Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 5: Stress & Acne
Anyone who struggles with acne knows that the discussion must include stress. And more than that, to really figure out acne and to find solutions, we have to talk about the spirit and the mind too, because acne has emotional and psychological effects that require additional (and important) attention. In that sense, acne isn’t purely physical – it has an emotional and spiritual element too.
That’s why the final posts in the Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin series will help round out the mind, body, and spirit considerations of acne. Searching for balance requires fully exploring all three of these elements, with a recognition that balance ideally means clear skin, but it also means being more comfortable with the inevitable ups and downs on the path to clearer skin, and with feeling self-love and self-worth (and self-joy!) for what we are and what we offer to the world, without being handcuffed, beyond just what we see in the mirror.
Mind/Body/Spirit Concerns when Dealing with Acne and Moving to Clearer Skin
You’ll recall that the first four parts of the Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin series were all about why some of us have acne and some don’t, why conventional treatments might not be the best, what the root causes of acne are, and how to eat to nourish skin and reduce acne. To ensure we’ve covered all elements of mind, body, and spirit when it comes to acne, here are the final four posts in the series:
- how stress affects acne and what stress management really looks like (Part 5 – see below)
- the role of exercise and movement in achieving clearer skin (Part 6)
- how acne affects self-love and self-esteem, and how working on attitude can also help in the journey (Part 7)
- skin care products, and how what we put ON our skin matters too (Part 8)
Do these topics resonate with you? I hope so! And I hope they get you feeling excited too. And if I’ve missed anything, be sure to let me know in the comments.
Let’s get to our first focus!
STRESS AND ACNE
In Part 3 of this series, we identified stress as one of the root causes of acne and discussed a little bit about how stress impacts acne. We’re going to do that again in this post in greater depth (no harm in having the information again – sometimes reading things a few times in a few ways is helpful in getting it to stick in the mind).
What is Stress?
I’ll be writing a more detailed post about this soon, but for now let’s say that stress is a disruption to your body’s natural state of balance (homeostasis) that results in specific physiological changes. Evolutionarily speaking, the stress would have been something life-threatening perhaps, like a lion charging towards you, and the physiological changes were things that happened in your body to allow you the best chance to outrun that lion and live another day: your pupils dilate, blood pressure rises, blood goes to the muscles, you release glucose into your blood so you have available energy to run, and so on.
Then the danger would pass, and the body would re-establish homeostasis, and return to important life activities like repairing cells, digesting food, restoring immune function, thinking about libido again, and so on. And it would go on like that – brief periods of acute stress, followed by periods of calm and repair.
In today’s world, we’re recognizing the dangers of stress, primarily because we’ve realized that we’re under a lot of constant, low-grade stress, which the body isn’t equipped to handle. This is what we refer to as chronic stress – not the brief, actue periods the body was designed for, but rather on-going mental, emotional, and physical stress that doesn’t resolve and causes real problems for our health.
It’s also important to recognize that our body responds to psychological stressors with the same hormonal patterns and physiological responses as it does to physical, tangible stressors like the lion.
I would argue too, that certain lifestyle habits are also ‘stressful’ for the body, in the sense that they increase the burden on the body to maintain the ever important homeostasis or balance. Some of these things are in our control and some aren’t (like being sick or having a ailment of some kind), but they would include things like not getting enough sleep, skipping meals, eating lots of sugary foods, eating lots of processed or nutrient-poor foods, not getting enough movement, sitting too much, smoking, or even internal things like hormonal imbalances or gut dysbiosis.
So for a quick recap:
- Our bodies are designed to operate in two modes: one mode to deal with (life-threatening) stress – basically fighting or fleeing from danger, and one mode to deal with digesting, repairing, etc, activities that the body focusses on once it is safe from danger. When we’re in the ‘fight or flight’ mode, we are NOT in the ‘rest and digest’ mode. It’s one or the other.
- We’re under considerably more constant, low-grade stress in today’s world than ever before, and the body isn’t really equipped to handle this type of chronic stress.
- Our bodies responds to mental and emotional stress the same way they do to those life-threatening physical stressors of yesteryear.
- Anything that increases the work the body has to do to maintain balance might be said to be stressful: lack of sleep, missing meals, high sugar foods, not moving enough, and so on.
How Does Stress Impact Acne?
We know that the body is under constant stress in a way that it was never truly designed for. And we know that a system that is constantly stressed isn’t focussing its energies on repairing, digesting, and healing, activities that we really need for improving acne. But that’s not all:
- Stress increases cortisol in the body. This matters for acne because:
- Cortisol is your body’s “stress hormone,” released to help your body bring about those physiological changes (mentioned above) to outrun danger. Cortisol can increase sebum production and also make the body’s inflammatory pathways more sensitive, thus exacerbating skin issues (recalling that acne is an inflammatory condition).
- Cortisol also influences our blood sugar, which indirectly ALSO links to increased sebum production. One of cortisol’s roles is to have the body release glucose into the bloodstream (so we have available energy for running from a lion), which then requires insulin – our sugar storage hormone – to manage it, and insulin promotes sebum production.
- Stress contributes to hormonal imbalances. As discussed in both the estrogen dominance and root causes of acne posts, the stress hormone cortisol and your reproductive hormone progesterone share the same building blocks. Your body will favour making cortisol from those building blocks over making progesterone, if it feels the cortisol is in higher demand (i.e. as it would be under constant stress). Progesterone is important for many reasons, but in terms of acne, it is needed in an appropriate ratio with estrogen to avoid estrogen dominance, which can worsen acne) and it helps regulate the production of the androgen hormones (and these have a sebum-promoting effect).
- Stress shuts down digestion. Recall that key acne nutrients include zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, and B vitamins. If we aren’t digesting properly, we may not be getting the maximum healthy results from the foods that we’re eating. This applies to supplements too (we do ‘digest’ those), and also to the macronutrients, like fats and proteins. We need the amino acids from the proteins we eat to build and repair healthy skin cells; we need the healthy fats to form flexible, healthy cell membranes. To get the most out of the foods we’re eating and the supplements we’re taking, and to ensure we’re doing out utmost to avoid the deficiencies often associated with acne (like a zinc deficiency), we need nice strong digestion, and that’s something stress can really compromise.
- Stress negatively impacts the gut microbiome. Our gut microbiome is so important in every body system and in most health conditions, including acne. The microbiome plays a role in regulating inflammation, and also impacts hormones, energy, and digestion. A huge portion of the immune system lies in the gut. The gut is called a ‘second-brain’ for its powerful role in emotion and mood. The gut microbiome is particularly sensitive to the effects of stress, and studies have shown that stress actually changes the composition of the gut microbiome, and not for the better. If you need any further evidence for how sensitive the gut can be to stress, consider yourself on the morning of a job interview. My guess is you’d have butterflies in your stomach, and you might be spending more time than usual on the toilet. That’s your brain-gut connection at work (it’s a real thing, and it’s called the gut-brain axis). When our microbiome is out of harmony, as it were, a whole range of conditions can arise including acne. As mentioned in the root causes post, unfriendly bacteria produce waste products that increase toxicity in the body (and therefore increase the load on the liver) AND they can produce hormone-mimicking compounds that contribute to hormonal imbalance, like estrogen dominance.
That’s a lot of information, I know. So let’s bring it home with this powerful thought:
If you read the above, and you consider the 7 root causes of acne (hormonal imbalances, detoxification, skin nutrient deficiencies, problems with the gut microbiome, problems with blood sugar, stress, and inflammation), you might notice something interesting…
Yes! Stress directly or indirectly contributes to and worsens ALL of the other root causes of acne. In that sense, it is both a root cause on its own, and almost a kind of a root cause of the other root causes. Mind. Blown. That’s why stress is such a important consideration in any discussion of acne.
On a personal note, I think stress management and figuring out how to deal with stress for acne is almost harder than figuring out which foods to eat. In my personal experience it actually takes more effort to identify areas of stress, and work on addressing them, than just cooking and eating healthy food. But I also know how important it is for clear skin and general good health and well-bring, so read on for some of my thoughts on stress management that works.
The Two Levels of Stress Management
I follow a therapist online named Annie Wright and she recently published an article called “Self-care *isn’t* just yoga and green juices in mason jars.” I thought it really nicely articulated something that I’ve been thinking about for some times, which is that self-care (which I think of a key part of stress management – why else do we reduce stress but to better care for ourselves?) is a more complex, deeper, and multi-faceted concept that we might initially think. Lots of us can identify self-care/stress reducing activities like a hot bath, a face mask, or doing an hour of yoga, and these are all really awesome, but true self-care and stress management has to have a deeper level too – one that is about personal growth, self-acceptance, dealing with personal issues, making life changes, and finding some space for mental calm and physical relaxation.
I’ve argue there are several levels of self-care and stress management, and I think they take the form of:
- short-term activities: activities or actions that will lower your stress in the moment/on the day and provide you with some temporary relaxation or joy
- long-term practices: activities or practices that take place regularly and are perhaps not entirely relaxing in the moment, but contribute over the long-term to to greater self-knowledge, less stress, more mindfulness, a more positive mind-set, and greater resilience to life’s inevitable bumps in the road
Here are are few examples of each kind of activity. I think it’s great to form a stress-management plan that encompasses actions that are both short-term and long-term so that you’re managing your daily stressors, while also building a foundation for a strong, resilient body and spirit that is better able to handle stress as a whole. Note that this isn’t a perfect division – some short-term activities might be practiced frequently and therefore become long-term, but it’s not meant to be perfect. Just a way of thinking about stress management as more than just a face mask (though I do love a good face mask).
Short-Term Stress Management Activities:
- Anything that makes you laugh (I like New Girl and Seinfeld bloopers, and also videos of Elmo giggling)
- Saying no to an activity you don’t truly want to do
- Calling a dear friend/sibling/parent for a good laugh/cry/chat
- Exercise – yoga, a bike ride, a weight lifting session
- A warm bath with Epsom salts
- Watching a favourite movie, particularly if it’s uplifting or ‘fist-pump’ worthy
- Perhaps indulging in something delicious, like dark chocolate bark or chocolate chip collagen balls
- A face mask (honey masks are great for skin!)
- If you’re in introvert, SOME ALONE TIME. Sometimes an hour with my book in my room and I’m right as rain again
- A breathing re-set video, like this one
- A nap. I don’t have any science for this except to say I’ve sometimes fallen asleep on the sofa feeling grumpy or angry with the world, and woken up feeling in a completely different mood 20 minutes later
- A massage
- Reading a beautiful poem that you love, like John Keats Ode to A Nightingale or Robert Frost Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
Longer-Term Stress Management Practices:
- Therapy or having someone regularly help you attend to your own personal mental health and well-being
- Self-help books and tools (if that appeals to you) on the specific areas you know are causing you stress: anxiety, worry, relationships, career, negative self-talk, etc.
- Meditation – a mindfuless practice, an app like Headspace, free videos on YouTube
- A breathwork practice – for relaxation, for anxiety, for focus. There are books, videos, and more available. I’m sure your local library will have something.
- Gratitude journalling
- Learning a new skill or taking a new course
- A regular exercise/movement program
- Positive affirmations used daily or as often as possible
- Prioritizing regular, quality sleep – consider a darker room, no tech before bed, sleep shades, supplements for sleep, going to bed earlier, sleeping in longer, taking one night a week for treat sleep (where you try for a few extra hours)
- (Easier said than done, but…) Making changes in your life in the areas where your stressors are significant and unchanging – an unhappy job, going back to school, speaking up about your needs, releasing a toxic relationship
- Doing work to change your mindset, so even if you cannot change the stressor you can change how you RELATE to it and find relief there
- Asking for help where you need it – carrying for a loved one, taking care of your kids/pets, keeping up with life/everything, managing your own health…ask for help. There are people out there who are there for you and are waiting to get to know you and TRULY want to help you with whatever you need.
And of course, recall that the point of this is to manage stress and to to reduce it where possible. Don’t let these options overwhelm you, or bring out negative talk or perfectionism, or stress you out further! I’m all about the power of small steps accumulating over time. Do what you can, and do it with a focus of self-love (and a good, deep breath).
To Sum It Up:
Our bodies weren’t equipped to handle the levels of ongoing chronic stress that they currently face in today’s busy, buzzing, overwhelmed world. Chronic stress negatively impacts our bodies and all of our body systems in numerous ways. When it comes to acne, stress can directly or indirectly contribute to and worsen ALL of the other root causes of acne: hormonal imbalances, detoxification difficulties, issues with the gut microbiome, problems managing blood sugar, inflammation, and obtaining important skin nutrients.
All of this means that stress management becomes a critical piece of the puzzle for anyone who is working towards clear skin and trying to improve their acne. Often, however, stress management is the hardest piece, because it can be difficult to change some of our life circumstances (helping a loved one through an illness, for example) and because it takes efforts that we’re not always used to expending.
I think that true stress management, and complete self-care, includes a mix of activities that manage stress in the short-term and those that build an underlying foundation of self-knowledge, mental calm, and personal resilience.
Combined with a focus on foods that nourish and promote clear skin, stress management is a powerful part of the journey to reducing acne and achieving clear skin.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read some poetry. 🙂
© Emily Joldersma, R.H.N. Eat Well, Live Vibrantly