Stress and Skin Flares: Why does it happen and what can you do about it?

Stress and Skin Flares: Why does it happen and what can you do about it?

Jessica Simonis – Nutritionist, Western Herbalist

Stress creates illness and illness creates stress.  It’s a cycle that so many with chronic skin issues struggle to break free from. 

Despite this, stress management often falls to the bottom of the list of “must do’s”, together with the rest of those things we know we should do but for some reason, don’t. 

…but I don’t feel stressed?

Many associate stress with mental/emotional symptoms such as worries, fears, anxiety and depression, not realizing that physical stress is equally as important.  Regardless of whether your stress is emotional or physical, your body responds in the same way; by activating your fight-or-flight response.  Common physical stressors can include long working hours, disrupted sleep, infection, surgery, poor diet and nutritional deficiency to name a few; AKA ‘burning the candle at both ends’.

Common symptoms of stress include:

  • High or low blood pressure
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Digestive discomfort
  • Irritable moods
  • Menstrual irregularities or infertility
  • Poor sleep onset or latency
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Flaring of your autoimmune condition!

If you are experiencing at least 3 of these symptoms, chances are your mind and or body is stressed.

What can I do to manage my stress more effectively?

We are often told by health practitioners to manage our stress, often without the tools and strategies to do so.  Most of us are familiar with stress reduction techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga and meditation, but if these aren’t working for you (or perhaps don’t float your boat), what else can you do to keep your stress levels at bay?

Effective stress management is essentially about improving your resilience (eg. healthy diet, nutrition, regular sleeping hours, exercise, deep breathing) and reducing your stress load (saying no, cutting back, taking a break, eliminating your stressors).  It takes two to tango. Everyone has a certain level of stress tolerance. Some of which is determined by genetics and the rest by our environment.  The less stress tolerance you have, the less it takes to overwhelm your body and cause illness.  For someone with skin disease, this can mean frequent flaring, poor response to medication and difficulty in achieving remission.

For those with a slightly larger stress tolerance, it generally takes more to flare their condition.  This is not always a good thing as it can enable them to ‘push the boundaries’ so to speak, to see just how much they can get away with.  On the up side, small changes can often lead to quick and significant results. 

Regardless of your stress tolerance, implementing the below techniques will help you improve your resilience, step by step.  It can take time, like building a muscle.  With a focus on stress management and stress resilience, you can help to finally break the cycle of stress flaring.

Top tips for stress management (yes they are practical!)

  • Identify and address food triggers – food triggers create a physical stress and increase inflammation.  An elimination and re-challenge diet is often the most accurate way to determine food triggers
  • Set a strict sleep routine:  Set an alarm to remind yourself when to go to sleep and when to wake up.  Routines create a predictable environment for the body which in turn reduces stress.
  • Exercise daily – even if it is only a gentle walk around the block or 5 minutes of stretches.  The gentler the better for those in a flare, however some daily movement is essential.  This can be built up over time as resilience increases.
  • Sunshine – those with skin disease often spend more time indoors or covered up – whether due to fatigue, pain or the visible signs of their condition.  Sunshine is critical to provide vitamin D and vitamin D is an important immune regulator for the skin and therefore taking 5-10 minutes each day to step outside and roll up your sleeves can go a long way.
  • Provide yourself with healing space –It takes a lot of energy to heal and therefore cutting back on social and work commitments where possible is often necessary to provide yourself with the time and space to heal.  Yes, you can actually say no!
  • Connect with nature – Time outside in nature helps to slow and even still the mind.  By simply noticing a bird fly by or the shape of a passing cloud – you are in the moment.  Being in the moment can be a difficult state to achieve in a busy, tech-driven world.
  • Learn to breathe again – Whilst breathing is an automatic process, our state of mind determines how we breathe.  If we are stressed, we breathe more rapidly and more shallow.  The beauty of breathing techniques is they make breathing more conscious, and by slowing and deepening the breath we can in turn influence our state of mind.
  • Perspective – Mental and emotional stress is created from our perspective.  Take death for instance.  Someone could look at the death of a loved one as a tragedy whilst another may take the perspective that they are ‘in a better place’ or ‘finally at peace’.  Try to challenge the way you currently view your stressor/s, even in the most significant life events.  Think about the language you would use for a friend who was stressed about a similar situation.  Try and use that language for yourself.  You deserve just as much care.

Stress is an important trigger in multiple skin conditions.  At the PEC, we pride ourselves on being a holistic skin clinic, going beyond symptomatic treatments to address the core triggers of your condition, and that includes stress!

Circadian Rhythm and Chronic Skin Conditions – What’s the link?

Circadian Rhythm and Chronic Skin Conditions

Keeping a chronic skin condition stable when your hormones are running wild can feel like a constant uphill battle.  Not only do we have fluctuating male and female hormones to contend with, but there are stress hormones, sleep hormones and glucose regulating hormones to name a few, all of which work together to create our natural internal rhythm or “circadian clock”.

When we are in balance, our circadian rhythm responds to external cues appropriately.  For example, we are energetic during the day light, sleepy at sun down, hungry during the middle of the day and if female, menstruating in a 4 weekly pattern.   In modern day life, where blue lit screens are often the last thing we see before bed, gyms are open 24/7 and the working day starts and finishes in the dark, it’s no wonder our rhythms go awry. 

So how does this affect the skin?

 Like many organs, the skin is regulated by a central clock known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus which receives light through the retina and passes messages along to other internal clocks via neural and hormonal pathways. It also has its own internal clock system which regulates changes in activity according to the time of day.  For instance, research has shown skin to do the majority of DNA and cellular repair work during the night time.  Skin cells also divide and proliferate more at night, are less hydrated, more acidic and at a slightly higher temperature than during the day, often setting the scene for an uncomfortable night’s sleep for many eczema and psoriasis sufferers.

What can you do to regulate your circadian rhythm and improve your skin?

It’s all in the timing:  Research has shown that the application of topical skin treatments is best timed at night to not only help alleviate the symptoms but to also help optimize repair at a time where the skin needs it most.

Routine, routine, routine:  A regular routine is essential to a healthy circadian and hormonal rhythm.  Chronic disruption to routine such as through shift work, irregular eating patterns or frequent travel can contribute towards flares.  Do your best to time activities within your control, such as regular meal times, breathing exercises, and limiting blue light exposure and/or caffeine before sleep.

Rise with the sun:  The best way to reset your rhythm is to rise with the sun.  Get your 15 minutes of vitamin D exposure and enjoy what nature has to offer before – there’s no better way to start your day. =2