Your Skin’s Response to Stress

October 29, 2014  | By Colby Evans, MD

Stress and skinWe all know that stress can take a toll on the body. With the holidays quickly approaching and the speed of modern life increasing everyday, stress can also leave your skin weaker and looking older than it should. Healthy choices can help prevent stress-related sun and physical damage and lead to a healthier, happier life.

Stress comes in many forms, including emotional stress associated with your job, family life, and financial troubles. There is also physical stress caused by illness or surgery, poor nutrition, or childbirth.

Stress is a well-known trigger for many skin diseases, including acne, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis. In the case of acne, stress causes your body to produce cortisol and other stress hormones, which tells your sebaceous glands to produce more oil. Oily skin is more prone to acne and other skin problems. A vicious cycle can occur where the stress causes your skin to flare up, which can be embarrassing and therefore lead to more stress. Stress can also produce more wrinkles and enhance the visible signs of aging.

Stress also contributes to more than advanced aging and skin disease flare-ups:

  • Dull Skin: the increased cortisol levels we talked about plus the increased likelihood of eating unhealthy foods and lack of quality sleep when stressed can lead to both roughness and dullness of the skin. Those same stress factors can also lead to excess “stress eating” and weight gain.
  • Brittle Nails: do you pick or chew at your nails when you’re stressed or nervous? You’re not alone. That’s one of the things that can deteriorate the appearance of nails when we’re stressed. Chronic stress can result in brittle or peeling nails, simply because the body is working harder to support systems more important for survival when your body is in fight-or-flight mode.
  • Hair Loss: several studies have pointed to stress as the culprit for premature hair loss, particularly in women. There is also a hypothesized correlation between chronic stress and premature graying of the hair, but that has yet to be scientifically proven.

It would be very difficult to avoid stress in modern life as we all become more available and connected 24/7. Avoiding certain aggravating factors, however, can decrease the toll stress takes on your body. Avoid smoking, limit alcohol consumption, and wear sunscreen and a hat when outdoors. All of these will help prevent the damage from stress showing through to your skin.

These stress reduction techniques can also be very helpful:

  • Exercise can help reduce stress and also help you look and feel better as you lose weight and gain muscle tone.
  • Meditation, massage, and enjoyable hobbies also can decrease stress and improve wellness.
  • A healthy diet which includes antioxidants like berries and green vegetables can help block the effects of stress before they reach the skin. Avoid foods that put more stress on your body like fatty meats and excess white sugar and sweeteners.
  • Getting plenty of sleep in a quiet and comfortable environment can also help.

Life in modern America comes with a variety of stressors and new ones seem to be appearing every year. Although it cannot be avoided, stress can be controlled with mindful approaches to diet, exercise, and relaxation. These strategies will not only make you look and feel better, but also help your skin be in great shape for the years (and stresses) to come.

Colby Evans, MD
A native Texan, Dr. Evans completed his medical degree and residency in dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Evans furthered his study with a Clinical Fellowship at the St. John’s Institute of Dermatology, an internationally acclaimed institution in London, England. He holds an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with high honors in Chemistry. Dr. Evans has been published in multiple peer-reviewed journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of The American Academy of Dermatology. He lectures at national medical conferences and has a particular interest in the treatment of skin cancer and psoriasis. He also recently published a medical textbook on geriatric dermatology.