How Stress Affects Skin Health - Q & A with a Clincal Herbalist

April 06, 2018


herbalist writing in office

Avery from Mindful Medicine answers our questions on how stress affects the skin.

Let’s talk about stress. We are all familiar with mental-emotional stress, and how it can affect our daily lives. Whether it be deadlines at work, a less than ideal living situation or the panic of getting your kids to school, soccer practice, and bed on time. Stress comes in all shapes and forms - but our body handles it the same regardless. Let’s talk about the kinds of stress our bodies may be facing daily.

What is stress?

Stress is a number of different things:

  1. Mental/Emotional - financial distress, perfectionism, worry, external pressure
  2. Environmental  - pollutants, pesticides, additives
  3. Physical - overworked, lack of sleep
  4. Acute - infections, injuries
  5. Nutritional - food sensitivities, lack of essential nutrients

Chronic stress is influenced by all aspects of the above factors. 

How does chronic stress affect the body?

  • Our bodies were designed to run on the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic for survival when a predator (like a lion) shows up at our cave and we produce adrenaline and cortisol to push the body past normal extremes to fight or take flight from the situation. 
  • In modern day we have introduced new kinds of “predators” or stressors that take place as anxiety, or allergens in our food or personal care products. The predators look different but our body response is the same. However, the emerging issue is that we have so many stressors happening (from allergies, additives, high-pressure society, finances, social media…)  we may end up in a chronic state of “fight or flight” which has a number of underlying health issues that can relate to the skin. 
  • When the stress response goes off your adrenaline and cortisol put you in a state known as “fight or flight”. This is the opposite of the relaxed "rest and digest" state where reproduction function, digestion, and other metabolic systems take place. Think - if you are in a life threatening situation survival is more important than digesting food or reproducing. 
  • Chronic stress on the body can lead to sluggish digestion, insomnia, and irregular hormonal cycles. 

Example: 

  • Sir Sapien is eating a diet that is rich in environmental pollutants and allergens that his body does not recognize. This triggers a stress response → creates inflammation in the body and the digestive system → inflammation in the digestive system could lead him down a path to leaky gut* → which in turn could set off an immune response → long-term Sir Sapein could develop chronic conditions like cystic acne, hives, and even some autoimmune conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
  • This is why eczema, psoriasis, etc… can be so hard to treat because it is a symptom of an immune response that could be related to any number of things or compounding things over time, including a large genetic component.

What is the relationship between stress and my skin's health?

Your skin is an organ that functions as one of the five major elimination pathways in the body. 

  • Lymphatic system - helps to filter toxins, build immunity, regulate hormones
  • Digestive system + liver - helps to convert fat-soluable toxins into water-soluable toxins and flush them out.
  • Lungs - help to breath out carbon dioxide and other toxins
  • Sweating - helps to sweat out toxins like BPA and pthalates
  • Urinary system - helps to flush out toxins. 

If any of these systems are dampened by lifestyle factors, like smoking, drinking, lack of water, lack of exercise… toxins may be more prominent in the skin, or if you simply have too many toxins to process.

 

What can I do to support my elimination systems?

  • Eat Whole Foods: a healthy whole foods diet, and eliminate any foods that may burden your elimination systems, such as constipating foods, or any specific food allergens.
  • Eat the Rainbow: a broad range of vegetables, the colourful kind, especially dark leafy greens. Incorporate lemon water into your routine
  • See a professional: connect with a herbalist for a customized formula specific to your elimination and health needs. It is important to understand what types of herbs to take. There are many stimulating plants, such as laxatives, that can be additive and harmful to the body. 

 

What is leaky gut, and what else causes it?

  • Leaky gut refers to increased permeability of the gastrointestinal membrane (aka your intestinal lining) due to chronic inflammation. Leaky gut allows undigested food particles and pathogens to enter the bloodstream where it should have been properly digested and eliminated through the bowel.
  • Leaky gut is caused by:
    • Gut flora disruption (often caused by antibiotics)
    • Certain medications
    • Sugar
    • Yeasts
    • A diet rich in highly processed foods and artificial ingredients

What’s an anti-inflammatory diet?

  • Avoiding certain inflammatory/mucous forming foods such as wheat/dairy/soy/corn/sugar.

How long does it take to see changes after I alter my diet?

  • Every individual and every condition will have a different timeline. There’s no  good overall estimation of how long it will take. Often skin conditions can take longer to treat, especially if the condition has been present for a long time.
  • Severity of acne can range in healing time. Small acne spots can be treated effectively in a shorter amount of time compared to deep cystic acne. It all really depends on the causation of the condition, the treatment plan offered and the compliance of each person. 

What type of herbs can I use to help heal the GI tissue?

  • Soothing mucilaginous herbs (rich in polysaccharides) like
    • Marshmallow Root
    • Slippery Elm
    • Aloe Vera inner fillet gel
  • Vulnerary herbs (help heal the digestive tract) like
    • Plantain
    • Calendula
    • Chickweed
  • Anti-inflammatory herbs like
    • Chamomile
    • Meadowsweet
  • Paired with herbs that support general digestive function like
    • Fennel
    • Ginger
  • Bitter herbs (help support the liver and increase digestive secretions) like
    • Angelica
    • Gentian
    • Wormwood

 Marshamallow flower

What can I do to help my skin right now?

  • Eliminate environmental toxins by choosing nontoxic skin care, cosmetics, and household products. - Read our blog on choosing non-toxic skincare here!
  • Actively engage in self-care to decrease daily stress- Read our blog on anti-stress here! 
  • Eat an anti-inflammatory whole foods diet
  • Eliminate food allergies
  • Use healing GI herbs to repair the gut lining
  • Work to have regular bowel movements every day for healthy elimination
  • Investigate hormonal imbalances through guidance from a practitioner

health practitioner doing a consultation
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