The Link Between Stress and Acne

Spots and pimples are usually associated with those awkward teenage years when hormones are running rife. 

But when persists throughout adulthood, there could be another factor at play: stress. 

Stress and modern life go hand-in-hand. The worst part about being stressed is that it’s a perfect recipe for a breakout! 

The stress response

When you’re under stress, your body responds by releasing certain hormones into your bloodstream. This is an evolutionary trait called the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is designed to activate certain bodily systems that would help you to ‘run away’ from a potential threat. Some of these hormones include glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone, and prolactin.

Although stress is not a direct cause of breakouts, the release of all these hormones can trigger all sorts of imbalances in your body. If you’ve been prone to acne in the past, you may be even more susceptible to these imbalances. 

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid and the primary stress hormone. It’s made in your adrenal glands and released into your bloodstream when your body senses a stressful situation. Cortisol causes your body to go into alert mode by increasing your heart rate and temporarily shutting down a number of other bodily systems, including your digestion, reproduction, and immune system. 

Normally, your cortisol levels are regulated by your internal body clock, so they peak when you wake up in the morning and when you exercise, and then they drop off at night. But if you’re constantly under stress, your cortisol levels remain elevated for far longer than they should. This can lead to serious health issues such as high blood pressure, overworked adrenals, a weakened immune system – and also acne. In fact, scientists now believe that teenage acne is linked to the huge changes in hormones that occur during puberty, which often lead to increased levels of cortisol.  

Let’s explain how cortisol and other stress hormones can lead to a breakout. 

Stress and your skin

Acne is one of the most common skin conditions. It can be blamed on many different things, from genes and skin composition to medication and hormones. It’s only recently that scientists have learned just how much of an influence your endocrine system has on the severity of acne. They now know that your skin can both perceive stress and be a target of the stress response

For a start, increased cortisol triggers the production of sebum, the oily substance naturally produced by glands near skin hair follicles. This increase in oil production leads to oily skin and clogged pores, which in turn encourages inflammation and bacteria to fester. The result? A breakout. Even people who are not normally affected by acne may experience breakouts due to stress-related oil production.

Spikes in adrenaline caused by stress also negatively impact your skin’s normal barrier function, causing it to lose moisture. This is known as transdermal water loss, and can lead to your skin becoming more dry and sensitive. Studies have shown that this water loss also inhibits the skin’s ability to repair itself.

Prolactin can also have an influence on acne. Prolactin is the hormone involved in lactation and reproduction, but research suggests that psychological stress may cause prolactin to stimulate sebum production in sebaceous glands. That means even more oil!

Increased oil production can also upset your body’s natural wound healing process, which means your skin can’t repair itself as easily. This not only results in more acne, but can eventually lead to scarring and even premature aging.

But that’s not all stress can do to your skin. Cortisol is also immunosuppressive, which means it can have a major impact on your immune system. Constant exposure to stress results in an increase of cytokines and antibodies, which sets off chronic inflammation. Inflammation is your skin’s worst enemy. It gets in the way of normal healing and can also worsen skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea.

A heightened stress response puts a lot of strain on your stress organs and immune system. To cope, your body will turn its attention to sending important nutrients and resources to these areas instead of to your skin, hair, and nails. This can mean that your skin cells aren’t able to renew themselves properly, which in turn can mean that any infections or inflammation won’t be taken care of. The more stressed you are, the longer it can take for acne breakouts to heal. 

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, stress also affects the ‘friendly’ bacteria in your gut microbiome. These play an important role in your overall immune function, which can worsen acne.

What makes stress and acne worse?

One of the worst things you can do when feeling stressed is to drink coffee. Coffee is a stimulant, so while it ‘wakes you up’, it also triggers the stress response. Studies have shown that caffeine can cause your body to ramp up the production of epinephrine and cortisol to more than double its normal levels. These effects have been noted in both habitual and light coffee drinkers. 

Caffeine is also a diuretic, which means it increases moisture loss.

Other foods that can worsen stress include those made with refined carbohydrates and high amounts of sugar. These foods are digested quickly, causing blood sugar levels to spike. High blood sugar triggers the release of cortisol, and subsequent stress response. 

Is your skin affected by stress?

If you’ve noticed that your skin tends to break out during times of stress, then it may be time to start thinking about how to minimise stress in your life. Although it’s impossible to avoid stress completely, there are plenty of ways to reduce its impact on your body – and your skin. 

To start with, consider any habits that may be increasing your body’s cortisol levels. Coffee, refined carbs, sugar, and poor hydration are all major triggers. 

There are many factors involved in acne, and stress may be just one part of the puzzle. That’s where the best course of action may be seeing a qualified naturopath. A naturopath can help figure out what may be triggering your breakouts, and create a comprehensive treatment plan to restore your skin health. This can involve dietary analysis, functional testing, herbal tonics, and a thorough examination of your specific nutritional needs.

Want to know more? Contact me here for a chat about how stress might be affecting your skin.