When we’re under stress, whether it be due to work, lack of sleep or poor dietary choices, a pathway between the brain and the adrenal glands, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, is activated and the sympathetic nervous system or the body’s “flight or fight” response is triggered. Hormones are released via the adrenal glands, one of which is cortisol, one of the body’s primary stress hormones. Production of cortisol is normal, and in fact, beneficial in small doses on an everyday basis, but it can quickly become a problem if we’re exposed to too much of it day after day.
As our bodies try and adapt to this onslaught of cortisol and its effects, which include increased heart rate, tighter muscles, rising blood pressure and quickened breathing, our skin is fighting its own battle. Not only is it the immediate stress perceiver for external stressors, it’s also the target of stress responses. In other words, our skin is dealing with the changes caused by stress via the brain and the sympathetic nervous system as well as changes manifesting in itself. Understandably, it can quickly become overwhelmed, leading to symptoms that include dehydration, dullness and increased sensitivity. Thanks to a breakdown in the production of collagen and elastin it also experiences a loss of elasticity and firmness.
Rising stress and an overexposure to cortisol is just one challenge that our skin faces, but you could argue it’s one of the most significant. While other causes of skin ageing include oxidisation in the form of damaging free radicals (think UV and air pollution), glycation (too much sugar or poor control of blood sugar) and inflammation, cortisol is known as the “master controller”, which means it’s crucial to do all you can to address the root cause of stress in your life and help reduce your exposure to cortisol.
To combat the effects of too much cortisol you need to take a two-pronged approach, addressing not only the symptoms of stress but also the root cause. Making small adjustments in your daily life, such as making time for some endorphin-boosting exercise, getting plenty of restorative sleep and eating a diet abundant in anti-inflammatory omega-3, fruit, vegetables and whole foods, will not only help you better control all aspects of skin ageing, you’ll notice a visible difference to the overall health and balance of your skin as well.