“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” - World Health Organisation
The dreaded ‘S’ word. It’s a word we’re all far too familiar with, but how does stress really affect our health and skin and what can we do about it?
As humans, we are genetically some of the most emotional creatures on the planet. We are designed to have feelings such as empathy, love, anger and fear, it is key to our survival. Therefore our stress levels are actually here to help us (believe it or not!). Unfortunately for us, a by-product of stress is that it can take a toll on our skin. So much so, that experts have even named an entire field after it… psychodermatology.
Dermatologists explain that a lot of nerve endings connect to the skin, meaning that our emotions can play a big role in our skin condition. A study by Korabel at al, (2008) highlights that the incidence of psychiatric disorders among dermatological patients is estimated at about 30 to 60%... wow!
Take the example of the stress-skin pathway below. Something may trigger stress, such as a job, a person, an event. This stress then triggers the release of a chemical called cortisol which can, in turn, increase the oil production in our skin. The result is the dreaded stress pimple and in some people more severe outbreaks of acne and eczema, and ongoing skin conditions.
There are a whole range of other ways that stress can impact the skin too, including sleep deprivation and therefore an increase in puffiness and wrinkle development. If stress impacts your stomach, you may end up eating a diet high in sugar and saturated fats which can also have an impact on your skin & hair condition.
The one thing these pathways all have in common is that they are all intrinsically linked to our psychological wellbeing.
The exciting news is that dermatologists and other experts are now taking a more holistic approach to treating resulting skin conditions that don’t solely rely on harsh creams and medications.
Some of these new therapies target mental health, relaxation and stress management. According to Karen Mallin, a Psycodermatologist at The University of Miami:
"Psychodermatology is a field that addresses the impact of an individual's emotion as it relates to the skin."
Holistic approaches to treating skin conditions
Carolina Brooks, a functional medicine practitioner and founder of Anthrobotanica talks about her approach and psychodermatology for skin conditions:
“I look at medical and lifestyle history, assessing all underlying factors which have played a role in the way the person responds to stressors including illnesses and why the level of dysfunction has arisen.”
Carolina Brooks, expert naturopath and functional medicine practitioner @Anthrobotanica
This is contrary to traditional medicine which focuses more on a direct treatment method such as a steroid cream or antibiotics, with psychodermatherapy approaches aiming to understand more about the psychological origins of the skin condition to treat the core.
“I look at everything from family history, to whether someone was born by c-section or breastfed as a baby, to whether they have had any dental work, to what contraception they have used in the past, to what they are using to cook their food in, with and at what temperature.”
Ear Acupuncture and Skin
Yes, you read that correctly! Ear acupuncture is being used as a treatment for stress and skin conditions and is already widely recognised as an effective treatment for addictions. It has the ability to calm the mind by relieving pain and identifying pressure points which are causing tension. This is particularly effective at targeting stress which is induced by pain elsewhere in the body.
For people who suffer from anxiety and depression, this can have a huge impact on the skin. Therefore treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy can help get to the root cause of the psychological problem, which in turn can alleviate the impact on the skin. There are also some fascinating therapies known as ‘habit-reversal training’ which aims to eliminate bad behaviours such as picking and scratching at acne or eczema conditions.
Nutritional and Herbal therapies
Herbs can be used to strategically enhance the activity of other compounds in our food and medications, although herbal medicine must always be carried out by a qualified phytotherapist since there is little standardisation and quality control in this industry.
It also comes as no surprise that nutrition can be used to manage and improve skin conditions by creating blood sugar balancing, improving stress resilience and optimising emotional wellbeing. Is it estimated that a whopping 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, meaning that happiness and stress really is linked to the food we eat? Getting a good supply of foods high in Omega fatty acids and Vitamin E such as fish and avocados can also bring vast improvements to skin health.
According the the FSH Center, ‘The Endobiogenic method is a systematic approach to understanding how the body works, why an individual person becomes ill, and how the body can be returned to a state of balance’.
This approach includes detailed blood tests which go beyond traditional blood tests which simply identify if a disease is present or not. It can help identify a myriad of underlying biological interactions which could be causing stress, illness and skin conditions.
This has interesting implications too for the future of anti-ageing treatments. Let’s face it, whenever we hear the words ‘anti-ageing’ or ‘youth-restoring’ most of us feel some glimmer of hope that a novel magic ingredient has been found.
The industry has gone so far as to start exploring this concept of ‘bio-hacking’, understanding what is going on at the individual's genetic and cellular level, to prevent ageing.
So, it seems there is a whole new world we can explore to treat our pesky skin conditions, and it all boils down to taking this more holistic approach and considering what is going on at the psychological level. Next time you experience a breakout, perhaps it is worth thinking about ways to improve your mental wellbeing rather than heading straight for the antibiotics!
Now, time to run a bath and light a candle…
By Rio Cooke @soulofsocial