Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction that leads to rapid changes throughout the body.
It affects the cardiovascular, immune, respiratory, digestive, sensory and nervous systems, as it gears the body up for perceived danger. These responses are critical in a threatening situation. However, repeated exposure to stress puts a strain on the body and negatively impacts overall health and wellbeing.
Cortisol is an important hormone that helps with our body’s responses during periods of acute stress. It increases glucose in the bloodstream and enhances the brain’s use of glucose. Cortisol works in tandem with adrenaline by curbing functions that are non-essential in a fight or flight situation. These functions include the immune and digestive system, as well as the reproductive and growth processes. When Cortisol is heightened for long periods of time it disrupts the ability of the body to function optimally, and impacts the health of our skin.
Skin is an immediate stress perceiver and target of stress. Stress negatively affects the skin’s barrier function and can result in heightened sensitivity to allergens and microbial organisms, as well as transepidermal water loss.
The skin barrier dysfunction exacerbates symptoms often associated with psoriasis and atopic dermatitis such as eczema and itchiness. Chronic stress also triggers an overproduction of cytokines, which cause inflammation and irritation to the skin.
Stress is recognised as a key trigger of acne. Acne vulgaris, which is often the product of increased sebum production, inflammation and bacteria, has been proven to be significantly associated with stress levels.
Most of us suffer from unwanted blemishes and scars from old wounds or acne. Clinical research shows that stress hinders the body’s wound healing ability. The immune system plays a central role in wound healing and Cortisol inhibits the immune system. Cortisol is also responsible for the production of inflammatory cytokines, which are detrimental to the early parts of the wound healing process.
Increased Cortisol also contributes to the breakdown of tissues that contain collagen, like bone and skin. The breakdown of collagen causes the skin to lose its elasticity, resulting in the formation of lines and wrinkles.
Telomeres are ‘caps’ that protect the two ends of a strand of DNA and play a prominent role in the ageing process. Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase can replenish it but Cortisol decreases the supply of telomerase. When the telomere becomes too diminished, the cell is no longer able to divide — resulting in cell death. This sets the ageing process in motion!
The diminishing process of telomeres is influenced by genetic and environmental factors, but stress has been identified as one of the main predictors of shorter telomere length.
The verdict is clear that long term stress triggers a complex web that negatively impacts our bodies. It also plays a major role in skin health, and is responsible for inflammatory skin disorders.
Incorporating stress management techniques in our everyday lives is paramount in preventing the build up of Cortisol in our body systems. Thankfully, the most effective stress management techniques are also cheap and easy.
Exercise, meditation, good sleep, long walks and nurturing meaningful relationships are the best medicine for stress. It’s worth investing the time into those simple activities, as they will end up saving you a significant amount in medical bills in the long run.