Stress is no stranger to the modern human, it is also no friend when presenting in the chronic state that many have normalized. We are no longer relying on our stress response just to survive. It has become a new state of being for many, with any little trivial daily inconvenience kicking our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis into full swing. Not to mention the uncertainty of our health and futures only emphasizing this in recent months. The brain loves precision, meaning it favors the pathways that it knows best, when you are in a state of chronic stress, intervention is needed to stop the brain from favoring the stress inducing pathways that lead to changes in the brains architecture and mental health issues. Chronic stress is negative for the brain and body as a whole and its physiological side effects catalyze and perpetuate skin conditions across the bored. Stress by its very nature is inflammatory causing reactive oxygenation on a chemical level in our bodies. The brain-gut axis explains the intimate relationship between stress and digestive function, however there is a brain-ovarian axis and a brain-thyroid axis and the list goes on. Stress disrupts our body’s ability to maintain equilibrium and perform healing tasks, so why would its influence over the largest organ in our body, our skin, be any different. Luckily plants have the ability to give our body cues on how to better perform and respond when the stress takes hold.
Stress affects the skin in 3 ways main ways.
When we are in a stressed sympathetic dominant nervous system state our brain is focusing on communicating with our adrenal glands and the HPA axis and this takes president over communication where the brain regulates ovarian function and hormone output known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-ovarian (HPO) axis. Substrates needed for healthy progesterone production are taken up in vast amounts of cortisol production. Why does this matter for skin? Because progesterone has a natural anti-androgen effect in hormonal acne, an immune regulatory effect where the immune system is imbalanced in skin issues and a calming anti-anxiety effect on our GABA receptors. Women who are in an ongoing stress state produce more adrenal androgens further implicated in PCOS, male pattern hair growth and hormonal acne, not to mention increased pituitary prolactin production. Prolactin is a hormone that also increases adrenal androgen output and in excess stumps healthy ovulation and production of progesterone therefore is implicated in irregular periods and hormonal acne.
Stress causes hyperglycemia and insulin resistance also a major causative factor in PCOS and hormonal acne. Hyperglycemia is the cause of diabetic related skin conditions and is also implicated in bacterial and yeast driven skin conditions such as folliculitis, pityriasis versicolor, some peri-oral dermatitis presentation and seborrheic dermatitis. Hyperglycemia and insulin resistance are also significantly implicated in blood vessel dysfunction seen in rosacea as well as premature wrinkles and sagging of the skin known as glycation wrinkles.
Elevated cortisol due to chronic stress adaptation issues slows thyroid function, vitally needed in the running of all body processes, those specific to skin issues being hormonal and toxin detoxification and cellular turnover needed for repair of all skin issues.
Stress Digestion and Skin
The brain-gut-axis is a simple way of explaining that mental health and stress have a vast effect on healthy digestion and gut immune function, while the gut microbiome can communicate with and influence the brain leading to the gut being implicated in mental health issues. This is all made possible by the vagus nerve, a highway of communication between the enteric nervous system in the gut and the brain, transiting communication in both directions. Stress reduces vagal tone, essentially reducing the grip that our command center in the brain has on communication with digestive organs. This means less digestive secretions released by all digestive organs, less detoxification processes by the liver, less immune protection against unfavorable microbes, less gut repair and healing. If you have explored your skin condition from a holistic perspective it is undeniable that the gut has influence on the skin, we call this the gut-skin-axis, because we like to axis things. This is most relevant for acne, rosacea, eczema, dermatitis and psoriasis.
Stress Inflammation and Immune Issues
Stress has an inflammatory effect in the body as a whole, this presents in the digestive tract with changes in our micribiome that foster inflammation in the gut but also transfers to the body at large. Stress decreases the regulatory effect the immune system has on itself. This occurs via reduced treg cells that prevent the immune system from becoming confused and imbalanced in both allergy and autoimmune conditions. Common allergy related skin issues include eczema hives and all types of dermatitis, while also having an effect in rosacea. Autoimmune type skin issues include rosacea, psoriasis, cutaneous sarcoidosis and celiac dermatitis (dermatitis herpetiformis).
Natural Stress Defense
So what is our defense against all the negative ways in which stress would derail our skins healing processes? The answer is in the plant world, that and much needed lifestyle support systems. Meditation, exercise in general but especially Yoga, good quality sleep, deep breathing and nutrition should be your mainstay. However when you find yourself needing extra support to disengage your stress response herbal medicine is key. The two main actions we need from herbs for support against stress are that of adpatogens or nervines.
Adaptogens bolster the body’s ability to adapt to stress, lessening the frequency and severity at which we fly into the acute stress response our brain may have accustomed us to. Adaptogens restore balance to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response, build stamina and tonify the body’s vital energie and healing processes supporting longevity. As each adaptogenic herb has different healing actions in their spectrum, the plant used has maximum benefit when selected on an individual basis. Certain herbs also have synergy when used together. Some of my favorites are Rhodiola, Withania, Siberian ginseng, Rhemmania, Schizandra, Holy basil and Reishi.
Nervines tonify and strengthen the nervous system, relax and bring a sense of peace. They tend to be either more tonifying or relaxing in nature depending on the mechanism and combined actions of the herb. Again as each individual herb has it’s own specific additional positive effects on the body, ideally they are selected on a person specific basis, especially when it comes to depressive, anxious and depleted effects of stress. Some of my favorites include Skullcap, Passionflower, Zyziphus, Brahmi, Magnolia, Kava, Lemon balm and Centella.
If you have existing health conditions or are taking medications it’s best to work with a practitioner with an intimate knowledge of herbal medicine, as though they are natural and generally well tolerated, medication interactions or undesired effects in disease states are possible.