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The Brain Skin Connection: Stress, inflammation and Skin Ageing

The Brain Skin Connection: Stress, inflammation and Skin Ageing

What happens when we are stressed?

When the mind is exposed to adrenal stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (or HPA axis for short) is activated, and a cascade of hormonal changes occur to eventually cause the release of cortisol (our stress hormone) from the adrenal gland. Normally, when a stressor goes away, negative feedback cycles serve to turn off the HPA axis and reduce the release of cortisol. In the modern world, however, many of us are constantly activating our HPA axis.

What kind of things can cause adrenal stress?

 - Waking up with an Alarm clock before your body wakes up naturally can activate your HPA axis and increase your cortisol. Sleep deprivation caused by worry or by a busy lifestyle activates the stress response and causes an increase in cortisol levels

 - Eating a high carbohydrate or high sugar diet shoots your blood sugar up, only to have it come crashing down a few hours later. Low blood sugar can be life-threatening, so it’s no wonder your body views it as a stressor. When blood sugar drops, the adrenals release cortisol and epinephrine, sending a signal to the body that it needs to get glucose into the bloodstream as soon as possible. When this happens, the body responds by breaking down glycogen (the stored form of glucose) as well as working to create new glucose from protein and fat through a process called gluconeogenesis. In short, every time blood sugar drops, it’s an emergency signal to the body and the HPA axis is activated.

 - A very low carb diet combined with intense exercise also forces the body to rely on the same stress-fueled process of creating glucose that occurs with the low blood sugar scenario. Whether you’re eating a processed, high-carb diet or a low-carb diet in combination with intense exercise, your adrenals are taking a hit.

 - Chronic psychological stress which can occur from many lifestyle pressure such as work, emotional or relationship issues or money worries take the biggest toll on our adrenal health by consistently activating the HPA axis.

How does chronic stress affect the skin?

Research has shown that the skin actively participates in the body’s response to stress as it has its own mini HPA axis which produces localised adrenaline and cortisol within the skin. When stress becomes chronic, this can cause increased inflammation, and DNA damage and reduced effectiveness of the skin immune system to physical stressors such as UV radiation and anti oxidants. It can also shorten cellular lifespan and delay skin healing. This all contributes to accelerated ageing causing loss of skin tone and increase in lines and wrinkles. 

Stress also reduces the skin barrier effectiveness and enhances skin sensitivity, as well as causing immune dysfunction. This can contribute to skin conditions such as dermatitis, rosacea and skin redness.  

It may also be linked to imbalances in the friendly bacteria on the skins surface and the over production of oil, which may trigger blemishes. Studies have shown that increased acne severity is associated with stress levels.  

Preventing Stress in the Modern World

The modern lifestyle stacks the odds against us and can lead to adrenal stress, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed. In fact, there’s a lot we can do to keep ourselves healthy.

 - Leave yourself time to sleep for 8 hours per night – that means you’re in bed, ready to go to sleep by 10 if you need to be awake at 6. If possible, use an alarm clock that wakes you up gently by monitoring your sleep cycles.

 - Eat on a regular basis and don’t go too long without meals – if you’re worried about your stress level or think you might already have adrenal fatigue, I’d highly caution you against skipping breakfast (or any meal, for that matter) regularly. Getting a high protein breakfast in the morning stabilizes your blood sugar throughout the day, which in turn helps to keep your HPA axis functioning appropriately.

 - Don’t skimp on healthy carbohydrates like fruit and starchy tubers if you’re worried about your adrenal health, especially if you’re also engaging in high intensity exercise. A moderate carbohydrate diet is best for those with high stress levels or recovering from adrenal fatigue. When you do eat carbohydrates, combine them with protein and fat to slow absorption and stabilize your blood sugar.

 - Start a mind-body activity practice like meditation or yoga to reduce mental and emotional stress. The benefits of implementing a stress management practice grow over time, so the sooner you start, the better!