Let me paint this picture for you: you’ve had a stressful week at work. You were up early and to bed late, may have stopped on your way home for take out on more than one occasion, and the fast pace, pressure and long days made you cave at the office when there were treats in the staff room. Yesterday and the day before. And now, as you get up to head into the office to finish up a few things on Saturday morning (why am I working on Saturday?) before a fundraising gala dinner tonight, you look in the mirror and see not one, but two large pimples have appeared front and center on your forehead and chin respectively. Ugh.
The fact that skin problems and outbreaks regularly occur when you are under stress or eating badly isn’t a coincidence. There is a lot of research behind what scientists call the Brain, Skin, Gut Theory, (Fundamentals of Medical Dermatology, 1942), and closely correlated with this is nutrition and food choices.
The concept is simple: increased stress leads to poor dietary choices, or poor digestive function, the digestive tract becomes inflamed leading to dysbiosis, and this inflammation and imbalance in gut flora is expressed via our skin in the form of pimples, acne etc. Let’s have a look at each component:
//Stress – When our body is under stress, we have repetitive activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This is the system that creates your fight or flight response in situations where you are scared or in danger, and it is the system that controls your adrenaline. Whether it is a scary situation, or just a rough day at work, your body doesn’t distinguish and simply activates the system. When it is activated, it decreases digestion and prevents the parasympathetic system – the rest and restore system – from being activated, which governs proper digestion. As you can see, when we are under stress, our digestion, as well as several other bodily processes is compromised, and this results in poor nutrient metabolism and absorption, undigested food and can lead to constipation. Finally, stress causes the release of cortisol, which leads to storage of fat within the body, because the body assumes this stress could be dangerous and we better reserve our fat for what’s to come.
//Diet – Not only does stress lead many people to consume a poor diet – sugary, processed, refined foods and carbohydrates, lacking in vegetables and low in water – but the food that we do consume isn’t digested properly. This means we don’t absorb nutrients adequately, and the food sits in the gut and putrefies. This causes the release of toxins, and sequesters the growth of bad bacteria, which can feed on this leftover food releasing their own waste and off gases.
//Inflammation – When this combination of poor digestion and putrefying food, increasing numbers of bad bacteria and rise in toxins increases within the gut, the immune system is activated. It knows this is not a normal state for the digestive system and assumes something must be wrong. One of the normal components of the immune system response is inflammation, and this begins to occur in the gut. Inflammation is what can lead to constipation or stomach cramps, poor appetite and further perpetuated poor digestion. When we are under stress for an extended period of time and the immune system is responding continuously, it becomes tired, leading us to be more vulnerable to viruses within the air that the immune system may normally ward off, and causing us to get sick. This is partly why individuals who are stressed constantly, or for long periods of time end up stressed.
//Dysbiosis – The bad bacteria which have taken up home in the gut have now started to proliferate fast and furiously. Not only are they growing in numbers themselves, but they are taking the resources normally available to good bacteria to use for their growth and reproduction, and these friendly bacteria are no longer able to survive in the stomach. Good bacteria have a whole host of roles in our gut, including aiding with digestion, detoxifying, producing vitamins, and supporting liver function. When these are in low numbers, and the bad bacteria take over, we have a state of dysbiosis: an imbalance of gut flora in the digestive tract, dominated by an overgrowth of bad bacteria.
//Skin Condition – What does this all mean for the skin? The body will try very hard to restore the gut balance, eliminate the toxins and rid the body of the waste of the bad bacteria and that which is eradicated by the cells of the immune system. Some will be taken care of by the lymphatic system, some via elimination, when the large intestine is functioning well enough, but some will be eliminated through the pores. This ends in a heap of toxins being pushed out through the pores of the skin, increased sebum (oil) production, inflammation of the integumentary system and increased cell size within the skin. Together this adds up to an increase in acne, pimples, skin breakouts and just generally unhealthy skin and complexion.
It sounds like a long process, and while this isn’t what is exhibited by every one with skin problems, it is certainly a factor for many people. And if you consider that you may have been in this cycle for quite some time, it’s not unreasonable to see how you keep ending up with skin breakouts every time you get stressed out. Or maybe even all of the time.
//What can I do about it? The simple answer of course is to eliminate stress; but that is easier said than done, and stress is inevitable at certain periods of our life. Reducing it whenever possible through things like meditation, and yoga is a good place to start however, and finding an outlet for your stress is also very important. It is the constant activation and reactivation of the stress response that can lead to these skin problems. These other recommendations are also important:
- Sweat regularly to aid in cleaning out your pores and eliminating toxins.
- Drink lots of water.
- Consume a whole food, healthy diet free of refined carbohydrates and sugars. Reduce meat and dairy consumption if possible, as these both further exasperate inflammation.
- Consume anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric and green leafy vegetables.
- Focus on getting adequate amounts of the following nutrients: magnesium, zinc, selenium, fiber, vitamin B6 and essential fatty acids. Although all nutrients are important, these six play skin specific roles, including fighting inflammation, reducing the release of oils, aiding in cellular repair and acting as an antioxidant.
If you’re interested in learning more about your own health, check out these other posts on wellness:
- On Wellness: The Internal Detox System
- On Wellness: The Elements of Healthy Living
- On Wellness: Inflammation and Food
- On Wellness: Brain Foods