How stress can harm your skin

September 9, 2016
Volume 4    |   Issue 36

We've all been there: In high school, it usually happened before a first date. You wake up and suddenly you realize your skin is erupting with the biggest pimple you think you've ever seen. Now that you're older, it may not be a pimple that pops up. But our skin often changes unexpectedly. While we've often thought to blame this all-too-familiar situation on stress, it's been hard for researchers to confirm or deny that possibility. After all, we all have some level of stress in our lives, and we all respond to various stressors differently, so it's difficult to conduct objective scientific studies on the specific role of stress in any situation.

However, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York have been able to investigate this issue by going directly to the source: the nervous system. For example, researchers have known for some time that you can clear up psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition, by interrupting the nerves servicing that area of the skin or by injecting local anesthetic into the psoriasis patches. While deadening all the nerves to the skin obviously isn't a viable treatment option for psoriasis patients, these findings do point to the role of the nervous system in inflammatory conditions and give researchers direction for future study.

Based on this information, the WCMC researchers have been investigating the role of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters in inflammatory skin conditions. Stress can cause the nerve endings in the skin to release more of these chemicals, leading to inflammation. The researchers speculate that it could be possible to block some of the steps in the pathways that release these chemicals, thereby providing new treatment options for these skin conditions.

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The researchers are also investigating how stress can affect other skin woes, including signs of aging and skin cancer. While they haven't found a link to aging, they do note that some animal studies suggest that when exposed to UV radiation, stressed mice end up with skin cancer more quickly than non-stressed ones.

Research is ongoing to determine the best ways to treat skin conditions that are exacerbated by stress. But these studies do seem to confirm what we've known all along: stress isn't good for your skin. If you're suffering from an inflammatory skin condition or simply want to make sure your skin looks its best for a major event, take a careful look at your lifestyle and evaluate what stressors you can eliminate.

Try to use that extra time you free up for relaxing activities, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, or simply getting enough sleep. Stress can also drive us to unhealthy habits, such as eating junk food and skipping exercise. If you feel stressed and anxious during the day and you notice that on those days your skin is reactive, you may want to look into the herb Rhodiola rosea. Rhodiola has been shown to help manage stress, fatigue, and anxiety by positively influencing our cortisol production.

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