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Does Stress Damage Your Skin?

The current state of our country is causing many people to get riled up and stressed out – no matter what side of the issues you fall on. To say the least, living in 2020 hasn’t been stress free, and all on top of the “normal” stress that happens in life.

All of this has us thinking about stress levels, and we (Nicole and Roxy) recently put our heads together to talk about how stress impacts your skin (hint: there is damage). Bringing science and our own perspectives, we discuss what actually happens to you as you stress out, what chronic stress does to your body and ultimately your skin, and how to realistically manage it…because no one needs another blog about doing all the things right and finding that perfect self-care nirvana.

Q. How exactly are stress and skin linked?

Roxy:

We are all familiar with the effects that stress can have on our bodies – chronic stress can age you faster (inside and out) than a lifetime of smoking and poor eating habits. In response to stress, our bodies enter a fight or flight mode that wreaks havoc on the hormonal system. We know of stress ulcers, stress headaches, blood pressure rising due to stress, and even more of an extreme, chest pains due to stress; but stress also has a negative effect on our skin. Many know personally the “wear and tear” skin endures after a challenging event. 

Nicole:

Yes! It’s pretty impressive what our bodies are designed to do when we are under stress, although the side effects might not be so welcome. Our bodies are literally responding to perceived danger and trying to protect us. Once the “danger” subsides, hormone levels normalize, our bodies return to normal, and we can rest and recharge. But sometimes stress is ever present and our bodies go into overdrive trying to fight against it.

Roxy:

That’s right. Which is how you might end up with chronically tight muscles, headaches, ulcers, chest pains, fertility issues, difficulty sleeping, mood imbalances, and brain fog (just to name a few). You’re also more likely to adopt a poor diet and make other unhealthy lifestyle choices. 

Q. What are the most common ways stress impacts our skin?

Nicole:

So then all of this that is happening internally starts to show up on the surface, on your skin. I think the most notable showing of stress is acne. It’s certainly the one I’m most familiar with! But also dull skin tone, dry skin, under eye bags, and premature aging.

Roxy:

Yes, unfortunately acne can come to us even after our teen years but there are so many other things that happen to our skin as a result of too much stress. 

Our skin cells die and are replaced throughout life, however stress can cause faster skin cell death and our bodies can’t keep up to replace it! This cell death thins the dermal layer of skin which holds the collagen and elastin proteins, and the outer layers of skin which hold essential water and electrolytes. 

Ideally, antioxidants are one of the things that protect us from premature cell breakdown. We produce some antioxidants ourselves but primarily we get them from plant-based foods (and good skin care). But when we are stressed, all of the vitamins and minerals that our body processes, that usually go to our skin, hair and nails, are rerouted to our metabolic processes and stress hormone production to keep us safe and alive against perceived danger (aka stress). So then, if we have fewer antioxidants and the ones we do have are outnumbered by free radicals, we have oxidative stress which causes pigment spots, wrinkles and sagging skin. 

When you combine poor diet, excessive alcohol ingestion, excess exposure to ultraviolet light (aka tanning), smoking, and emotional stress, antioxidants are ambushed and the door to early aging is opened. 

Q. So how should we be handling our stress?

Nicole:

Dealing with stress has become such a topic of discussion in light of everything that is going on in the world but, maybe especially, for younger generations. We’ve not lived much of our lives without the constant availability of information – social media, email, and a 24-hour news cycle all flying at us through our cell phones which we can’t seem to put down. And as a result, we aren’t very good at recharging and shutting off. Our nervous systems have actually become more sensitive than generations past and so, for some, our bodies are responding to minor stressful situations as if our lives were in danger. Our stress hormones never shut off. And all of these internal and external side effects become worse. 

So how should we be handling our stress? When I’m stressed out, lounging on the couch with a glass of wine and ice cream while binge watching TV sounds like the best way to calm down and tune out the world. But obviously, I’m wrong about that! And if I do all that too frequently it doesn’t actually do anything to relieve my stress or improve my coping habits long term. I think we always hear about staying active, finding ways to relieve stress and tension, and keeping a healthy diet. Which are all so difficult and vague! 

Before having a baby I was better at prioritizing self-care because I had more time. Right now, in my stage of life, my time and energy are focused on caring for my son, being a wife and friend, managing a household, and providing value at work. Which is really good for so many reasons! It’s not healthy to live your life constantly focused on yourself, but as in all things we have to find balance and make sure we are taking some kind of time to keep ourselves mentally and emotionally healthy. 

Shameless plug maybe, but I have found a little respite in my daily skincare routine. It’s a few minutes, twice a day, that I do something that feels good and is just for myself. And keeps my skin fresh and healthy. To be real, I’m not a time management ninja. When my son goes to bed at night I 100% have time to do things I know fill my tank. Things like exercising, journaling, making art, reading a book, or taking some time to laugh and catch up with my husband; but on most days catching up on housework or crashing on the couch and shutting down just feels easier.

Roxy:

The key is finding the things that fill your tank, as you said, and are healthy options, which of course is the challenge. Acknowledging your weak spots and making deliberate choices, not reactive ones. I know that my weak spot is sugar and evening time snacking! The worst time of day to snack! Sugar has been shown to damage our skin through a process called glycation. Basically, what this means is that sugar connects itself to a protein molecule in the skin (specifically collagen and elastin) and rearranges everything, causing it to become discolored, weak and less resilient. And stress actually releases more sugar molecules in the bloodstream that then become available for glycation! Oh dear, we stress…we stress eat and up our sugar intake…glycation…cell damage…wrinkles and sagging!

So all around, stressing out is one of the worst things we can do for our skin it seems! And the answer to stress, and to keep your skin from showing signs of it, is to maintain a healthy diet and perhaps specifically, decrease the amount of sugar in our diets, avoid drugs and alcohol as a way of coping, drink plenty of water to help keep the body processing healthy, get plenty of sleep (6-8 hours), exercise, cultivate relationships with people who won’t add tension and stress to your life, figure out what brings you balance and rest and engage in those activities. Although we may not be able to stop the causes of the stress in our lives, we can change our response. 

So how do I “fill my tank” and deal with stress when I’m being deliberate (remember we all have our moments)? I avoid sugar, I don’t snack after dinner unless it’s a bit of protein, I go to a core interval strength training class 3 times weekly at 6:30 a.m. which is very early for me. I’m a night owl! I make sure I have 7 hours to sleep, that seems to be just the right amount for me. And I do have a routine skincare to help support and protect my “less than young” skin. Through simple habits we can help slow the process of aging in the skin. Remember, we’re all aging, some of us are just farther along than others and stress plays a role.

Nicole:

It sounds overwhelming, especially if, for example, you don’t know what helps you rest or your life is full of stressful people. But I think you have to start small and pay attention to your body and how you feel when you do certain things. 

If you’re feeling stressed today:

  • Eat a healthy plant-based meal and drink a big glass of water.
  • Move your body in a way that fits your personality! Go for a run, take a kick-boxing class, roll out your yoga mat, visit a crossfit gym.
  • Implement 1 thing into your routine that helps you relax. Amp up your AM and PM skincare routine, schedule weekly coffee with a mentor or friend, journal a few times each week, or pick up a good book.

Taking steps to manage stress will help keep you healthy inside and out. We know you can do it!

-Roxy & Nicole

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