Can stress really cause pimples, or is it (no pun intended) “all in the mind”? There may actually be a strong connection between stress and your skin, and there’s a new field of science that’s dedicated to studying it: psychodermatology.
Psychodermatology looks at how emotions can impact the skin. Several research has already seen a link between stress and skin disorders.
For example, doctors have observed that a stressful event can trigger autoimmune diseases such alopecia (hair loss) and vitiligo. There is also a new study done on mice that found a stress-triggered hormone (glucocorticoid) can worsen conditions like psoriasis and eczema. Lead researcher Kenneth Feingold of the University of California said that once they learn how glucocorticoids work – and possibly block it – they could understand and manage how stress affects overall skin health.
Both psychodermatology and Dr. Feingold’s research are looking at a skin-stress connection that scientists see but, for now, cannot completely explain. There are a lot of theories, however.
“The mind and skin are connected on many different levels,” says Dr. Karen Mallin, a professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery who took a postdoctoral course on psychodermatology. “A lot of nerve endings are connected to the skin, which wraps around the organs, so as emotions are played out neurologically, they can be expressed through the skin just as stress can be expressed through gastrointestinal symptoms, increased anxiety, or hypertension.”
Stress hormones like cortisol can also cause the body to produce more oil, which may contribute to an acne breakout. There are also indications that high levels of stress hormones can lower cell growth and inhibits cell differentiation – or, in layman’s terms, the body’s ability to produce healthy cells.
In one study, scientists subjected mice to stress by locking them in small cages with constant light and noise. (Sounds like the life of most human city dwellers.) Another group of mice were left to roam freely. Results showed that the unstressed mice had better skin function.
Aside from stress’s effect of hormones, nerve endings, and immune system responses, we also can’t deny that stress will also lead to habits that affect our skin. Tough week at work? We have a drinking binge with friends, and the dehydrating and inflammatory effects of alcohol show up as dryness, dullness, and dark circles. Too busy to eat on time, much less cook a healthy meal? A lifestyle of skipped breakfasts and takeout lunches deprive our skin of much needed vitamins and minerals.
Scientists are hopeful that by understanding the exact hormones and body responses to stress they can then create the medicines that can minimize its effects. Others believe that a new field like psychodermatology allows doctors to explore more integrated treatments – for example, recommending relaxation therapy, antidepressants, or counseling aside from prescription skin medication.
However, we don’t need science’s go ahead to manage stress. Knowing that there is a possible connection between our emotions and our skin – plus all the other research that links stress to heart disease, poor immune system, and other serious health problems – should already tell us that stress is something we need to address. Not just for better skin, but for a better quality of life.
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Mei Hui - Managing Director/Pharmacist