You might think that your organs function as separate units, each minding their own business doing whatever it is they do and that’s it. Turns out, however, that the human body really is quite incredible at getting all of its parts to function harmoniously together. More and more research is coming out about the connections between the brain and our organs; we are discovering a vast world of knowledge that we have just barely begun scratching the surface on in many ways. Examples are the brain-skin connection and our sympathetic skin response.
The nervous system is made up of several parts and multiple divisions. There is the central nervous system (CNS) that is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord. Then there is the peripheral nervous system (PNS) which) that is further broken down into the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. The autonomic (ANS) is what we want to focus on here, however. The ANS is even further subdivided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems or better known as the “fight or flight” aspect (sympathetic) and the “rest and digest” aspect (parasympathetic). The ANS is what controls the connections between our brains and our organs.1 So, by now you are probably wondering, “what does my skin have to do with all of this?”
Skin: Your Largest Organ
Believe it or not, your skin is the largest organ we have! Its job includes serving as a barrier between the outside world and your internal organs and tissues as well as playing a role in your immune responses. The skin is the main organ that senses external stimuli such as changes in temperature, pain, pH and mechanical tension.2
What’s Stress Got to Do with It?
Stress and Skin
Nerve cells in the brain sense stress and send signals to release cortisol (our main stress hormone) and epinephrine (Epi) and norepinephrine (NE), the “fight or flight” chemicals.3 Think about these surging through your veins when having to run from the bear you saw on that lovely nature hike you took to wind down from a busy week at the office. Let’s be clear though, we are talking about long term, chronic stress that is causing your skin to appear less healthy and vibrant. It is the feeling of this constant but more importantly the body’s responses to the proverbial “running from the bear” in our everyday lives, every day for months or even years on end that’s the problem. Short term, more acute stressors can actually keep all these systems in check and can improve your health in various ways.
Chronic stress can have a major effect on many of your body systems, not just skin and immune health. Chronic stress can lead to or worsen numerous conditions such as asthma,4,5 arthritis,6 cardiovascular disease,7 migraines,8,9 mental health,10 multiple sclerosis,11 and neuro-degeneration12 to name a few. However, in terms of your skin, we have receptors in our skin for cortisol, Epi and NE which when stimulated cause a cascade of other reactions that affect your skin, immune system and inflammation responses. Some of the effects of stress can lead to decreased blood flow to our skin, can negatively impact wound healing,13 and increase inflammation that stimulates loss of barrier function predisposing us to psoriasis and eczema,14 and it can also increase oil production leading to acne15 and can even cause hair loss.16
According to the science journal article from Inflammation and Allergy Drug Targets,14 skin aging can be defined by formation of unwanted lines and wrinkles, changes in skin coloring, loss of elasticity and firmness and dull skin. It is often due to factors that are considered both internal and external. Internal factors would include a reduced life span of your skin cells, decreased responsiveness and functionality of skin cells and inappropriate immune responses. External factors would include things like sun exposure, diet, stress levels, environmental toxins, etc. Epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol were found to increase damage to DNA in skin cells and alter their repair. In other words, your brain and skin health are intricately linked!
So How Do We Manage All of This?
It may come as a surprise, but simple switches in your lifestyle can have a “time reversal” effect when it comes to how you look and feel. Living in a modern world that often immerses us in a toxic mixture of pesticides, GMO’s, chemicals, pollution, and never-ending electronic stimulation (all stressors on the body!) can all accelerate the aging process. In my New York Times Bestseller, Glow15, the aging process is explored in detail. The Glow15 program gives you the tools to feel and look your best. But it goes much deeper than the surface of your skin because the transformation your entire mind and body experiences can provide you with the confidence needed to live a healthy, well-balanced, energetic life.
Here are five things you can try to incorporate into your life to help better manage your stress levels:
1. Take a bath:
Soaking in hot water has been a beauty ritual for cultures spanning the globe since time immemorial. Taking the time out for a bath relaxes the mind and body, reducing stress — which causes breakouts and other skin issues — and inducing restful sleep.17 Adding Epsom salts can help with detoxification, and there’s even evidence that because calorie burn temporarily increases when the body is exposed to heat, a bath can be as beneficial as a bout of exercise.18 Bath time can also amp up the efficacy of your skincare products — the heat and steam increase penetration of active ingredients by opening up pores and dilating blood vessels, increasing circulation.19
2. Get better sleep:
84 million adults in the United States qualify as sleep deprived.20 The implications are dire: studies show that a chronic lack of sleep — that is, regularly getting less than 7 hours — can make us more prone to depression, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.21,22,23,24,25 When our bodies aren’t given time to restore and regenerate overnight, our hormones are thrown out of whack, immunity drops, and inflammation surges. The skin suffers, too — a lack of sleep can accelerate the signs of aging, impair wound healing, slow collagen production, and compromise the skin’s ability to hold moisture.26 To make sure you’re getting optimum shut-eye, power down electronics at least 90 minutes before going to bed,27 avoid alcohol,28 get regular exercise,29 and keep your environment cool30 — about 68 degrees Fahrenheit — to help the body’s core temperature dip into the zone that ushers in deep, slow-wave zzzzzz.
This will come as no surprise: stress is a major villain. What you may not know is that it’s also destroying your skin… via your stomach. When stress spikes, digestion shuts down, which can cause stomach acids to seep into our bodies, increasing the inflammation that can lead to acne, wrinkles, and dull skin, stressed skin.31 Meditation is one of the best ways to moderate the way your body responds to stress both physically and mentally, reducing blood pressure and heart rate and increasing oxygenation of cells.32,33 Calming your mind can literally keep you youthful — studies have shown that people who meditate may have a younger biological age than people who don’t, and regular meditation can actually lengthen telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten with age.34 By decreasing levels of the fight-or-flight hormones epinephrine and cortisol, which can wreak havoc on the skin when left unchecked, mindfulness practices keep them from breaking down skin elasticity and speeding up signs of aging such as sagging and wrinkling. Not into meditating? Even deep breathing alone can be beneficial since it boosts micro-circulation circulation to skin.35 This sweeps nutrients into cells and activates autophagy, which repairs damage, detoxifies, and regenerates for a lasting glow.
Getting a sweat on doesn’t just improve your cardiovascular system, keep your muscles strong, burn fat, and boost immunity — it’s also absolutely crucial to beautiful skin. Why? Because in addition to flooding the skin with oxygen and a fresh blood supply, it supercharges autophagy, getting the gunk out of our cells so that they can get to work doing good things — like making collagen and elastin — unhindered.36,37,38 Studies have shown that only 30 minutes on a treadmill can boost autophagy by 40 to 50 percent, and that number continues to rise up until 80 minutes.39 This can make a huge difference in the way you look, fast. And it’s never too late to start: A 2014 study showed that regular exercise can even reverse aging in older adults, thickening the skin of volunteers who were more than 60 years of age so that it resembled the skin of people in their 20s.40
5. Up the Ante on Antioxidants:
Antioxidants are like armor against damaging UV rays and environmental pollution, protecting against the free radicals that damage cells and cause inflammation.41 Loading up on them both internally and externally in our diets and our skincare routines equips our cells to defend against signs of aging such as wrinkles, sagginess, and hyperpigmentation. One way to get these goodies in your diet would be to try our NAOMI Turmeric + Resveratrol. In skincare, look for red grapes, Vitamin C, and green tea, and make sure you’re filling your plate with dietary sources such as bergamot, blueberries, strawberries, and leafy greens. And remember, some of the most potent antioxidants are found in the most indulgent treats: the polyphenols found in red wine resveratrol and dark chocolate have been shown to activate autophagy and keep cells young and healthy.42
We live in a culture that is constantly going on overdrive. Stress is an all too common part of our daily lives. Sometimes life just happens and that’s ok, but it is how we respond to those stressors that is what’s most important. Do yourself and your stressed skin a favor and make more time for some self-care and slowing down. Trust us, your skin will thank you. And when you look in the mirror, you will be glad you pressed your pause button.
- Low, Phillip. “Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System – Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders.” Merck Manuals Consumer Version, Merck Manuals, https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders/autonomic-nervous-system-disorders/overview-of-the-autonomic-nervous-system
- Page, Elizabeth H. “Structure and Function of the Skin – Skin Disorders.” Merck Manuals Consumer Version, Merck Manuals, www.merckmanuals.com/home/skin-disorders/biology-of-the-skin/structure-and-function-of-the-skin. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/skin-disorders/biology-of-the-skin/structure-and-function-of-the-skin
- “Understanding the Stress Response.” Harvard Health, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
- Chen, Edith, and Gregory E Miller. “Stress and Inflammation in Exacerbations of Asthma.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2007, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077080/
- Ohno, Isao. “Neuropsychiatry Phenotype in Asthma: Psychological Stress-Induced Alterations of the Neuroendocrine-Immune System in Allergic Airway Inflammation.” Allergology International, Center for Medical Education. https://www.allergologyinternational.com/article/S1323-8930(17)30069-2/fulltext
- Zautra, Alez, and Bruce Smith. “Depression and Reactivity to Stress in Older Women With Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis.” Ovid, American Psychosomatic Society, https://oce.ovid.com/article/00006842-200107000-00022/HTML
- “Stress and Heart Disease.” The American Institute of Stress, http://www.stress.org/stress-and-heart-disease/
- D’Amico, Domenico, et al. “Stress and Chronic Headache.” The Journal of Headache and Pain, Springer-Verlag Italia, Dec. 2000, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3611807/
- “The Association between Stress and Headache: A Longitudinal Population-Based Study.” SAGE Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0333102414563087?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed
- Raio, Candace M., et al. “Cognitive Emotion Regulation Fails the Stress Test.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 10 Sept. 2013, https://www.pnas.org/content/110/37/15139.abstract
- Burns, M N, et al. “Do Positive or Negative Stressful Events Predict the Development of New Brain Lesions in People with Multiple Sclerosis?” Psychological Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23680407
- Esch, Tobias, et al. “The Role of Stress in Neurodegenerative Diseases and Mental Disorders.” Neuro Endocrinology Letters, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2002, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12080279
- Stojadinovic, Olivera, et al. “Stress-Induced Hormones Cortisol and Epinephrine Impair Wound Epithelization.” Advances in Wound Care, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Feb. 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3623592/
- Chen, Ying, and John Lyga. “Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging.” Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets, Bentham Science Publishers, June 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4082169/
- Chiu, Annie. “The Response of Skin Disease to Stress.” Archives of Dermatology, American Medical Association, 1 July 2003, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/fullarticle/479409
- PhD, Erling Thom. “Stress and the Hair Growth Cycle: Cortisol-Induced Hair Growth Disruption.” http://jddonline.com/articles/dermatology/S1545961616P1001X
- “Effects of Passive Body Heating on the Sleep of Older Female Insomniacs.” SAGE Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/089198879600900203
- Hoekstra, S P, et al. “Acute and Chronic Effects of Hot Water Immersion on Inflammation and Metabolism in Sedentary, Overweight Adults.” Journal of Applied Physiology, https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/japplphysiol.00407.2018
- Brunt, Vienna E, et al. “Passive Heat Therapy Improves Endothelial Function, Arterial Stiffness and Blood Pressure in Sedentary Humans.” The Journal of Physiology, John Wiley and Sons Inc., 15 Sept. 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5023696/
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