Can stress cause skin diseases? Psychodermatology shows that it can. From before birth, the brain and skin are closely associated. Dermatitis, psoriasis and acne are often the result of emotional situations beyond the control of our mind. We need to try and manage stress to keep our skin healthy and looking good.
Psychological stress is a state of excessive physiological stimulation of the body caused by intensely lived emotional experiences. Like a car travelling at too many revolutions, the body strives to adapt. But if it is overwhelmed by a situation for a lengthy period of time, the stressed body will succumb to disease just as a car will break down. This phenomenon is called somatization. As will be seen below, the mind is closely associated with the skin, which quickly experiences the effects of stress. To keep our skin healthy, therefore, we need to learn to manage emotional stress.
The skin, mirror of the soul
The skin is the body’s showcase and reflects our mood. Its protective function and appearance are visibly altered in situations of ongoing stress, which can trigger disorders such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), psoriasis, acne and even shingles (herpes zoster). Psychodermatology studies the effects of psychological stress on skin health; what experts on this speciality say is revealing.
When a situation overwhelms us for longer than we would like and when we feel unable to do anything to change it, we experience psychological stress. The initial response comes from the nervous system, with the brain in charge. We know that stress triggers and exacerbates most inflammatory, autoimmune and allergic skin disorders. But why does stress alter normal skin functioning? Nowadays we have scientific answers for this question.
From before birth
In the developing foetus, the cells that form both the fabric of the skin and the nervous system originate from the same embryonic layer, called the ectoderm. The two organs therefore conduct a dialogue for life, using the same molecular language and, as interlocutors, the endocrine system (which releases hormones) and the immune system (which protects us against the invasion of pathogens).
The brain interprets and evaluates life events. When a person feels impotent or threatened, the brain orders the endocrine system to release stress hormones that travel through the blood to the skin. One of these, the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), activates mast cells that widen the blood vessels and make nerve endings more sensitive. Cytokines, which are immune system molecules that cause skin inflammation, are released in these nerve endings. The mast cells eventually dissolve and release large amounts of histamine, causing allergic reactions such as hives and the reddening, stinging, flaking or blistering of the skin.
But there’s more. In chronic dermatitis, which can be caused by stress, CRH is produced and released into the hair follicles (roots), with the inflammation acquiring a life of its own in the skin cells. This sophisticated neuro-immuno-cutaneous system explains why some skin diseases persist or appear time and again in the same person. Continuous or repeated stress could even develop a “memory” in the skin that would makes the body more susceptible to the effects of stress in the future.
When we cannot express ourselves in words or are unable to cope with discomfort, our skin speaks for us. Some ways to help us cope with stress are expressing negative emotions and practising sport, meditation and yoga.
As if that were not enough, researchers at the University of Queensland (Australia) presented the cosmetic industry with a spray smelling of freshly cut grass and leaves, which, they say, reduces stress. Interestingly, the formulation of the fragrance is such that it cannot be appreciated by the human nose. The effect is produced by the product acting on specific areas of the brain that regulate stress. This product is already being used for bed linen and clothing, but is likely to soon feature as an ingredient in shampoos, bath gels, creams and perfumes.