How Stress Gets Under Your Skin

Categories:General Health
Farhan Mirajkar

Understanding The Mind Beauty Connection:

 I had my first insight into this fascinating mind-beauty connection when I was just nine years old. My mom had been hospitalized for depression and, when we went to visit her, her appearance shocked mc. She’d suddenly gotten old. She had dark circles under her eyes, gray and sagging skin. Not the mom I had ever known. Even her hair was dull. Yet she was just thirty-three-a woman in her prime! Clearly, depression had aged her prematurely. But equally amazing was what happened next. When the depression lifted, so did the years. She had responded well to treatment and therapy, arriving home looking like my mom again. She had reclaimed her youthful looks and vitality.

 It doesn’t take a case of full-blown depression to add years to your physical body. How many women do you know who walk around in a state of chronic exhaustion and stress! Or who reel tram one emotionally fraught problem to another with their marriage, weight, job, finances, kids, whatever on their mind and have almost forgotten how to smile? While men can certainly fall into this same trap, I find that as women we are especially prone to the misgivings of overscheduled and overcommitted lives, particularly given the roles we accept in society (mom, wife, daughter, caretaker, homemaker, dog walker, article keeper, friend, mentor, employee or business owner, and so on).

 Not surprisingly, women report feeling the effects of stress on their physical health more than men do. We rob from our precious sleep time to pay the bills, keep everyone else happy at home and work, and check off the to do list. This also sets us up for falling into many unhealthy habits such as avoiding exercise, drinking too much alcohol, losing sight of what a healthy meal is, and resorting to lots of processed foods that will do exactly what we don’t want to happen: pack on weight and age prematurely.

 For the most part, though, we manage to keep all the balls in the air. But you’ve probably noticed that when the juggling act goes on for too long or when life throws you a curveball your mom gets sick, or your partner loses his job, or the car and the hot-water heater call it quits on the same day your looks take a dive. Whether it’s dark circles, pallid patches, a giant pimple, or what looks like a whole new set of crow’s feet, it’s the final insult.

 That’s a classic sign of stress aging. It’s what happens when an overload of life adds years to your looks, It can age your face far more rapidly than the passage of time. Here’s the shocker: Stress can age you three to six years or more. And it’s a familiar, vicious cycle: Stress affects your beauty, and when you’re not happy with your appearance, you’re nor happy in general and you can’t cope with stress so easily. Which then comes back to take a bite out of your beauty again and again. Oh, and don’t for a minute think that this is a female thing, even though I’m focusing on us women here. Think of how Bill Clinton or George W. Bush looked before they entered the Oval Office compared with their appearances near the end of their terms. The presidency gave them power, prestige, and … white hair, deep creases, blotchy complexions, and extra pounds.

 Now that you’ve got your list of to-dos and have set a program in motion, it’s time to get a behind-the-scenes look at why this program works. I think virtually everyone agrees by now that stress is, for the most part, unhealthy, and that perpetual, long-term stress can make you sick, but it’s not commonly understood just how this is true from both a biological and psychological standpoint. The evidence might surprise you.

Octogenarians on the Rise: Baby girls born in 2004 can expect to live to the ripe age o f eighty, a new record. So. it’s more important than ever to feel happy in your own skin. Consider it a birthright not only to want to live longer, but also to remain and look radiantly healthy.

 Anatomy of stress: Stress is a wily adversary. It has a lot of sneaky ways to get under your skin and inflict damage. Millennia ago, when threats were more clear cut, human beings relied on the famous fight.-or-flight response to prime our bodies for battle or to vanish in a flash whenever a saber-toothed tiger stalked us for lunch.

 But Darwin is dead, and for the last several hundred years, humans have been taken out of the survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian jungle. These days, stress is most likely to come at us from bumper to-bumper commutes, overbearing bosses, overprices babysitters, tainted lettuce, concerns about global warming… the list of modern life’s aggravators and dangers is so endless, it could wrap around the planet. And, unlike a confrontation with one of those big fanged cats it pounces, you lose, end of story modern stresses can often be relentless, chronic, and cumulative.

 Stress physiology has come a long way in the last century, especially in the last fifty years, thanks to major advances in medicine and public health. Think about it: Your great great grandparents probably worried about diseases like scarlet fever, polio, malaria, influenza, and perhaps the thought about giving birth. Today we are more likely to die old and worn out; we succumb to age-related diseases that slowly build up over a lifetime and present themselves… eventually. They include heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and cancer. I love how Robert M. Sapolsky explains this in his article Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: "While none of these diseases is particularly pleasant, they certainly mark a big improvement over succumbing at age twenty after a week of sepsis or dengue fever:’ He then goes on to say that coinciding with this relatively recent shift in the patterns of disease have come changes in how we perceive the progression and the process of disease.

Stress Fracture: When the demands placed on us exceed our perceived ability to cope, we experience stress. Stress is also defined as the thoughts, feelings, behaviors. and physiological changes that happen as a result of our response to those demands and perceptions. A whopping 82 percent of women say they have had at least one physical stress symptom in the last month such as a relentless headache. an upset stomach. or tightness in the chest.

 We now acknowledge and have been amassing the scientific proof of the delicate yet complex intertwining of our biology and our psychology-the untold ways in which our personalities, emotions, feelings, and thoughts both reject and affect what’s going on inside our bodies. There are lots of two-way streets here: Life has an impact on your body physically, and your body physically has a say in determining how well you feel and live, and whether or not you’d call yourself a happy person. Intangibles like emotional distress, personality traits, psychological characteristics, and even socioeconomic factors can all influence bodily processes including real, physical aspects to us such as our hearts, minds, nerves, and fat cells. It’s an exciting time in medicine, when we are just beginning to understand how these intangibles can, as Sapolsky so eloquently explains, determine whether or not cholesterol sticks to your arteries, whether your pancreas stops producing insulin, thus giving you type-1 diabetes, or your cells stop responding to insulin, thus giving you type-2 diabetes, and whether or not your brain’s neurons could survive a few minutes without oxygen if your heart stopped beating.

 The paradox. of course, is that stress isn’t always a bad guy. The pressure of competition or of meeting a deadline can raise your heart rate, alert your senses, and concentrate every cell in your body on acing a tennis match or perfecting a presentation. This stress is-your-enemy-and-your-buddy conundrum has an enormous amount to do with hormones.

Stressless Fact: As the irony of life would have it. apparently stress is something we handle better with age. All of us react differently to stress and stressful events but. on average, it seems we become better equipped to handle stress the older we get. According to the National Study of Health & Well Being done by the University of Wisconsin Madison Institute on Aging, older men and women (ages sixty to seventy-five) reported fewer daily stressors than their younger counterparts. And compared to people ages twenty-five to fifty-nine. older adults say their stress is not nearly as disruptive and unpleasant.


 When we think about hormones, those such as testosterone and estrogen likely first come to mind, but there’s so much more to our endocrine system than the sex hormones that command our reproductive cycle. Every second of every day you have dozens of hormones acting in your body to get certain physiologic functions accomplished. These include reactions taking place in the skin, too.

 Physiologically speaking, hormones control much of what we feel, be it tired, hungry, horny, hot, or cold. They control the rates of certain chemical reactions, assist in transporting substances through membranes, and help regulate water balance, electrolyte balance, and blood pressure. They manage development, growth, reproduction, and behavior. Put simply, hormones are the body’s little messengers, which get produced in one part of the body, such as the thyroid, adrenal, or pituitary gland, pass into the bloodstream or other body fluid, and go to distant organs and tissues where they innocence and change structures and functions. They are like traffic signals, telling our body what to do and when so it can run smoothly and efficiently. Hormones are as much a part of our reproductive system as they are a part of our urinary, respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, muscular, skeletal, immune, and digestive systems.

 When your hormones are not balanced or operating effectively, you will notice it. They can run amok in response to stressful periods or as a result of your age and condition (think puberty, pregnancy, menopause, etc.); they also can become imbalanced under the influence of a disease or an invading pathogen that changes the climate of your body. Because hormones hold this magic wand in us, if the wand isn’t working properly we can experience a cascade of health problems, from a sluggish metabolism to infertility, diabetes, insatiable cravings, and so on. Skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, eczema, and roscoe can also be part of this mix. Then, suddenly, one problem becomes two, three, and four subsequent prob. terns, such as unexplained weight gain, chronic pain, irritability, hair loss, fatigue, a loss of libido, and a general sense that something is not right. We feel tired and weak, unable to participate in life to its fullest.

 Let’s look at a few important hormones in particular that relate directly to stress and how our bodies cope with it. You’ve already heard many of these in the previous articles, but here I’ll help you gain a clearer understanding of how they can have a direct impact on your appearance.

Driving Under the Influence: Your body is constantly under the mercy of chemical substances. called hormones. that have a commanding role in many bodily functions. They can change your metabolism (make it faster or slower). affect your fertility, dictate your complexion and skin health, and even have a say in how well you can cope with stressful events. The chief hormones that come into play with regard to stress include adrenaline and cortisol.

THE HPA AXIS: When stress first attacks-whether the threat is emotional (bad news about a best friend) or physical (getting trapped in a blizzard)-the brains first reaction is to signal to the adrenal glands to release epinephrine, better known as adrenaline. Among its many jobs are increasing heart speed and rushing blood to the big power muscles, just in case you have to move fast.

 Adrenaline commandeers some of that blood from the skin and face, by the way, which makes you look washed out, which is where the phrase "white with fear" comes from. If whatever caused your heart to race passes. the adrenaline flow abates, your pulse assumes its usual pace, your palms dry, your color returns, and life as your body knows it goes back to normal

 But if your stress response gets kicked up another notch, a whole swat team of stress hormones kicks in to ready your body systems for action. Here’s the 1-2-3 of what happens when a crisis hits:

1. The region of the brain called the hypothalamus releases a stress coordinator called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).

2. CRH rushes over to the pituitary, a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain, and tells it to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.

3. Fast-talking ACTH tells the adrenals (yep, they’re called into action again) to release a major stress hormone, cortisol.

 This sequence of events is known in scientific circles as the hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal axis, or HPA axis. It is your body’s main stress-response system. Think of it as old-fashioned messengering in a kingdom in the midst of war a way of getting the word out to the body that it’s time to mobilize the troops and prepare for battle.

 And as you’ll soon find out, your skin has a similar such system all on its own. To wit; The skin is the queen’s twin, and a mistress in her own kingdom.

 Cortisol, the hormone that has been echoing through these articles since the start of this article, actually breaks down tissue, including skin. It also can wreak havoc on numerous bodily functions. As your body’s chief and powerful, stress hormone, it tells your body to do three things: increase your appetite; stock up on more fat; and break down materials that can be used for quick forms of energy, including muscle. It sounds opposite to what you’d like to have happen, but that’s how your body naturally responds to stress. It automatically goes into a protectionist mode. You see, cortisol is your primary catabolic hormone, meaning it halts growth and reduces cellular synthesis (as opposed to increasing cell production and metabolism), causes muscles to break down, and assembles fat. It thinks the body won’t see food again for a while or that it will need an ample supply of fuel to get through a rough patch. Clearly, one of the goals of this program is to control your corticol levels naturally through modifications in your lifestyle, including diet, exercise, and relaxation techniques. And when you do manage your cortisol levels well, you can experience numerous benefits, from better skin to better weight control.

Cortisol, Clockwork: Cortisol levels are highest early in the morning and during periods of high stress, and lowest in early stages of deep sleep. Yet another reason to get quality shut-eye. You give your body the ultimate break from the madness.

 That said, let me add that you wouldn’t be alive without cortisol: It’s the hormone that helps immune cells go after infectious invaders, then signals all clear to the brain when the battle is won. It also builds up energy reserves, warehousing calories that might be needed to fuel muscles for action, and does many other good deeds. You just want to be sure that it’s around when you need it, and that it’s gone when you don’t. Because too much cortisol spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e.

 If the crisis is prolonged, for instance, or another pops up and then another, cortisol and other stress hormones just keep pouring into your system. That’s chronic stress and your body doesn’t like to be in this unending, high-wire state. While the cortisol is there to pump you up, you probably don’t need to lift cars or jump off a fire escape. Yet it keeps on flowing, taxing every system and organ in your body, including your skin. It can also disrupt the formation of new collagen, and sluggish collagen production makes skin thinner and weaker, Blood vessels become more fragile. It’s skin aging in a nutshell: As the skin loses its capacity to hold on to moisture and becomes less resilient, permanent lines become more visible on the surface. New skin cells don’t form as quickly, and cell turnover may eventually slow by half. Without a good blood supply, oil glands slack off and skin becomes dryer still.


 Let’s back up a minute and explore this all-important tissue called collagen, which has such a defining role in our looks. It’s our body’s most abundant protein. About one third of all proteins in our body is collagen, and about 90 percent of skin tissues owe their structure to collagen. It’s continually undergoing a process of breakdown and repair, a cycle called turnover, to ensure our body remains in peak health. Because the skin is made up of so much collagen, it’s more adept at handling stress and repairing cells after damage. You know this if you have ever slightly burned your arm while cooking. A few days later, your skin looks likes it’s on its way back to normal.

 If you’ve ever felt sore after a hard workout or a day of skiing, you know that your body will feel normal again in a few days. What happens is the damaged muscle tissues (and tendons and ligaments, all rich in collagen) get repaired relatively quickly. Your body’s turnover factory will remove damaged tissue and replenish it with new, stronger tissue. What happens when we age, however, is that this turnover process slows, and we become more vulnerable to tissue damage. We are likely living with decades of accumulated stress and less-than-perfect repair along the way. In addition to cortisol’s impact on collagen breakdown, other factors can contribute to skin damage. Chief among those factors are three things: glycation, oxidation, and inflammation. Here’s the rundown:

Glycation: This is a natural process in which the sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins, forming harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products (ironically, AGEs for short). The most vulnerable proteins are collagen and elastin, the fibers that you know by now keep skin firm and elastic. Researchers are currently trying to figure out just how this process factors into the age equation it’s not necessarily accurate to say "sugar causes wrinkles," because there are some complex biological pathways happening that involve more than sugar alone. Too much glycation may affect what type of collagen you can build, which is a huge factor in determining how resistant your skin will be to wrinkling. The damaging effects sugar can have on your looks is clearly evident in diabetics who have a hard time controlling their blood-sugar levels. Diabetics often show the signs of premature aging because they can go for years with undetected high blood sugar, causing them to physically age quicker.

Oxidation: One term you’re likely already familiar with explains oxidation, and that term is free radicals. These are the loose cannons, highly reactive forms of oxygen to be exact, that can damage cell membranes and other cellular structures in the body, but especially in the skin. Free radicals attack us from a variety of sources, both internal as an outcome to normal metabolism and respiration, as well as from external sources like pollution and UV rays. In this program we are controlling exposure to free radicals and taking the steps necessary to address the damage that may have already done. Yes, you can control free radical damage through specific protocols that entail treatments to the skin, as well as nourishment from the inside .

Inflammation: Like cortisol inflammation has both pros and cons, and we very much need this protective mechanism. Inflammation is our bodies’ natural response to injury or illness, helping us to survive. It’s what helps kill an invading bacteria or virus, for instance. In today’s world, we are at the mercy of too much inflammation all around. An over reactive inflammatory response is what triggers allergies and some autoimmune diseases, like arthritis. The response can also be misdirected, causing more skin damage and pain instead of less. To make matters worse, the presence of excessive free radicals, AGEs, and cortisol combined is like coarse salt in the wounds, leading to so-called hyper inflammation. No one in a hyper inflamed state will look good.

The solution: Get control of all these factors in the beauty equation. And that’s one of the main goals of this program. These metabolic factors all of which are linked to acne, wrinkles, discoloration, sagging. and the very process of not only skin aging bur aging itself can be brought under your control easily with a few simple strategies


 Chronic, unrelenting stress the kind that modern life is too full of changes your brain and body in all sorts of ways. Memory slips. Blood pressure rises. You gain fat around your belly, the unhealthiest place to put on pounds. This is called visceral fat because it’s deeply embedded around your vital organs, thus increasing your risk for heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. Your immune system takes a hit and you become more susceptible to infections. (Which explains why you’re more likely to get a cold when you ate overworked or overwrought.) Wound healing slows by as much as 40 percent, oil glands go into overdrive, and inflammation takes off. Plus, free radicals proliferate and run wild, subtly damaging skin and eventually drying it out, creating wrinkles and turning softness to sag.

 What’s more, some elements within the skin, including the hair follicles, are supersensitive to stress hormones. This may explain why some people lose their hair or grow it in the wrong places after a serious bout of emotional stress as hormones send the wrong message or no message at all. (More on this shortly.) No, stress has nothing to do with the growing shag on your husband’s back that’s caused by different hormones!

 Unfortunately, the ability to turn off the stress response, and return cortisol levels to normal appears to decline with age. And, as these negative factors persist, your antioxidant defense mechanism takes a hit, leaving you vulnerable to disease and accelerated aging on the inside and outside.

 Few people can weather and wear stress well. while you may not so easily see clogged arteries, high blood pressure, and abdominal fat, for example, in someone, you can usually see the signs of stress in her appearance, which is partly why I wholeheartedly believe that the elements of my program will help you to achieve better health overall, not just on the outside. For now, let’s keep the focus on the skin. It will be the starting point from which all paths to wellness commence. And, as you’re about to learn, the skin is in many ways its own command center that can talk to not only the brain but to other organs as well. So imagine the power you can wield on your beauty if you can command your skin and brain.

 The Moms Who Changed Everything: By the late ’90s, many researchers were convinced that stress leads to chronic problems like heart disease, impaired immunity, memory loss. and premature aging. but there was no absolute proof. Then, in November 2004, a study of moms changed everything.

 A team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, tracked fifty-eight mothers, aged twenty to fifty. Almost forty of them were caregivers- mothers with a chronically ill child. The rest (the controls) had healthy children, Predictably, the caregivers reported more stress than the controls, and the longer they had been caring for a sick child, the greater their stress.

 What made this study a landmark was that scientists actually pinpointed the damage stress docs to DNA, the genetic material in everyone of our cells. The tips of DNA strands are protected by little shields called telomeres (like plastic tips at the end of shoelaces). The more stress a mom had, the shorter her telomeres were.

 Telomeres, the UCSF group discovered, rum out to be a kind of dock for gauging how old a cell is. Each time a cell divides, the telomere tips shrink a bit. A repair enzyme quickly fixes them, but only so many repairs can be done. And the marc stress a person is under, (he less well (he repairs work. When the DNA is damaged beyond repair, the cell can no longer divide. End of story.

 The scientists did some fancy calculations and finally wound up with a way to measure the aging effects of stress. The telomeres of women with the greatest stress were 10 years older than those of the women with the least stress. The research is ongoing, and here’s the upside: The UCSF team is now trying to figure out if it’s possible to counter the effects of stress on telomeres with meditation, therapy, yoga, or some other technique.

Q: What do you do when you’re stressed?
Listening to music often helps me. It’s great that music is so portable today-you can briefly tune out and go into a feel good song. It’s a four-minute fix! A little Patti Griffin works for me. Or James Blunt or a Crosby, Stilts, and Nash flashback. Or listening to something I loved from high school or college.

 I’m also a huge fan of the great outdoors. A dip in nature can make my whole body relax. As you know, I call it getting my vitamin G. When I’m tense, jf I can go outside for even five minutes, it helps. I also practice what I preach about deep breathing: When I need to quickly chill out, 1’/1 slowly breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth for a minute or two. I’ll also mentally put myself in the last place I had a great vacation or was able to really relax. I tap into all my senses and focus on what the place looked like, smelled like, sounded like, and felt like. It helps me reset my emotions.

 To understand how the mind-beauty connection works and why your skin needs certain ingredients to look its best, it helps to get a basic idea of how skin operates on the inside. Next up is a crash course


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