Are Your Skin, Hair, and Nails Warning You of Serious Health Problems?

Dr. Janet Zand
November 30, 2018


Have you ever noticed that many people get cancer during times of extreme stress? Or that heart attacks hit when stress peaks? Stress is a killer. That's no secret. In addition to cancer and heart disease, stress contributes to many other health problems, including cold sores and shingles.

But did you know that there are milder symptoms of stress that indicate it's time to handle the stresses in your life differently? If you listen to these signals and reduce some of your stressors, you may be able to prevent more serious, painful, and even deadly ones.

Two of the most common signals that stress is affecting your body are hair loss and brittle nails. Dermatologists know that stress can contribute to skin problems, as well. These can include acne, rosacea, eczema, and even psoriasis. Your doctor may recommend drugs or hormones to treat the problem. But before you reach for hormones, antibiotics, or expensive skin care products, take a look at the part stress plays in your life. Begin by making a few adjustments and you could have healthier hair, skin, and nails.

How Stress Causes Skin Problems

Stress causes your body to produce more hormones, namely cortisol. And cortisol causes your skin to make more oil. Oily skin is more likely to produce blemishes, even in people who don't ordinarily get acne. So if your face is breaking out, the first step is to take a look and see whether or not you're under more stress than usual.

Stress also affects how quickly your skin heals. A study published in the Archives of Dermatology took over two-dozen students and tested their skin's ability to heal both during exam time and after coming back from a school break. The researchers put cellophane tape on the participants' forearms and then stripped it off repeatedly until their skin became irritated. The students' skin healed faster after their break than during exam times. This was the first study to show that psychological stress affects the way the skin normally functions.

If you notice blemishes or skin that heals abnormally slow, it could mean you're under too much stress. Take action now to keep stress from causing bigger health problems.

Why Stress Causes Your Hair to Fall out

Is it possible that you need hormones to treat your problem? For instance, if your hair is thinning, you could need thyroid or other hormones. However, before getting expensive tests to determine your hormone needs, take a look at the stresses in your life. When you're under stress, your hair can go into a "falling out" phase. And this thinning phase doesn't necessarily occur at the time you're most stressed. It can occur up to three months after a stressful situation.

When stress causes your hair to become thinner, it usually grows back in six to nine months. If it doesn't grow back, it's time to get evaluated for thyroid and other hormonal imbalances that can affect your hair.

Another cause of hair loss is surgery. While surgery can be stressful, it may cause hair loss for an entirely different reason. There's a limit to how much healing your body can do at any one time. After any surgery, your body takes a break from growing hair and nails to concentrate on more serious repair work. At this time, your hair could grow more slowly, or fall out and not grow back as quickly as usual. If you've had recent surgery, give your hair some time to grow back. If it doesn't, then ask your doctor to test for hormone deficiencies.

In addition, you might want to consider Chinese herbal medicine. It’s worth visiting with an NCCAOM certified herbalist who can prescribe a formula specifically for you. Commonly, you will not only see your hair growing back but simultaneously you will often feel less stressed. Why? In Traditional Chinese Medicine, loss of hair and anxiety and nervousness are connected.  Correcting the anxiety will often reduce hair loss.

Why Stress Causes Nails to Weaken

Your nails may be a reflection of how you're handling stressors in your life. Chemotherapy, for example, can cause white horizontal lines to appear on your nails. Other more general stressors, such as regular family arguments or travel, can lead to brittle or peeling nails.

Many people bite or pick at their nails when they're under stress. Some even rub their fingers over their nails repeatedly, causing a ridge to appear. All of these are signs that you need to find another way to reduce your response to stressful events. You may not be able to prevent anxiety-provoking situations, but you can lessen their impact on your body and emotions.

Tips to Reduce Stress

Cortisol is secreted in response to any form of stress. Too much cortisol can destroy brain cells, lower your immunity, and accelerate aging. It is a complex hormone, as without it we would be dead, but too much of it can be the root of a whole lot of evil.

To reduce excessive cortisol, consider stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, doing anything that you feel gives you some relief and relaxation. You also may want to talk with your doctor about taking DHEA.

But there's something else you can take without talking to your doctor. There are several herbs known as adaptogens that regulate cortisol production. Adaptogens are nutrients that help your body achieve balance. My favorites are a combination of herbal tinctures of Rhodiola, Eleutherococcus senticosa, and Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). They are safe and effective.

I first learned of Siberian ginseng 30 years ago. This root is not a member of the ginseng family at all. Rather, it’s an Americanized name for Eleutherococcus senticosus — one of the most significant adaptogens we know.

I began taking an extract of Eleutherococcus when I was under stress. One day, about a month later, I noticed that my symptoms of stress were gone. Vanished! I then began using  Eleuthero for my patient’s complaints of fatigue, nervousness, and insomnia, and found that it often helped them.

Adaptogens work differently in different people. They help regulate body functions. The dosage for most tinctures is 20-40 drops, two or three times a day in a little water or juice or straight into your mouth. You can take capsules instead of tinctures, but tinctures usually work fastest and best. Digestion begins with our saliva, so when the herbs are initially in our mouth as opposed to our stomachs, they are often absorbed more thoroughly.

And, finally, make sure you're getting some exercise. Exercise reduces stress by releasing endorphins (feel-good chemicals). See which exercises work for you and how long it takes for the endorphins to kick in. Then, put exercising into your daily routine.

All of these stress relievers are especially important if you're in the middle of highly stressful situations. Relieving your stress could save your life.


Archives of Dermatology, January 2001.

“Feeling Stressed? How Your Skin, Hair And Nails Can Show It.” American Academy of Dermatology’s ScienceDaily, 2007, November 12.

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