You’re walking down the street at night. It’s late and you probably shouldn’t be walking alone. But your home is right down the street. And you’ll get there faster if you walk.
A car passes you, then it’s quiet.
Thud, thud, shuffle…are those footsteps you hear behind you?
You sneak a glance over your shoulder and sure enough, a large man’s shape is silhouetted against the street light down the block.
You quicken your step. Did his pace just speed up?
You think so. Your heart starts to beat faster and you get that queasy feeling in your gut. You can feel a surge of energy. You grip your keys and get super focused on the distance to your door, you hear the neighbor’s sprinkler going and the thud, thud shuffle from behind you. You make a plan if you have to fight.
It seems like forever until you reach your door safely. But you do. You slam the door behind you and turn the lock.
And breathe a sigh of relief. Within a few minutes, your heart rate and breathe are back to normal. And you relax. The guy was probably just a neighbor.
What you just experienced was a normal stress response. You felt a threat, your stress hormones kicked in and you prepared a fight or flight response.
My guess is that most of us have experienced something similar. Your stress hormones, cortisol, epinephrine and nor epinephrine have served you well. And appropriately.
Your body is designed for this type of stress.
What it’s not designed for is the day in and day out low level stress of being overscheduled, worried about finances, relationships, work, the kids, your health, your skin.
Also known as chronic stress.
When you have chronic stress in your life, your body doesn’t discriminate between acute life threats and being late for work. Your cortisol levels are constantly high and that has some profound effects on your health. And your skin.
What exactly is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that is made mainly in your adrenal glands (they sit on top of your kidneys) in response to signals from your brain.
You always have cortisol circulating in your system. This is normal. It has its own circadian rhythm. About 30 minutes after you wake up in the morning, your cortisol should peak for the day (to get you up and moving), it gradually drops through out the day and is at its lowest point at about midnight. It then slowly starts to rise again to get your body ready to get up again in the morning.
If a stressful event happens, say having to jump out of the way of an oncoming car, a burst of cortisol and other stress hormones are released.
When cortisol is first released, it ups the glucose in your bloodstream to give you a shot of energy, raises your heart rate, and realeses substances that might be needed to repair tissues. It changes your digestive function and reproductive function. You can worry about those after the danger has passed.
The problems come when the danger doesn’t pass, but is a constant factor in your life. Cortisol is still released in high amounts. (Remember your body can’t distinguish the seriousness of the threat) and you end up with higher than normal cortisol levels.
Over time, high cortisol levels can cause a lot of problems with your health. Some of these are:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
And changes in your skin.
It turns out that your skin makes its own cortisol. Not as much as your adrenals, but a significant amount. This is because your skin is a major player in protecting you from the effects of stress.
Stress comes in several forms. We all think of psychological stress, but there is dietary stress (eating inappropriate foods that cause inflammation) and there is physical stress-like injuring yourself or having to defend yourself against infection.
Your skin plays a critical role in protecting you from physical stress and it’s also affected by the other forms of stress via the gut-brain-skin axis.
Not good news for your skin
When your stress is chronic, your skin is affected by the high levels of cortisol. Which is not good news for your skin. Basically, high cortisol levels increase oil production and inflammation in your skin.
Acne and breakouts
You’ve probably noticed that when you’re stressed, your more prone to breakouts. Cortisol causes your skin to make higher levels of sebum. Sebum is the oil that keeps your skin soft and moisturized. But when there’s a sudden increase, it can clog pores and cause breakouts.
Cortisol increases blood flow and expand your capillaries which can make your skin red and puffy. It can also make the appearance of rosacea worse.
Aggravate skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis
These are inflammatory diseases that will get worse with more cortisol and inflammation
Signs of Aging
While aging is a natural process, accelerated aging due to high cortisol and inflammation are not. Chronic systemic inflammation is now considered to be the culprit in many chronic diseases. It doesn’t do your skin any favors either.
Excess cortisol robs your skin of its ability to retain moisture. You get dry skin and your skin barrier is compromised. Your skin gets flaky and fine lines seem to come out of nowhere.
Plus, high cortisol and inflammation break down collagen and elastin even faster. This means wrinkling and sagging.
I like to think of your skin as a mirror to what’s going on inside your body
When you see the effects of stress and high cortisol on your face, you can be sure other aspects of your health are also being affected. Your skin is always trying to help you.
You can help your skin by taking good care for it and developing a daily morning and evening skin care routine. Regular self care can be a great stress reliever and boost to your mental and physical health.
Here are some other ways to help manage your stress:
- Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as trying yoga, practicing deep breathing, getting a massage or learning to meditate
- Taking time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
- Getting outside in nature every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes
- Turning off devices, the news, for a while each day
- Fostering healthy friendships
- Having a sense of humor
- Volunteering in your community
- Seeking professional counseling if you need more help