A lovely client of mine came to see me last week because her skin had abnormally flared-up. I have treated this client for years and her skin has been looking beautifully healthy….. up until recently. The cause? A wedding! An occasion that is all about joy and happiness often transpires into a political time-bomb and organisational nightmare, resulting in the bride-to-be feeling totally stressed-out before her big day.
It got me thinking about the effect of stress on the body and the harm it can cause both internally and to our skin. We all know that stress isn’t good for us, but do we understand exactly what it does to the body?
Stress has been a factor in our lives since the beginning of time when our early ancestor’s ability to 'fight or flight' could mean the difference between life and death. Nowadays threats are more likely to be centred on everyday living; work pressures, relationships, financial strains, demands of our families or momentous events, but our bodies still respond in the same primal way. When we’re in the face of a challenge or threat, our brain senses this fear and mobilises the body’s automatic stress response. Imagine your body as a 999 emergency response centre – it receives a call and jumps into action to deal with the situation.
The way in which the body reacts is fascinating. Adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones, flood our bloodstream to increase the body's metabolism and overcome fatigue, which in turn increases our heart rate and blood pressure. Sugars, fats and cholesterol from the liver are converted into fuel for quick energy, saliva dries up and the digestion and elimination systems are stopped so blood can be directed away from our internal organs to our muscles and brain. Whilst this is taking place our muscles become tense and ready for action, perspiration cools the body allowing it to burn more energy, blood clotting mechanisms are activated to protect us from blood loss in case of injury and the immune system's efficiency is suppressed. How utterly miraculous is that?
Despite this, a small amount of stress is not thought to be a bad thing. As we have seen our body has a thoroughly effective, in-built coping mechanism but it is not designed to run continuously. Constant and prolonged pressures will result in stress related symptoms, such as insomnia, lack of concentration, irrational behavioural patterns and changes to the skin.
The consequence of stress to our skin lies with the hormone cortisol. During times of stress, cortisol slows down your immune system to allow your body to redirect energy to muscles and mental functions. Constant stress, however, keeps your immune system suppressed, making your skin more susceptible to infections and potential flare-ups of chronic conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Another of cortisol's influence is an increase in sebum, a natural oil produced by the skin. Sebum that remains trapped in your skin's pores may cause acne to develop or worsen. All of this, combined with interrupted sleep patters, which we know is no good for our beauty sleep, is a recipe for skin disaster.
Now we know what’s happening internally, in my next blog I’m going to explore what we can do externally to prepare and assist our bodies and our skin during times of stress. For now though, take a deep breath, go for a walk, do some yoga, have massage – do anything that will prevent your brain from dialling 999….!