Stress has a direct impact on hormones like cortisol, which can cause premature ageing, acne, rosacea, and numerous other skin maladies.
Elevated cortisol then depletes collagen, which gives skin its elasticity, and has disastrous impacts upon the skin.
Here we’ll tell you how stress can harm your skin and lead to premature ageing, and how to combat this through natural remedies and cortisol-lowering herbs.
Your skin is the largest organ of your body. It protects you from harm, keeps you warm, sweats to keep you cool, and it can look pretty amazing if you take care of it.
It’s also the most sensitive organ of the body.
When you think about it, our skin is one of the most perceptive organs we have, allowing us to feel pain, pleasure, touch, heat and cold. These sensations travel along the central nervous system to the brain, where they are decoded, allowing us to feel sensations.
That skin-brain connection is the very thing that makes our skin so reflective of our emotional state and highly reflective of how acutely we are feeling stressed.1
Stress creates hormonal imbalances in your body because of elevated cortisol, and elevated cortisol directly depletes collagen, leading to disastrous consequences for our skin.
The key to having beautiful, young skin, is to lower stress, lower cortisol, and keep lowering cortisol every single day with the right kind of lifestyle changes.
What is stress, exactly?
Stress is a combination of two things that combine to create the physical condition of stress:
extreme emotional, physical, or mental pressure
the feeling that this pressure exceeds our ability to manage it.
Stress and the skin—the cortisol/collagen connection
Constant stress and trauma trigger the release of an ageing hormone in our body called cortisol. Scientists and doctors have come to call cortisol the “death hormone” because of its many adverse effects upon every system in the body.
Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, which regulate stress.
The way it works is that when your stores of adrenaline are depleted because of an abundance of stress—from staying too long in “fight or flight” mode—your adrenals begin hyper-producing cortisol to replace this adrenaline you’ve lost. This loss of adrenaline sets off a cascade of effects that lead to elevated cortisol, which has all kinds of negative effects upon the body.
When adrenaline gets used up because our body thinks it’s under siege all the time, it produces cortisol to thrive on. Cortisol cannot give us the immediate energy adrenaline can, so instead, it produces fat cells to feed upon for energy. Unfortunately for us, it won’t feed on stored fat. It makes new fat . . . and then more fat.
Cortisol causes us to store fat around our middle to protect our middles, which is the most vulnerable part of our body. They have no rib cage to protect them like our heart and lungs do. So cortisol, thinking we’re in danger because our stress level is so elevated, enwombs our gut area in a nice encasement of fat, to protect all our lower internal organs, like the liver, intestines, and pancreas.2
Chronically high cortisol can also lower immune function, cause memory loss issues and brain fog, and place you at risk for depression.1
The most immediate effects of a high cortisol level, however, are seen upon the skin.
Cortisol and its effects upon the skin
Today, science is learning that stress affects our skin and our bodies much more than we have ever known and beyond just giving us premature worry lines. Stress sets off a complex mechanism within the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, which controls all the endocrine glands. This axis controls adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that affect the health and appearance of your skin.4
Elevated cortisol can lead to premature ageing, the development of lines and wrinkles, rosacea, an inability for the skin to heal after wounds or injury, and clogged, enlarged pores due to excessive oil in the skin.
Dryness and inhibited healing
The first way cortisol effects skin is through impacting the skin’s barrier function, a function which keeps moisture in the skin and helps wounds and injuries to heal. Consequently, the skin will be dehydrated, overly dry, and unable to heal from pimples, wounds, or sores as easily. Water loss also leads to fine lines, wrinkles, and premature ageing on the face as well. 1
The cortisol-skin connection has been tested time and time again. One study used strips of tape and applied them to two different groups of students. The first group was undergoing university exams, and another group had been on vacation. The groups undergoing final exams showed significantly less ability to heal the skin from irritation caused by tape-stripping.
As Flor A. Mayoral, M.D. notes…6
Cortisol and premature ageing
One reason we call cortisol the death hormone is because of its hyper-destructive effects upon prematurely ageing of the body by suppressing the immune system, negatively impacting the thymus, and causing tissue damage all over the body.7
With the skin, cortisol attacks those important proteins in the skin called collagen that keep our skin taut and youthful-looking.
Collagen makes up 90% of our skin’s molecules and is also found in rich amounts in the hair, nails, and muscles. But stress raises cortisol production and cortisol depletes our collagen, causing our skin to look prematurely old and wrinkle much faster.
This premature ageing effect actually happens for a couple of reasons that have to do with this powerful hormone that science is just begging to fully understand. Cortisol lowers the amount of collagen in the skin while suppressing growth hormone (GH) both of which lead to premature wrinkling of the skin and a higher perceived age as well.8 Cortisol also decreases levels of albumin in the skin. Elderly people lose albumin as they age, so loss of this important compound can lead to premature ageing of younger people as well.9
Stress and acne flare-ups
Blushing is one way your skin shows a stress response. That feeling produces enhanced blood flow to the skin, showing up as redness in the face. Thus, it’s no surprise stress can cause acne flare-ups. Several studies have demonstrated the connection between elevated stress and acne. One study focused upon Stanford University students undergoing exams and a non-stress control group to test this theory. The exam group had severe flare ups and more frequent flare-ups than the control group.10
Clogged pores, oily skin, and cortisol
When your cortisol is elevated, that means other hormones are also out of balance. Studies show that excess cortisol can lead to oily skin by negatively impacting oestrogen and progesterone, our fertility hormones. This is why, for severe acne problems, doctors will often prescribe birth control pills, to suppress hormonal excesses in the body11
Redness and rosacea
Our skin tone is also dependent on our emotional well-being. When you feel anxious or worried, blood flow increases, which can result in expanded capillaries. This can lead to redness and a puffy appearance to the skin. Stress is one of the most common triggers for a rosacea flare up. Controlling stress and keeping cortisol levels within a normal range are key to reducing the frequency of rosacea flare-ups.12
The good news
There are ways to heal your body from stress that actually works to lower cortisol levels drastically. Doing something daily to reduce stress can help you gradually lower cortisol levels in your body, ultimately making you a happier person, helping you reach your cognitive best, and helping you keep your skin youthful, taut, and rich in healthy collagen.
In fact, stress is so directly related to the look, the health and the perceived age of skin that researchers have reported on an emergent new trend in dermatology, called “psychodermatology,” which focuses on healing stress to cure all kinds of skin issues.
Psychodermatology is not only helping people to get clear, glowing, acne-free skin, it is also proven to regrow hair loss caused by alopecia. Today, skin specialists are approaching skin as less of an external issue and more as an internal one. Researchers have found that natural, holistic practices like yoga, relaxation tapes, and meditation are reversing skin problems improving the quality of skin for all kinds of individuals and helping them to grow thicker hair as well.13
Until you find a good psychodermatologist, here are some great ways of reducing stress, lowering cortisol, and improving the health and appearance of your skin in the meantime.
Great ways to destress, lower cortisol naturally, and get glowing skin
If you are really depressed, you will want to see a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, or counsellor and consider medical ways of treating your stress, anxiety, and depression. However, if you feel you can manage a problem with stress yourself, try some of these great natural, healthy ways to relax, destress, and calm your inner self that actually lowers cortisol.
Sleep loss elevates cortisol which will lead to premature ageing and skin issues. Sleep resets cortisol and gives you lowered cortisol levels overall. People who get 6 hours or less of sleep hours or less have 50% more cortisol in their bloodstream and these levels can stay elevated for days.14 Studies find that sleeping the whole 8 or even 9 hours can really help lower high cortisol levels.
The power of meditation
Any quiet activity in which you focus on breathing, relaxing and finding your centre is a form of meditation. Research shows that meditation can help individuals reduce stress levels, serum cortisol levels, and “may decrease the risk of diseases that arise from stress such as psychiatric disorder, peptic ulcer and migraine . . . mindfulness and meditation should be used in combination with standard treatment.”15
Believe it or not—stand up real straight
This unusual method of reducing cortisol levels by 25%, research shows, will improve your posture and help you avoid a hump on your back as well. Simply hold your shoulders back and don’t slouch.
Harvard University researchers found that when individuals stand in “power poses” (open shoulders and straight spines), they lower cortisol by 25% while slouching increases stress hormones overall by 15%. This is a good reason to stand up straight and proud, right? (This idea was featured on the show Grey’s Anatomy, by the way—the “superman stance” the surgeons would pose in for five minutes before difficult surgeries).16
Try foods power packed with vitamin C
Some foods are considered calming because they’re full of antioxidants, which relieve oxidative stress in the body and reduce overall stress levels as well, sending cortisol levels down. Try vitamin C- rich foods like berries, oranges, and dark, leafy greens such as organic parsley (surprisingly rich in vitamin C), kale, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, beet greens, collard greens, etcetera.17
When volunteers at University College London were given a stressful task, the cortisol levels of regular black tea drinkers fell by 47% within an hour of completing the assignment, while those who didn’t drink tea experienced only a 27% drop. Although researchers are not quite sure why it works, for now, it is thought it is the quantity of antioxidants like polyphenols and flavonoids that produce this effect.18
Massages are one of the best things you can do for your body and mind, science demonstrates. A good massage is wonderful for helping lower cortisol and makes you feel happy by releasing feel-good hormones as well.
In a recent study, researchers found that cortisol decreases by 30% after a massage session, while serotonin and dopamine levels elevate by 28%. So, massage is a win-win for skin (and getting your happy back).19
The importance of natural beauty products for lowering cortisol
Look for moisturisers, cleansers, and toners rich in extracts and oils from herbs proven to lower cortisol like rosemary and lavender, both which have shown powers of lowering cortisol and relieving stress.20
You could try a hot, healing bath with a rosemary and lavender sachet made with organic herbs. The heat, the relaxation, and the aromas will help you sleep deeply and lower cortisol.
Organic, natural beauty products of all kinds are essential ones because many over the counter beauty products of all kinds contain thousands of phytoestrogens which throw hormones out of balance, ultimately ruining your skin.
Today, science is finding that natural ways of lowering cortisol can prevent ageing and even reverse damage to the skin by helping to replenish and repair our collagen stores.
Try to integrate one or even two of these natural methods above to lower cortisol and watch the payoff in your skin.
Sources and References:
- Ying, C. and J. Lyga. (2014). Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging.
Inflammatory Allergy Drug Targets. 13(3): 177–190.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4082169/
Randall, M. (2010). The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/#.WJ8yrT357-Y
Turakitwanakan, W., Mekseepralard, C. and P. Busarakumtragul. (2013). Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. Journal of Medical Association Thai. Suppl 1: S90-5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23724462
Cuddy, Amy J.C., Caroline A. Wilmuth, and Dana R. Carney. “The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-027,
Steptoe, A. (2007). The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 190(1): 81-9.
Field, T. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience. 115(10):1397-413. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447
Atsumi, T. and K. Tonosaki. (2007). Smelling lavender and rosemary increases free radical scavenging activity and decreases cortisol level in saliva. Psychiatry Research. 150(1):89-96. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17291597
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