Sophia Power, BA Media, BHScNutMed
Itchy, dry, inflamed, red skin or acne breakouts? Stress could be causing your skin woes.
Skin is a reflection of what’s going on in your internal world. While it’s impossible to avoid stress all the time, it’s important to include stress management techniques to prevent chronic stress and related skin conditions.
Interested in soothing skin and managing stress for calm, healthy skin? Keep reading to find out how stress and skin are connected and what you can do to heal your skin.
Is there a link between stress and skin conditions?
Stress impacts the skin in multiple ways - many that might be surprising at first glance. During periods of high stress we often swap nutrient-dense whole foods for empty, depleted convenience foods. More caffeine, more sugar, more refined carbs, less water, less fruit and veg. This is a recipe for increased inflammation in the body - a state that is at the heart of many skin conditions. If this continues on for long enough (say, longer than a week or two), it can lead to dull, dehydrated, even flaky and itchy skin. It can also mean that the proper channels for detoxification - the kidneys, bowels and liver - don’t function as well as they should. Over time, the body will outsource the detox process to another organ of elimination - the skin.
Stress, particularly chronic or prolonged stress, also increases inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation forms the basis of more uncomfortable conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
What does stressed skin look like?
We’re all different in how we manage stress and how it manifests on the physical level. For many, skin conditions can appear or flare up when stress is prolonged or not well managed.
Stressed skin signs:
- Dull, dry or flaky skin
- Acne, especially around the jawline and neck
- Cold sore outbreaks.
While each of these skin issues has a different set of symptoms and driving factors, stress management is at the core of overcoming each of them.
The gut-skin-stress connection
An exciting area of research that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of (if you’ll pardon the unfortunate pun) is the connection between the gut, skin and the nervous system.
The nervous system, which controls the stress response, is linked with digestion. Have you ever noticed how you get a ‘nervous belly’ or an upset stomach when stressed? High stress slows down the digestive process, which in turn can reduce the absorption of nutrients and influence gut bacteria balance. Bad bacteria are able to thrive under these conditions, promoting inflammation and putting pressure on the immune system.1
A breakdown in the lining of the gut can also lead to particles that should never enter the bloodstream doing just that. This can trigger an inflammatory immune response, resulting in inflamed conditions like acne and eczema.1
Managing stress-related skin conditions
So, if you’ve mentally ticked yes to any of the above signs of stressed skin - is there anything you can actually do about it? When it comes to all things skin, because it’s a surface reflection of deeper issues, it’s vital to get to the root cause.
Here are my top tips for working with stress-related skin conditions:
- Manage stress
Exercises with a core focus on connecting to breath, such as tai chi, yoga, meditation and Pilates are all fantastic foundational ways to manage stress. When we breathe, we replenish the oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. High carbon dioxide contributes to feelings of stress and anxiety, whereas increasing oxygen in the blood relieves anxiety and muscle tension.
Journaling, aromatherapy, magnesium baths and massage are also wonderful additions to a stress management plan.
- Increase your magnesium intake
Chronic stress increases the excretion of magnesium from the body - so it’s important to replace magnesium during and after high stress periods.
Why is replacing magnesium so important? It’s a vital mineral that is needed by the nervous system in order to manage stress in a healthy way. It also relieves muscle tension, another impact of stress!
3. Eat more fat
Avocado, hemp seeds, olive oil, chia seeds, oily fish and walnuts are all packed full of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats that skin cells need in order to stay healthy.
Fat also supports healthy nerve and brain function, including memory - all things that can suffer in periods of high stress.
- Rebalance your gut bacteria
If your digestion has suffered due to stress or any other issue, reintroducing some good bacteria can help to balance the ratio of good to harmful bacteria. Beneficial bacteria are anti-inflammatory and support healthy digestion and detoxification.
5. Cut back on the caffeine and sugar
None of us like to hear this, but these substances can cause imbalances in blood sugar, leading to dips in mood and increases in anxiety and stress. They are also pro-inflammatory and can contribute to skin inflammation.
If sugar cravings are ruling your life, try a supplement that includes the blood sugar balancing mineral chromium.
- Quercetin quells inflammation
Try quercetin if irritation or inflammation is part of your skin condition. Quercetin helps to reduce histamine levels. Histamine is part of the allergy response that leads to itching, redness, swelling and irritation.
- From A to Zinc
Vitamin A and zinc are essential nutrients for skin health - both aiding with skin healing and healthy skin cell turnover. In fact, skin is the third most zinc-abundant part of the body - so low zinc intake can lead to poorly functioning skin cells.2, 3
Vitamin A and zinc also help to support a healthy immune system, which is especially helpful if a struggling immune system is contributing to your skin issues.
Although stress is often an overlooked factor when it comes to skin conditions, it’s an important part of any treatment plan to get your skin healthier, happier, and less reactive in the long-term.
- Madison, A. & Kiecold-Glaser, J.K. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci, 2019(28):105-110.
- Ogawa, Y., Kinoshita, M. Shimada, S. & Kawamura, T. Zinc and Skin Disorders. Nutrients, 2018, 10(2):199.
- Linus Pauling Institute. Vitamin and Skin Health. Reviewed December 2012, accessed April 2022 from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-A