The brain, body, and skin are all connected. It sounds obvious, perhaps, but it’s not necessarily something we consider in our daily relationship with our skin. Think about it: when we’re feeling happy, healthy, and balanced, we don’t typically think much about our skin at all. When we’re in the flow of a solid workout routine or a great sleep schedule, we may even take our healthy skin for granted. On the other hand, when we wake up in the morning with a new pimple, we might just fixate on our skin and reach for a spot treatment. We won’t usually stop to wonder whether stress and anxiety or what we’ve been eating could be affecting our skin. Because the skin is truly a reflection of the state of our body as a whole, when skin trouble strikes, the best thing we can do is to remember that state of balance.
We’ve all grown up hearing that skin problems such as acne vulgaris are caused by drinking milk, or not getting enough sleep, or any number of things that sound like old wives’ tales. But increasing numbers of scientific studies from the past decade have shown the legitimacy of many of these widely believed claims. The reason lies in understanding the Brain-Body-Skin axis, the interconnectivity of the major organs that causes full-body connections between what seem like unrelated experiences.
In other words, problems such as stress headaches may be more directly linked to problematic skin than you thought. Fortunately, we can take the pressure off our skin by focusing on maintaining a holistically balanced lifestyle, starting with learning a bit more about the full-body response to stress.
The body’s natural stress hormones and how they work
We’ve already written about how stress can make problematic skin worse. The reason why can be seen by looking at what happens to our body when it’s under stress. Our body’s response to a stressful event begins in the brain. The area of the brain known as the hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands, which begin to pump the stress hormone epinephrine throughout the body. It’s this hormone that causes all the telltale signs of immediate stress: increased pulse, blood pressure, and alertness. Next comes the activation of the network of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands, known as the HPA axis. After the initial pump of epinephrine through the body, the second stress hormone to activate is corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH then travels to the brain’s pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Finally, ACTH travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol.
Stress hormones and the skin
Why is it important to know the path of stress in the body? Because it’s through the HPA axis that stress conditions impact the skin. We have receptors for CRH (the second major hormone to activate under stress) in the cells of our epidermis, dermis, and subcutis layers, the major layers that make up our skin. CRH functions differently according to the type of skin cell it’s in, but its primary purpose seems to be to promote inflammation. This is relevant because all the major skin issues, including acne vulgaris, are inflammatory conditions.
Usually, when our bodies are in their normal state of balance, inflammation is simply a normal and necessary body function, vital for regulating our immune responses and healing our wounds. In momentary situations of acute stress, the balanced body is able to regulate itself and put the breaks on the flow of stress hormones that cause excess inflammation.
But sometimes, factors beyond our control cause us to lose our equilibrium and experience periods of chronic stress. It’s during times of chronic stress that inflammation can become a problem. It can mean that our hormones don’t get a chance to return to normal levels, leading to various skin conditions and long-term skin damage. Stress has been linked to acne, psoriasis, atopic and contact dermatitis, hair loss, redness, and itchiness. It causes a weakening of the skin barrier function, which leads to dry, flaky skin and wounds that take longer to heal. Chronic stress is also linked to premature aging of the skin, which includes the formation of lines and wrinkles and loss of elasticity and firmness. Aging skin is further exacerbated by UV radiation from the sun. There is a good reason why applying SPF daily is one of our top 13 tips for healthy, clear skin. UV rays are a major stimulant of the HPA axis, and because we naturally experience UV stress every day, this repeated activation of the axis negatively affects the skin as well.
The symptoms of these appearance-affecting skin conditions, and the psychological stress that goes with them, form a vicious cycle of stress-induced inflammation. How do we break out the cycle of chronic stress and get back to our positive state of balance? One of the most important steps we can take apart from topical treatments is to be mindful about our diet, because as research shows, what we put in our gut has more far-reaching consequences than we might think.
Understanding the gut microbiome
What is meant by microbiome? Microbiome refers to the trillions of microorganisms (also called microbiota or microbes) that live in and on our bodies and support our normal bodily functions. In our ordinarily healthy body, the helpful organisms of the microbiome keep everything running smoothly. But the microbiome also contains harmful organisms, and a temporary disturbance in the body, such as from illness or poor diet, can cause the microbiome to get out of balance, leaving us more susceptible to disease and various ailments.
Although the microbiome is made up of organisms all over the body, including on the skin, the largest concentration of these microbes lies in the large and small intestines. If you’ve ever been told to try taking probiotic supplements or eating probiotic foods, such as yoghurt, the reason lies in the importance of the gut microbiome.
Recent studies have linked poor gut health to a variety of other issues in the body, leading to a deeper exploration and greater understanding of the gut-brain connection. The microbes of the gut, which include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, are believed to prevent the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) compromises the proper absorption of all sorts of nutrients, which ultimately affects the permeability of the intestinal barrier. A “leaky gut” is known to play a role in such gastrointestinal conditions as Crohn’s disease and IBS, but it’s also thought to be associated with seemingly unrelated autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, asthma, arthritis, and even mental health. And yes, because harmful microbes in the gut contribute to acne too, a breakout can be an indication that our bodies are out of balance.
Acne vulgaris and the gut-brain axis
Scientists have long speculated that there existed a connection between the gut microbiome and the inflammatory skin conditions that lead to acne, and research continues to support this theory. One study of over 13,000 adolescents with acne showed that they were more likely than those without acne to experience some sort of gastrointestinal condition, particularly abdominal bloating. Another recent report indicated the high prevalence of SIBO (discussed above) in acne patients. Yet another recent study showed that the consumption of a probiotic dairy beverage improved acne in as little as 12 weeks.
Because acne vulgaris has also been linked to serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, the importance of the gut-brain connection cannot be understated. In the same way that the brain’s stress response affects the skin, chronic stress directly affects the gut. It’s another vicious cycle for stress acne: stress starts in the brain, attacks the skin and the gut, and the gut goes after the skin even harder. Read more about the vicious cycle of stress, anxiety and acne.
Fortunately, there are simple changes we can make to our diets to get back to our natural state of balance, improving the symptoms of poor gut health and its associated issues. Experimental studies have shown that increasing probiotics in our diet can reduce inflammatory proteins, normalizing brain levels of stress hormones and decreasing anxiety levels. We mentioned already that yoghurt is one great probiotic-packed food choice, but in case you’re not a fan, check out our list of probiotic foods that are suitable for vegans and lactose-free diets. Additionally, diets that are low in processed foods and sugars are also associated with decreased acne risk. We can avoid high-fat, high-sugar diets, which are shown to lead to increased risk of “leaky gut,” causing the inflammation and oxidative stress that cause acne.
Maintaining balance: the holistic approach
The skin is truly the mirror to our overall state of wellness. The interconnectivity of the body’s systems means that if stress and anxiety are affecting any part of your body, they’re really affecting your entire body. When we consider that skin is the body’s largest organ, it makes sense that skin both reflects and perpetuates issues of the brain and gut as well. Therefore, the best approach to all-around health is one that creates balance across the entire Brain-Body-Skin axis.
We can address holistic imbalance across the board by having a healthy diet (low in processed foods, high in fiber, nutrients, and naturally occurring probiotics, as described in our clear skin diet tips), regularly exercising, getting plenty of sleep (if you struggle with this, check out our guide to using CBD oil for better sleep), avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke, applying sunscreen daily, and maintaining a healthy work life balance. The more we can keep our mind and body in harmony, the clearer our skin can shine.
- Tags: Holistic Wellbeing