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Stressed Out & Broken Out? The Link Between Stress and Acne

The accumulation of many stressors, whether large or small, across your day can have a significant impact on acne breakouts.


How many of these can you put your hand up to?

  • Mindless social media scrolling

  • Lack of sleep

  • Little movement each day

  • Anxieties about work or social events

  • No time for ‘you’


All of these are stressors. And all of these contribute to our overall stress levels throughout the day.


But how can stress contribute to my acne?


When we are stressed our ‘fight or flight’ hormone, cortisol, is released.  It’s called our ‘fight or flight’ hormone because it allows us to quickly and effectively handle stressful situations. Back in our cavemen days, this was a pretty handy response to enable us to run from, or fight, a predator. But today there’s a constant bombardment of micro and macro stressors that can trigger the release of cortisol, and put us in ‘fight or flight’. The result is that our cortisol levels remain high for much longer than they should. 


This can lead to the onset, or worsening, of acne for three reasons.

 

  1. Hormonal imbalances 


Insulin is the hormone that helps to keep our blood sugar levels under control. But it has an antagonistic relationship with cortisol. So when cortisol is kept high due to stress, insulin also remains elevated.  And this is where the problem arises. Insulin stimulates the production of testosterone. And testosterone encourages our glands to produce an oily, waxy substance called sebum. And some bacteria just love this fatty-rich sebum! They thrive in it, and the subsequent overgrowth of these bacteria can lead to inflammation, blocked pores… and acne. 


  1. Inflammation


Cortisol doesn’t just affect insulin though. It also alters our gut microbiome - changing both the type of bacteria found in our gut, and the location of them. When cortisol is raised, more pathogenic bacteria can set up camp in our gut. These bacteria can aggravate our gut lining, causing the barrier that keeps our gut and our bloodstream separate to weaken. Bacteria and undigested food can then escape and our immune system mounts an inflammatory response. This inflammation can further exacerbate acne breakouts. 


  1. Digestion


When we are in fight or flight mode, our body’s priority is to keep us alive. When running from (or fighting) a threat we do not need to digest food. And so our digestion is slowed right down. This allows our energy to be focused on the body systems that will help us deal with the stressor. But if our digestion is slowed down then it renders us unable to effectively digest our food and absorb nutrients. So not only does stress lead to oily skin and inflammation, but it also limits the availability of nutrients, that our skin needs to repair. 


Diagram of stress - acne cycle
Acne can have a devastating effect on someone’s confidence, self-esteem and mental well-being. This in itself is enough to lead to a horrible repeating cycle in which stress worsens acne breakouts, which leads to further stress, which exacerbates acne further… and the cycle continues. 

When we are in fight or flight mode, our body’s priority is to keep us alive. When running from (or fighting) a threat we do not need to digest food. And so our digestion is slowed right down. This allows our energy to be focused on the body systems that will help us deal with the stressor. But if our digestion is slowed down then it renders us unable to effectively digest our food and absorb nutrients. So not only does stress lead to oily skin and inflammation, but it limits the availability of nutrients that our skin needs to repair. 


Acne can have a devastating effect on someone’s confidence, self-esteem and mental well-being. This in itself is enough to lead to a horrible repeating cycle in which stress worsens acne breakouts, which leads to further stress, which exacerbates acne further… and the cycle continues. 


So what can we do?


Remove the stressors. Simple solution right? Not always. We can’t always remove ourselves from stressful situations. But we can take steps to counter the effects of raised cortisol levels. 


  1. Protein. With Every Meal.

Protein is a super macronutrient when it comes to supporting insulin levels. It helps to slow down how quickly we absorb sugar from the carbohydrates we are eating. Less sugar roaming around the bloodstream means less of an insulin spike. This will help to keep testosterone levels at bay and reduce the production of sebum.


  1. Powerful Plants. 

Plants are the magical foods for our gut bacteria. The fibre and phytonutrients found within them help our good bacteria to thrive, and as a result can hinder the growth of the more pathogenic ones. Even when we are stressed. So check your plate of food. Is it full of colour? Is it full of a variety of different vegetables? Do you eat plenty of lentils and beans? Have you included nuts and seeds in your meals? All of these plant-based foods help to reduce the stress-induced inflammation from your gut. See if you can eat at least 30 different plant-based foods across the week.


  1. Move More. 


We all know exercise is good for us. And particularly so from a stress perspective because it reduces the levels of cortisol in the brain. But what’s key is finding the right exercise for you. Pick something that you enjoy whether that’s countryside jogs, yoga, dancing or strength training. 


  1. Sleep Soundly.


Do you have a regular bedtime routine? And one that doesn’t involve phones or TVs or caffeine in the lead up to bedtime? Optimising sleep is one of the most effective tools for helping keep cortisol levels in check.  Even at weekends go to bed and wake up at the same time. Get out into daylight as soon as you can upon awakening. Before bed have a warm bath or read a book instead of scrolling through the latest Instagram reels. You’ll sleep better, and your skin will thank you for it. 


  1. Breathe. 


The pressure to over-achieve in today’s world is insane. But in trying to do so we are constantly on the go. We could all do with slowing down and being realistic about what’s possible to achieve in a day. How many times do you eat whilst working instead of taking a break to enjoy your food? How many different tasks are you doing at any one time instead of focusing on one at a time? Taking some time to sit and breathe can have a huge impact on switching your body from fight or flight to rest and digest. 



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