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How Stress is Messing with Your Skin

Stress can be a trigger or worsen existing skin conditions. Find out how stress is connected and what you can do about it.
May 3, 2022 | Joy McCarthy

The relationship between stress and the skin is well documented and you no doubt have your very own experience with it, which is why you are here! Whether it's premature aging, eczemaacne, or rosacea, stress plays a role and is messing with your skin!

How are stress and the skin connected?

When we perceive stress whether that be a tight deadline, traffic, or financial worry, our body goes into flight, fight or freeze mode just as it would if a rabid dog was chasing us! It doesn't matter whether the stress is life-threatening or not, the mind perceives it the same way and goes into sympathetic nervous system mode. When this happens we secrete a stress hormone called cortisol from our adrenal glands. Our skin has receptors for this stress hormone and this results in various changes to our skin:

  • More oil and sebum production - clogging pores and causing acne
  • Increased inflammation - irritation, redness, swelling (triggering rosacea and eczema)
  • Slows the healing of the skin and makes it more susceptible to infection 
  • Activation of mast cells which can make skin itchy or irritated

How stress indirectly affects the skin

Negatively impacts digestion.

To make matters worse, the release of cortisol also puts a damper on our digestive system. How? Cortisol aids in moving blood flow towards the brain, legs, and arms rather than towards the digestive tract. Digestion is suppressed and that means absorption of the nutrients needed for healthy skin will also be suppressed.

Stress also negatively affects gut motility and in many cases, this causes constipation which can make skin issues worse.


When the body cannot eliminate in a timely fashion it can lead to the reabsorption of toxins and hormones back into the body for circulation - both of which can impact healthy skin. Additionally, constipation leads to bloating, gas, and pain. Not fun.

Causes sleep disturbances.

It's no secret that when you're stressed out or anxious, your sleep quality is impacted. You may have trouble falling asleep, you may not get into a deep sleep or, worse, you may experience insomnia. It is well established that stress negatively impacts sleep.

On the flip side, we know that adequate sleep is crucial to keep inflammation in check and support healthy skin. A study in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology found that people who slept 7-9 hours a night had skin that was more moisturized and that could protect and heal itself better. When your skin has more moisture, this protects your skin barrier function, which is an essential component of healthy skin. This is paramount in rosacea, eczema and acne.

Makes you crave more refined carbs and sugars.

Yet another result of chronic stress is that it can play a key role in lowered serotonin levels, which can cause depression. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that influences mood and behaviour. When its levels are optimal, your appetite is regulated, you feel calm and relaxed, you sleep well, and you have self-control.

Our body is highly intelligent and when serotonin is lowered, the body's response is often to crave more refined carbs and sugars for a mood boost. Unfortunately, not only does sugar increase inflammation, but it also increases oil and sebum production in the skin which can be a trigger for acne.

Finally, when we are stressed, we often skip out on other health habits like healthy home-cooked meals, daily nature walks, exposure to sunshine, movement and exercise -- all of which are key factors for healthy skin.

Get rid of the stress and your skin is perfect? Not so fast.

There are many other factors that contribute to healthy skin such as good nutrition, the right natural health supplements, clean and organic skincare free of hormone disrupters, but if you can focus on strategies to mitigate the negative effect of stress, then you'll be taking a giant leap forward in having your best skin ever. 


How to reduce stress and feel your best

  • Laughter. You've probably heard the old saying that "laughter is the best medicine" and it's not far off. A few LOL's during the day have been found to lower stress hormones and boost serotonin. It's easy to get more laughter into your day. Watch a funny movie or show, tell a joke to a friend, or do some laughing yoga.
  • Sunshine. Getting fresh air and sunshine is a great mood booster - you already knew that though from personal experience no doubt. Sunshine may actually boost serotonin! Not only that, but sunshine boosts levels of vitamin D, which is essential for a healthy mood. Aim to get 20-30 minutes of daily fresh air, even when it's not actually sunny, there are still mood-boosting benefits.
  • Take a social media break. It's no secret that social media has been found to alter our mood and our behaviour negatively in addition to increasing stress. Your brain needs a break from the constant barrage of messages. Take social media breaks and create healthy boundaries around your usage. That might mean you don't check your phone after 8 pm or before 8 am.
  • Practice 4-7-8 breathing. Breathing with awareness is a simple exercise with immediate benefits. When you breathe with the awareness that 4-7-8 breathing provides, you stimulate the relaxation response and move your nervous system out of fight/flight/freeze mode.
  • Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating does more than make food taste better. It can curb overeating and help reduce stress and digestive inflammation. A simple habit to start at your next meal is when you sit down to eat, take 5 deep breaths and practice gratitude for your meal.
  • Try Meditation. I attribute meditation to saving me in this pandemic of anxiety and stress that the world has been living in the past 2+ years. Meditation and mindfulness in general are well established in research to not only reduce stress but improve overall happiness and enthusiasm for life. There are many free meditations on YouTube and tons of apps as well. Check out this post where I share my favourite resources.
  • Nourish your body. Stress is a nutrient hog. It uses up stores of magnesium, B-vitamins, vitamin A and C, and more. Choose high-quality protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs that are full to the brim with phytonutrients. You'll find hundreds of healthy and yummy recipes here, as well as in my three bestselling cookbooks!
  • Continue to care for your skin. When you're stressed it's easy to slip up on your self-care routine. Make yourself a priority. Take time to wash your face and apply your serum at night. Your skin will thank you the next morning!


The bottom line

It's pretty much impossible to live a totally stress-free life so it's really up to you to make yourself a priority and take actionable steps to manage stress. Your skin will thank you and so will your whole body!

Wishing you healthy skin!

Joy xo

Tina   •   May 24, 2022

Joy! Thank you so much for this information on how stress affects your nervous system . Your tips and mindful practices , it came at a much needed time for myself and for my son who is at university and taking summer courses. And he has cystic acne which for sure worsens when he is stressed. He reluctantly read your article but said he was so glad that he did now having a better understanding of the why and what he can do going forward to help him. Your shared knowledge is always appreciated and put into practice with positive and joyful results. Thank you again.

Joy McCarthy   •   May 26, 2022

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