Acne is an incredibly common skin condition that can affect people of all ages. Even though acne is so common (around 95% of people in England will experience it at one point in their lives), it still causes huge amounts of stress for the individual. The stress of the skin condition can aggravate existing acne or even trigger new breakouts. People who haven’t experienced acne may still find that being stressed causes a change in their skin. So, let’s get into why this can happen and what you can do about it.
Understanding the Stress Response
The Fight or Flight Response
We usually use the ‘Fight or Flight’ term when describing our stress response. Our stress response is still working the same way it did thousands of years ago, and in those times, our main stressors were being physically attacked by something. The body developed a response to help us survive in these situations, which is the release of stress hormones to help give our body extra energy to help us run away or fight something (like a tiger) – this response was useful in acute situations.
Where it goes wrong…
However, modern life has turned this life-saving response to stress into a health risk. In today’s world, although we don’t have tigers to run away from, our body still reacts the same whenever we perceive stress. Our body doesn’t know if stress is being caused because we are stuck in traffic, thinking about something that might happen in the future, or are being chased by a tiger; all the body is thinking is “We’re stressed right now, we need stress hormones to get us out of this situation”.
Modern life is stressful, and so is having a chronic skin condition! The combination of the two can mean that we get ourselves into a vicious cycle of chronic stress. This is when our stress levels remain high for weeks, months or even years. It’s important to note that acute short-term stress is healthy and beneficial. But when it continues for weeks, months or years, it starts to cause health issues. I like to think of chronic stress as if you were driving a car at full speed. At some point the car is going to run out of fuel and breakdown – that’s what happens with our bodies if we don’t stop off at a petrol station to refuel and repair.
The Link Between Stress and Acne.
If you’re wondering whether stress is affecting certain areas of your body, I want you to imagine this scenario. You’re in the forest, and you see a bear in the distance walking towards you – this switches on the stress response.
What do you think is vital to the body right now? What will it prioritise?
The Important systems of the body in times of stress
In this moment, the body will make changes. It will supply blood flow to the brain (to help with decision-making), it will release stored glucose (for extra energy to run away), and it will speed up your heart rate (to help with circulation).
This leads me to my next question… What do we think isn’t necessary in this moment?
Non-essential systems of the body in times of stress
Trying to conceive a child isn’t important when there’s a possibility we might die, digesting that meal you just had also isn’t important, and actually, it’s not a good time to go to sleep either.
This is why when we are chronically stressed, it can start to take a toll on our bodies and affect normal functioning. If the body doesn’t feel safe, it isn’t going to prioritise the creation of sex hormones, digesting food, or anything else our body works on when we’re relaxed. Hopefully, this helps to show how chronic stress can cause acne.
The Direct Effect of Stress on the Skin.
Now remember, it’s chronic stress that will cause acne. If you have an acute episode of stress – such as oversleeping and being late for work, the body should go back to its normal function once you get to work and relax again.
Research has shown that increased cortisol levels can increase oil production in the skin, reduce blood flow to the skin, impair barrier function and increase the breakdown of collagen and elastin. Chronic stress can also start to impact our immune system, increasing inflammation within the skin and reducing its natural ability to heal. This means that breakouts and post-inflammatory pigmentation hang around much longer.
As we discussed, stress also affects gut health. If people are chronically stressed, they may see changes in their bowel movements, feel more bloated or generally struggle with the digestion of food. Research has shown chronic stress can shift a healthy microbiome’s balance, leading to inflammation which can additionally affect our mood. We know how important a healthy gut is for healthy skin. But, gut health can also impact our mood, so this can cause a cycle between gut health, stress and an increase in acne. This is known as the Gut-Brain-Skin-Axis.
Effective Strategies for Managing Stress
Let’s be honest here: it’s impossible to eliminate stress entirely from our lives. But don’t lose hope, as there’s a lot we can do to help our bodies adapt to stress and the way we react to stressors – so that both our skin and body benefit. Here are some practical tips to help you manage stress effectively:
Balance your blood sugar
I know, if you have been following me on Instagram or reading this blog, you might be sick of hearing me talk about blood glucose. But if we have constant spikes and crashes in blood glucose throughout the day it causes a stress response in the body. By balancing your blood glucose, you’re taking away one of the many stressors in your life.
Engage in some form of movement
Physical activity is an excellent stress reliever. When we move our bodies we help to balance hormones and burn off any glucose our body may have released in response to the stress. Even something as simple as a 5-minute walk, or dancing to your favourite song can help to calm the mind. As well, physical activity releases endorphins—natural mood elevators that can counteract the effects of stress hormones.
Spend some time in nature
Studies have shown that being in nature can help to reduce cortisol levels. So if you can take 10 minutes to look at some green spaces (like trees), or have a moment of mindfulness and just listen to the birds, or how the trees move in the wind – it might just help you feel a little calmer. If you can’t get outside, I like to listen to soundscapes of nature sounds.
This is a hard one because stress can how easy it is for you to get good quality sleep. But we need to ensure we are allowing our bodies to rest. Ideally, we should be getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night – but in times when you can’t do this, allow your body to rest and make the most of naps in the day.
Seek Social Support
Humans are meant to be in tribes – it’s how we survive. If you’re reading this as an introvert, you don’t have to be out every weekend (that will probably cause more stress), but having friends and family that you can connect with and talk to provides an outlet to share your feelings and experiences.
Excessive consumption of caffeine can increase stress hormones, and if the caffeinated drink also has a load of sugar in it, it can contribute to blood sugar spikes, which also impacts your mood throughout the day. Caffeine actually takes around 7 hours on average to be completely cleared from the body – so if you’re drinking tea and coffee late in the day, you might be affecting how much deep, restorative sleep you’re getting. Try to stick to just two caffeinated drinks a day, and try to have them before 2pm, so that the caffeine doesn’t impact your sleep later on.
Get help from professionals.
Having a chronic skin condition in itself is stressful. Seeking help from a mental health professional or therapist can help to give you solutions. They can help you work on stress management techniques, how you feel about your skin and ways you can reframe your thoughts about yourself. When my acne was at its worst, I would say things like ‘I look so ugly today’, ‘My skin will never heal’, and ‘Everyone is staring at my acne’. Now I want you to flip these phrases and imagine a FRIEND was saying these things to you. How would you feel? Probably rubbish! But when we say these things to ourselves, we don’t realise that we are causing even more stress. This is where mindset coaches, therapists and talking therapy can intervene and help.
How nutritional therapy can help with stress.
Chronic stress can deplete the body of certain nutrients which are important for hormones and skin health. These include nutrients such as magnesium and zinc. As well, nutrients such as vitamin C and B vitamins are important to help support mood and adrenal health. Usually, these deficiencies can’t be corrected through food alone, so they need to be replenished through supplementation. As well, high-strength herbal blends can help to promote a sense of calm, aiding with sleep. If this is something you’d like to chat about, get in touch and we can see if nutrition sessions could help you with both stress and acne.