How higher cortisol levels impact skin's barrier function

02 March,2024 12:01 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Ainie Rizvi

Stress can compromise the skin`s function, weakening its defense mechanism. Skincare expert sheds light on the mind-skin connection and suggests remedies to achieve equilibrium between the two

Image for representational purposes only. Photo Courtesy: iStock

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Sanika Borade, a 24-year-old marketing executive, was grappling with frequent job changes when she acquired heightened stress levels. The erratic career transitions had taken a toll on her well-being, leading to a myriad of symptoms she initially failed to connect.

Among these symptoms were breakouts and dull skin, which the Mumbai-based woman had been struggling to curb for over a year. However, a pivotal consultation with her dermatologist brought to light the underlying cause: increased cortisol levels (the body's response to stress) which had begun to disrupt her skin's natural balance. What followed was a breakthrough moment that finally resolved her skin woes.

To uncover how stress impacts skin's equilibrium, Midday, dialled up Malvika Jain, a skincare specialist and founder of Sereko, for her expert advice. Recognising the intricate interplay between stress levels and skin health, Jain shares with us a comprehensive approach to address both aspects to nurture skin health.

Does stress affect the skin's well-being?

Stress has a significant impact on skin health through intricate physiological mechanisms, remarks Jain.

When stress hormones like cortisol surge in response to psychological stressors, they trigger a cascade of reactions in the body, including the skin. Increased cortisol levels disrupt the skin's natural balance by increasing oil production, leading to acne flare-ups and exacerbating conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Moreover, stress compromises the skin's barrier function, weakening its ability to defend against external aggressors like pollution and UV radiation, thus increasing susceptibility to skin damage and premature ageing.

Additionally, stress-induced inflammation contributes to various skin issues such as redness, sensitivity and rosacea (a common skin condition that causes flushing or long-term redness on the face). Chronic stress can also impair collagen production, resulting in dullness, fine lines and wrinkles. Furthermore, stress often disrupts sleep patterns, hindering the skin's repair and regeneration processes that occur during restful sleep.

The role of cortisol in exacerbating skin conditions

Cortisol and other stress hormones play a crucial role in elevating skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis. Elevated cortisol levels, triggered by stress, can lead to increased sebum production, clogging pores and fostering bacterial growth, thus exacerbating acne. Furthermore, stress hormones weaken the skin's barrier function, making it more susceptible to irritants and allergens, which can trigger or worsen eczema flare-ups.

In the case of psoriasis, stress hormones fuel inflammation, prompting the immune system to overreact and accelerate the skin cell turnover process. This results in the rapid build-up of skin cells on the surface, leading to the characteristic red, scaly patches associated with psoriasis.

Lifestyle factors or habits that can worsen the impact of stress on skin health

Several lifestyle factors and habits can aggravate the impact of stress on skin health. Poor dietary choices, such as consuming high-sugar or processed foods, can contribute to inflammation, acne and premature ageing. Additionally, inadequate sleep disrupts the skin's repair processes, diminishing its ability to recover from daily stressors.

Moreover, excessive alcohol consumption and smoking not only deplete essential nutrients vital for skin health but also impair circulation, leading to dullness and accelerated ageing. To top that, sedentary behaviour can lead to an increase in stress levels and hinder blood flow, affecting skin vitality.

Neglecting skincare routines or using harsh products can also disrupt the skin's barrier function, aggravating sensitivity and inflammation induced by stress. Lastly, constant exposure to environmental pollutants and UV radiation without adequate protection can further stress the skin, increasing the risk of damage and pigmentation.

Effective strategies for managing stress to improve skin health

Effective stress management strategies are essential for improving skin health. Jain, as a psychodermatology expert, advocates for holistic approaches that address both the mind and skin. Incorporating mindfulness practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises and yoga can help regulate stress hormones, promote relaxation and enhance overall well-being.

Regular exercise is also crucial for managing stress and improving skin health by boosting circulation, promoting detoxification and reducing inflammation. Additionally, adopting a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins can support the skin's natural defences against stress-induced damage.

Prioritising adequate sleep is another vital aspect of stress management and skin health. Quality sleep allows the skin to repair and regenerate, combating the effects of stress and promoting a youthful complexion.

Moreover, establishing healthy boundaries, practising time management and engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfilment can help reduce stress levels and improve skin health.

How do psychological interventions impact skin conditions related to stress?

Psychological interventions, such as mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), wield a profound influence on skin conditions linked to stress. Mindfulness meditation cultivates awareness of the present moment, helping individuals manage stress by fostering a sense of calm and reducing physiological markers of stress like cortisol levels. This practice promotes skin health by minimising inflammation, regulating oil production, and enhancing the skin's barrier function.

Similarly, CBT equips individuals with cognitive restructuring techniques to challenge and reframe negative thought patterns that contribute to stress. By addressing underlying psychological stressors, CBT diminishes the impact of stress hormones on the skin, thereby alleviating conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis. Moreover, both mindfulness meditation and CBT empower individuals with effective coping mechanisms to navigate stressors, promoting resilience and overall well-being.

What research and innovative treatments have to offer individuals experiencing stress-related skin issues?

Emerging research and innovative treatments offer hope for individuals grappling with stress-related skin issues, aligning with Jain's commitment to holistic psychodermatology.

One promising area is the exploration of psychobiotics, which are probiotics with mood-regulating properties. These beneficial bacteria influence the gut-brain-skin axis, potentially ameliorating stress-induced skin conditions by modulating the microbiome and mitigating inflammation.

Furthermore, advancements in neurocosmetics integrate neuroscientific principles into skincare formulations, targeting stress receptors in the skin to soothe irritation and restore balance. Additionally, botanical adaptogens like ashwagandha and rhodiola demonstrate potential in regulating stress hormones and fortifying the skin's resilience against environmental stressors.

Non-invasive technologies such as biofeedback devices offer personalised stress management solutions by monitoring physiological markers of stress and guiding individuals through relaxation techniques. These innovations underscore the evolving landscape of psychodermatology, offering multifaceted approaches to address stress-related skin issues comprehensively.

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