The sophisticated relationship between stress and diseases of all sorts has been talked about since ancient times. Amongst the many imbalances that can arise from stress, undesirable, unhealthy and aged skin conditions are just one of them.
In addition to early documentation, there are also recent clinical observations arise of the correlation between psychological stress and the intensification of numerous skin imbalances.
Let us explore both the ancient and recent discoveries of this “Brain-Skin Connection”, and learn for ourselves how we can improve our psychology, endocrinology, immunity and ultimately improve our skin biology.
The Brain-Skin Connection
When a person undergoes psychological stress (mental, physical, or emotional pressure), and the internal pressure exceeds his or her adaptive ability, the entire body is negatively affected. Essentially, whether the perceived situation is actually dangerous or not, the brain perceives even imaginary stress as a threat. Unfortunately, it is our job, not the brains, to properly judge situations and respond to them appropriately.
In the event that one experiences any perceived, stressful situation and reacts psychologically to it – rather than staying calm – the brain secretes a variety of stress hormones known as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), glucocorticoids, and epinephrine. This hormonal response triggers a range of mental and mood responses that are designed to help the body “adapt” and react to whatever “stressful” situation they are in.
This is a what you would consider a healthy and normal stress response. In the case that the reaction is logical, this sort of hormonal response might save your life. However, in the case that the stress responses are illogical, inadequate or excessive, the person may experience negative physiological responses such as feeling anxiety, migraines, and in worse cases, may exacerbate health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegeneration.
Additionally, confirmed ancient and present research has found that the skin biology is one of the many immediate perceivers of stress. In other words, the skin is a target of stress responses. Similar to the gut-brain relationship, where one feels immediate effects of stress in their digestive system in the form of stomach aches, cramps or “butterflies”; our skin is also immediately affected by stress.
As the largest organ of the body, the skin has the very important jobs. It is a barrier system that has major roles in our immune and detoxification systems, in which it helps the body achieve homeostasis between the external environment and interior of the body. As a precious organ, our skin is in constant communication with the brain. When the skin experiences stress from the external environment; be it sunburn, thermogenic stress, air pollution, or physical trauma, the skin reacts by activating the endocrine and immune systems, which when chronic, can have very negative impacts on the health of the skin.
The Brain-Skin relationship; however, takes this relationship a step further out. In addition to environmental stress, physiological stress responses can also exert their effects to the skin through the stimulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Upon sensing any mental or emotional stress, the HPA-axis secretes and releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which are then transferred to the pituitary gland, where it binds to neuron receptors and stimulate the secretion of more hormones known as adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). These hormones are then sent to the outer layer of adrenal cortex via the bloodstream, which ultimately stimulates the production of glucocorticoids (GC) like cortisol and corticosterone.
Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory stress hormone; it is perhaps the primary stress hormone in the body and regulates all over stress responses. The problem here is that when cortisol is chronically secreted, it can lead to a variety of health problems. For example, cortisol temporarily suppresses immune function and also raises blood sugar. Additionally, chronic cortisol production can lead to HPA burnout and resulting in a sluggish thyroid and adrenals.
All of these things eventually weaken the quality of the skin in a number of ways. If immune function is weak, the skin is prone to bacterial infections. If the adrenals burn out then cortisol burns out, and the skin is going to become inflamed, considering the fact that cortisol is necessary for soothing inflammation. If the blood sugar raises, then the skin can age rapidly due to a process known as glycation, which produces AGEs (advanced glycation end products), which wrinkle the skin. If the thyroid weakens, the entire metabolism slows down, resulting in poor blood circulation, hormonal imbalance, and dry, dull and lifeless skin. 1
Other skin problems that might arise from prolonged stress include:
• Poor wound healing
Long-Term Skin Damage from Chronic Stress
Under short-term acute stress, the HPA axis is usually able to regulate itself. However, if the stress is prolonged (chronic mental and emotional stress), then the Increased cortisol can augment innate and adaptive immune responses, greatly suppressing immunoprotection. As mentioned, this is going to result in an increased susceptibility to infections, allergic and inflammatory diseases, and eventually poor digestive function, nutrient deficiencies and even aged, wrinkled skin.
According to study, chronic stress significantly accelerates UV-induced skin neoplasma development. The study found that those who were exposed to prolonged chronic stress were more likely to develop skin tumors and much earlier than those who didn’t experience chronic stress. This makes sense, considering that chronic stress greatly decreases the production and effectiveness of T-cells and other immune cells.
What’s more, chronic stress greatly ages the skin – it can result in the accelerated formation of fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and also poor collagen and elastin production, leading to a loss of elasticity and firmness, and contributing to dull skin complexion.
While the exact scientific mechanisms of how stress results in skin aging is somewhat elusive, there are explanations.
Theories of Stress-Induced Skin Aging:
1. Decreased Antioxidant Ability: In one study, it was discovered that repeated stress can induce ROS production by up-regulation of NF-κB in the skin. In other words, stress accelerates the depletion of cellular antioxidant ability. Both glutathione and SOD (superoxide dismutase) are greatly suppressed when the body is stressed chronically. Combine low antioxidant production with the increased oxidative damage caused by stress and you have a recipe for mitochondria dysfunction. Considering that the health of our skin cells is determined by the health of our mitochondria, compromised mitochondria would, without doubt, result in a determinant of skin aging.
2. Shortened Telomeres: The theory of telomere shortening is another possible factor in the link between chronic psychological stress and aging. It has been found that chronic stress can shorten telomere length, resulting in the downregulation of mitochondria. In other words, shortened telomeres means premature cellular aging. This could explain the vicious cycle between stress, skin damage and signs of aging.
3. Sleep Deprivation: Chronic stress greatly disturbs healthy sleep patterns. When stress is chronic, the HPA axis is weakened. This results in a pineal gland that has trouble producing melatonin, which means deep, restorative sleep is hard to come by. Considering the fact that sleep is the most important activity for replenishing the body, building the immune system and regenerating tissues through the production of HGH and other important self-repair enzymes, it is no wonder that there are countless studies that show the relationship between poor sleep quality and increased signs of intrinsic skin aging.
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