The Skin-Stress Connection
Stress may be getting to your skin, but it’s not a one-way street
Dr. Neera Nathan looks at the skin-stress connection – the many ways that your mind and skin affect each other – and suggests steps you can take to improve skin health.
Are you stressed out? Your skin can show it. Studies show that both acute and chronic stress can exert negative effects on overall skin wellness, as well as exacerbate a number of skin conditions, including psoriasis, eczema, acne, and hair loss.
But it’s not just a one-way street. Research has also shown that skin and hair follicles contain complex mechanisms to produce their own stress-inducing signals, which can travel to the brain and perpetuate the stress response.
The skin-stress connection is a two-way channel between brain and skin
You may already have experienced the connection between the brain and skin. Have you ever gotten so nervous that you started to flush or sweat? If so, you experienced an acute, temporary stress response. But science suggests that repeated exposure to psychological or environmental stressors can have lasting effects on your skin that go far beyond flushing – and could even negatively affect your overall well-being.
The brain-skin axis is an interconnected, bidirectional pathway that can translate psychological stress from the brain to the skin and vice versa. Stress triggers the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a trio of glands that play key roles in the body’s response to stress. This can cause production of local pro-inflammatory factors, such as cortisol and key hormones in the fight-or-flight stress response called catecholamines, which can direct immune cells from the bloodstream into the skin or stimulate pro-inflammatory skin cells. Mast cells are a key type of pro-inflammatory skin cell in the brain-skin axis; they respond to the hormone cortisol through receptor signaling, and directly contribute to a number of skin conditions, including itch.
Because the skin is constantly exposed to the outside world, it is more susceptible to environmental stressors than any other organ, and can produce stress hormones in response to them. For example, the skin produces stress hormones in response to ultraviolet light and temperature, and sends those signals back to the brain. Thus, psychological stressors can contribute to stressed-out skin, and environmental stressors, via the skin, can contribute to psychological stress, perpetuating the stress cycle.
How else does the skin-stress connection affect you?
Psychological stress can also disrupt the epidermal barrier – the top of layer of the skin that locks in moisture and protects us from harmful microbes – and prolong its repair, according to clinical studies in healthy people. An intact epidermal barrier is essential for healthy skin; when disrupted, it can lead to irritated skin, as well as chronic skin conditions including eczema, psoriasis, or wounds. Psychosocial stress has been directly linked to exacerbation of these conditions in small observational studies. Acne flares have also been linked to stress, although the understanding of this relationship is still evolving.
The negative effects of stress have also been demonstrated in hair. One type of diffuse hair loss, known as telogen effluvium, can be triggered by psychosocial stress, which can inhibit the hair growth phase. Stress has also been linked to hair graying in studies of mice. The research showed that artificial stress stimulated the release of norepinephrine (a type of catecholamine), which depleted pigment-producing stem cells within the hair follicle, resulting in graying.
How can you proactively manage stress skin?
While reducing stress levels should theoretically help to alleviate damaging effects on the skin, there’s only limited data regarding the effectiveness of stress-reducing interventions. There is some evidence that meditation may lower overall catecholamine levels in people who do it regularly. Similarly, meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to help psoriasis. More studies are needed to show the benefit of these techniques in other skin conditions. Healthy lifestyle habits, including a well-balanced diet and exercise, may also help to regulate stress hormones in the body, which should in turn have positive effects for skin and hair.
If the skin-stress connection has impacted you, see a dermatologist for your condition, and try some stress-reducing techniques at home.
Neera Nathan, M.D., MSHS, is a contributor to Harvard Health Publications.