When it comes to recognising the signs of stress on our skin, most of us know what to look for (that’s everything from dehydration and a lack of firmness to dullness and an increase in breakouts and sensitivity), but when it comes to understanding how stress affects our skin we might not be so clued up.
In simple terms the causes of skin ageing can be broken down into four markers, each of which have an adverse effect on the health and appearance of our skin and each of which happen regularly as a by-product of normal life. These are free radicals, advanced glycation end products (AGEs), cortisol and eicosanoids (inflammation).
When we are stressed however, each marker becomes ramped up, causing the visible impact to become more obvious and causing a chain reaction between each other, effectively attacking your skin from multiple angles. To make matters worse, addressing one on its own is simply not enough; instead you need a multi-pronged approach that takes into consideration more than one aggressor.
Cortisol is an obvious first offender. As the primary stress hormone in the body, production of it is normal in everyday life, it’s when we become exposed to an excess of it on a chronic and prolonged basis that it becomes a problem. The result of too much cortisol over a period of time is amongst other things, a breakdown of collagen (the structural protein in the body that gives skin it’s suppleness and bounce) and an increase in redness and oil overproduction which can lead to acne. Crucially, cortisol is also considered the “master controller” thanks to its ability to quickly elevate the other markers of ageing.
Free radicals, unstable molecules that are created when our bodies use oxygen, attack us on a daily basis and come from several sources including air pollution and UV. When this happens, our cells to become damaged or oxidised as a result. When we experience physical or emotional stress, this oxidisation increases and our cells struggle to perform at their best, leading to diseases and dysfunction and, most commonly in skin ageing, the formation of wrinkles.
AGEs are what occur when proteins in the body are exposed to high levels of blood sugar. When this happens, the proteins become impaired and weakened which in skin,a manifests as delayed healing, a lack of firmness, dehydration and a rougher, more uneven skin surface. As the chain reaction suggests, this high blood sugar then leads to more inflammation and more free radical damage, continuing the cycle of disruption in the skin.
Eicosanoids are communicative compounds that exist in the body in both inflammatory form and anti-inflammatory form, thus regulating the inflammation response. When we experience chronic stress, the balance becomes tipped in favour of too many inflammatory eiconsanoids and tissue damage occurs in the form of heat, redness, dryness and itchiness. As you might expect, when this happens, elevated levels of free radicals and cortisol also occur and the skin becomes overwhelmed.
While it’s impossible, and not advisable, to cut stress from your life completely, reducing the amount of stress you are exposed to is essential. To keep elevated cortisol levels in check, try and include some activities in your daily regimen that actively reduce cortisol production and increase of happy hormones such as serotonin and endorphins; deep breathing, stretching, yoga and walking are all great examples. To avoid an increase in glycation and minimise the effect of free radicals, eat a diet loaded with antioxidant-rich fresh fruit, vegetables and whole foods, as well as fatty fish and high-quality meat and avoid anything processed. To reduce the amount of inflammation in your body, avoid eating too many omega-6 fatty acids and increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements.