has confirmed, a big frustrating breakout. This Stress Awareness Month, we’re looking at the ‘brain-skin connection’ – how our skin reveals emotions, the impact of chronic stress, and the skincare routine that will save the day. Spoiler: it’s not just about what you put on your face.

The Brain-Skin Connection

Have you ever been stumped by an obvious question and flushed red? Or pushed hard to meet a deadline, only to have an eczema flare up? This is the brain-skin connection at work. In essence, stress can influence skin health and skin health can influence stress – and it’s all down to a complex network of nerves, hormones, and immune system signals. 

Your skin is a dynamic organ (in fact the largest one in the body) and it’s your primary sensing organ for environmental stressors, like heat, cold, pain and tension. It also responds to internal stressors. Whether you’re experiencing extreme temperature, or you’re under mental, physical or emotional pressure, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (AKA the trio of glands that make up your body’s main stress response system) activates. With that, a flurry of stress hormones are released, including cortisol, adrenaline and other key hormones in the fight-or-flight stress response called catecholamines. 

Cortisol has a profound effect on the skin. In excess, it can stimulate the production of sebum (the skin’s natural oil) which leads to clogged pores and – you guessed it – spots. It can also impair the skin barrier, making it more vulnerable to moisture loss, irritants and allergens. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed and looking dry, red or inflamed, cortisol could be the culprit.

Chronic stress and skin health

Studies have shown that people with high stress levels often experience disruptions in their epidermal barrier – the top layer of skin that protects us from harmful microbes. Consistent overwhelm means more cortisol, which can aggravate irritated skin and chronic skin conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea – or trigger new flare ups. 

Chronic stress takes a toll on your skin’s collagen and elastin too: cortisol alters the structure of proteins in the skin, which disrupts the rejuvenation process and accelerates the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. To sum up, cortisol is almost always to blame.

As we mentioned, the brain-skin connection works both ways: skin itself can impact chronic stress. In response to things like high-energy visible light (HEVL, also known as blue light) or blazing heat, the skin produces stress hormones and send these signals back to the brain. This creates a perpetual stress cycle, where emotional stressors cause stressed skin, environmental stressors cause hormonal stress – and on and on we go. 

Skincare as a holistic solution

In light of what we know about the brain-skin connection, a holistic approach to skincare is crucial. Before you think about topical treatments, we recommend considering any underlying emotional factors that might be affecting your skin health. Incorporating stress management techniques into your daily routine can help mitigate the physiological effects of stress, whether it’s relaxation exercises, spending downtime with friends or working out

Some stress-relieving mind-body practices include:

+ Meditation: Focused attention and mindfulness practices can give you a sense of calm, peace and resilience.

+ Acupuncture: Acupuncture has been shown to balance the body’s energy flow, promoting relaxation and triggering the release of endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers.

+ Visualisation: Creating calming mental imagery can release tension and promote relaxation.

+ Breathwork: Deep, intentional breathing can activate the body’s relaxation response and promote a sense of calm and centeredness. 

+ Tai chi or qigong: These gentle movement practices promote relaxation, improve circulation, and balance the flow of energy throughout the body.

+ Yoga: Renowned for its ability to release stress, yoga combines physical postures, breath control and meditation techniques to alleviate tension, reduce cortisol levels, and promote a sense of calm.

Looking to incorporate a topical treatment for stressed skin? Cue Skin + Me. We’ll create a derm-designed treatment plan for your specific skin needs, including formulations that adjust every month to give you the best progress possible. Stress-free skincare for the win!

Final thoughts

From cortisol-induced breakouts to disrupted collagen, stress can affect the skin in a variety of ways – and be caused by any number of internal and external stressors. Our approach to stress skin must be holistic: by incorporating stress-relieving techniques into daily routines we can nurture skin health from within – and look to personalised skincare for expert-led support. 

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