We all know how stress makes us feel! Generally pretty lousy, affecting things like our mood, concentration, energy and sleep. But did you know that stress also has a direct impact on your looks, including the health of your skin? Exciting new research has uncovered a direct link between the brain and the skin and scientists are starting to uncover exactly how stress can affect the health of our skin.
So lets start by having a look at what they have discovered and then most importantly, what you can do about it!
The Science of Stress
When we are faced with a stressful event, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. In the short term cortisol is necessary to help us deal with the cause of our stress. However when stress becomes chronic or long-term, as it so often does with modern lifestyles, it has various negative effects in the body and on the skin.
Cortisol actually leads to collagen loss in the skin by affecting the cells that produce collagen, called fibroblasts (1). Collagen is the main structural protein of our skin, and is essential for maintaining its strength, firmness and elasticity, so when we lose collagen we get more wrinkles and sagging. In addition, cortisol makes the skin slower to heal and repair itself.
Another way that chronic stress affects our skin is that it leads to an increase in free radical formation, producing more than the body’s inbuilt antioxidant systems can deal with. This results in what’s known as oxidative stress, leading to cell damage and skin ageing (2).
The Brain-Skin Axis
You may have heard before that the digestive system and the brain are linked and now it has been discovered that so are the skin and the brain! The so-called ‘brain-skin axis’ involves a complex network between the nervous system, the immune system and the skin (3).
Receptors have been discovered in the skin, which ‘talk to’ the central nervous system and modify things like hormones and mediators of inflammation. These chemical messengers bring about changes in the skin including slowing down healing and repair, reduced barrier function, impaired resistance to infection and suppressed immune system function (3).
The good news is that we can make changes to diet and lifestyle to minimise these effects and the more we understand the mechanisms, the more we can develop preventative strategies. For example, we have heard that stress increases free radical production, so eating a diet high in antioxidants is a must.
Certain substances in foods can actually help counteract some of the specific changes that occur in the immune system. Resveratrol for example, found in red grapes, red wine and Beauty & Go Skin Revive reverses some of the damaging effects of the stress response. Quercetin found in onions and apple skin helps regulate the immune system by reducing some of the inflammatory chemicals produced during stress.
Eating a wide range of plant foods including at least 7 portions of fruit and vegetables every day, a daily Beauty & Go which contains high levels of antioxidants and MacroAntioxidants (LINK), and plenty of nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and wholegrains is the best way to ensure you get these beneficial compounds in your diet. Including some of the stress-busting foods below should also help.
Stress Busting Foods
Rich in flavonoids, which stimulate the production of nitric oxide, a natural substance which causes the blood vessels to relax. This in turn improves blood flow and oxygen delivery to all parts of the body, including the brain. Also high in vitamin C to support the body’s stress system and essential for collagen production.
Contains high levels of magnesium, which helps us feel relaxed. Also contains a substance called phenylethylamine (PEA), which is the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) released when we fall in love, leading to feelings of bliss and euphoria. Stick to cacao powder, cacao nibs or raw chocolate though to avoid the sugar found in chocolate bars.
Rich in choline, an important substance for healthy brain function. Choline is needed for acetylcholine formation, a brain chemical needed for memory, learning and balanced mood.
A diet rich in wholegrains such as brown rice, wholemeal pasta or granary bread helps stress-prone people cope better with stressful situations according to a Dutch study (4). These foods contain complex carbs and vitamin B3, which trigger the release of the happy hormone serotonin in the brain.
Rich in the omega-3 fat DHA, which is vital for a healthy brain and nerve function and to help balance emotions. High fish consumption is linked with reduced risk of depression and anxiety. Oily fish also contain vitamin D – low levels are linked to depression. Astaxanthin is a compound in oily fish which can actually promote collagen production.
Broccoli, Spinach and Kale
High in B vitamins, magnesium, iron and folate. Magnesium has a relaxing effect on the body and low folate levels have been linked to depression. Also high in antioxidants to mop-up the extra free radicals produced under stress.
Nutmeg & Cinnamon
Nutmeg contains a substance called myristicin which aids tranquillity. Cinnamon helps balance blood sugar to help keep mood stable. Nutmeg can be grated into soups, porridge and hot drinks and cinnamon is delicious on porridge and hot drinks.
Some Foods to Avoid
Sugar and refined carbohydrates – these lead to blood sugar highs and lows, which mean that mood is less stable. When blood sugar becomes too low it triggers cortisol release.
Caffeine – also disrupts blood sugar balance and causes release of the stress hormone adrenalin. Avoid completely if your stress levels are high, otherwise limit to 1 coffee per day.
Stress Relieving Techniques
Yoga and meditation are scientifically proven to improve sleep and reduce stress levels. Did you know that regular meditation also helps weight loss and even increases success and creativity at work! Try 15 minutes per day and feel the benefits for yourself.
Cardiovascular exercise is as effective as medication for treating mild to moderate depression and releases stress-relieving brain chemicals. Be moderate though, as strenuous exercise actually puts stress on the body and accelerates ageing.
Sleep deprivation is another form of stress on the body, and is unfortunately common these days. Lack of sleep has been shown to suppress the immune system and also to affect the protective barrier function of the skin (5). Prioritising sleep is therefore another must.