As we all know, some stress is unavoidable in life.
Short, manageable bursts of stress (and stress hormones) are part of our evolutionary makeup – our crucial ‘fight or flight’ response.
This immediate physiological adaptation was crucial for survival - allowing our hunter-gatherer ancestors to manage dangerous threats quickly, summoning the strength to fight them off -or sprint away at pace.
Sometimes the prospect of being unprepared for an important Zoom meeting can mimic the terrifying experience of meeting a Grizzly Bear in a dark cave, but for most people, the fear of these experiences is short-lived and the adrenaline and cortisol driving these uncomfortable physical feelings don’t last long.
In fact, a burst of adrenaline often make us more productive, driving us to efficiently manage the task at hand. It can even potentially do our immune systems good, too, (think wild swimming and ice baths…)
For a growing number of people however, chronic stress can become an overwhelming and damaging concern.
Our modern penchant for over-working and not getting enough sleep can drive this chronically stressed-out way of life – as, of course can serious illness and psychological or emotional problems, (not to mention alcohol and drugs!).
We’ve all been there at some point, but when chronic daily stress goes unchecked, the results can be far-reaching- damaging every single system of the body from your gut to your heart, including your skin.
Now for the science bit…
The brain-skin axis is an interconnected pathway that translates psychological stress from the brain to the skin ,and back the other way (think hairs on your arm standing on end telling your brain there’s something scary around..)
When in fight or flight mode, signals picked up in the body are sent to the brain, which alerts the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster, increasing blood pressure and blood flow to your muscles and your internal organs.
Your breathing rate also increases, and sugar is released into the blood stream as a source of energy for the impending task.
Meanwhile, your brain also signals your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, a hormone which keeps you alert. Perfect to give you that boost to flee a bear, but long-term exposure to these hormones can cause a multitude of problems.
Chronic stress causes tension in the muscles which can lead to postural problems, pain and migraines. Elevated cortisol over many years can even increase risk of dementia. In the cardiovascular system, elevated heart rate and blood pressure increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke, plus an increase in sugar in your blood over time can increase your risk of Diabetes.
Chronic stress can also lead to depression, anxiety; acid reflux; problems with the immune system; low sperm count in men; period problems in women and, you guessed it, the potential to worsen acne and accelerate skin AGEING!
Cortisol is thought to play a part in increased oil production, clogging pores and worsening acne. Various studies have looked at the effects of stress on acne, and many have found a significant association, likely due to a combination of overproduction of oil and the changes to the immune system, which allows unhealthy acne-causing bacteria to flourish.
As well as acne stress is also known to exacerbate other inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea, eczema and psoriasis. Once again it happens through coritsol’s inflammatory impact on the skin and the skin’s impaired ability to heal and recover from skin damage when it is stressed.
Stress also affects normal skin. Poor sleep due to stress for example leads to reduced elasticity, causing wrinkles and dark circles. Cortisol is an inflammatory hormone and breaks down the skin’s main proteins collagen and elastin. It also Increases inflammation in the skin which accelerates the ageing process. Stress hormones also shorten your telomeres and cut the life span of your cells.
Clearly none of this is good news.
Key to reducing stress is to activate our bodies’ opposing response to Fight or Flight - Rest and Digest, also known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Familiar though it all may sound, taking a little time to nurture these ‘good’ habits really will leave you looking better and feeling better.
Top stress-busting tips!
Get enough, high-quality sleep – eyemasks on, earplugs in, immerse yourself in calm – set a regular wake-time, and chill out with no screens for at least an hour before bed-time
Take regular exercise- exercise in the morning can help with sleep and reduce stress. Exercise is also a powerful anti-inflammatory activity with head to toe benefits for every organ and system.
Try Meditation/Mindfulness – according to one Canadian study, just 10 minutes per day can significantly calm anxiety and reduce stress levels, particularly in women.
Deep breathing exercises - breathing deeply sends a message to your brain to calm down, known by some as the Relaxation Response. This is the only way we can directly and consciously control our nervous system. Just 10 minutes, first thing in the morning and last thing at night can significantly reduce your heart rate and blood pressure and leave you feeling relaxed and able to cope.
Avoid overworking – consider flexible working patterns or even reducing your hours if work is getting on top of you.
Consider speaking to a counsellor/therapist to address any ongoing mental health, relationship or work problems.
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