Beware of stress, the invisible enemy that ages your skin

Super busy, lots of things to take care of through the day, always in a hurry and chasing time in your job, to manage home, your family and, maybe, spare some time for meeting up with friends for a drink – this is life for the average woman. We might get used to a hectic pace in life, yet we need to be careful of the stress that comes with it, and stress speeds up skin ageing. Women are the most affected by stress, with early ageing signs showing on skin. 

The effects of stress on skin

Allowing stress to take over our life will show! Not only in our behaviour, but also in the skin of our face. Stress, especially if chronic, has been shown to trigger early skin ageing.

In fact, stress is one of the factors, together with nutrition, lack of sleep, smoking, sun exposure and pollution, that forms the so-called skin exposome, the set of factors that are responsible for skin ageing to a major extent. The exposome causes the ageing process to speed up, leading to premature ageing signs showing on skin: dry skin, a dull tone, loss of firmness, rapid deepening of wrinkles.      

Obviously enough, preventing the problem and even reversing it is possible, with the main allies to achieve the result being a correct diet and a healthy lifestyle, accompanied by regular physical activity. Also important is to try to reduce chronic stress and adopt a skin care routine that includes treatments designed to counter the effects stress has on skin.     

Stress and skin ageing: a proven relationship

Psychological stress is triggered when a person suffers mental pressure, be it for physical or emotional causes. The more the pressure exceeds the individual’s ability to adapt to the stressor, the more intense the stress will be perceived. At brain level, this translates into the release of hormones, especially cortisol, which trigger a number of physiological and behavioral changes to adapt our body to the new situation and attempt to maintain homeostasis.      

In addition to psychological stress, a major role in showing early skin ageing is played by oxidative stress, a condition of imbalance between antioxidant defences and excessive oxygen free radicals. The latter are normally managed directly by cells, through an important and sophisticated antioxidant system that effectively compensates for their excess. However, this defence system slows down with age and, progressively, will no longer be able to balance the overproduction of free radicals in skin, with these reactive species spreading into skin and causing damage and changes to skin cells.    

Brain-skin connection – how skin perceives stress

Recent research has shown the existence of a "brain- skin connection", which explains that skin is not only the part of our body that first perceives stress, but is also the target organ for responses caused by a stressful situation. 

Being the largest organ in the human body, skin has the important function of forming a barrier, thus helps to maintain homeostasis by regulating and controlling the interaction between the external environment and internal tissues. Through a multitude of different types of receptors, in fact, skin sends signals to the brain upon perceiving external stimuli, such as heat, cold, pain and mechanical tension, which can disturb the general equilibrium of the system and induce a stressful situation.  

The brain responds to such signals by directing how skin responds to the stress event or agent, though we should also keep in mind that skin and its appendages are not the target of stress mediators, but that it is the skin itself that produces some of these mediators, hence skin autonomously manages the responses to stress to a certain extent.  

The role of cortisol, the stress hormone

Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol levels in our body vary through the day, regulated by the internal system of the circadian clock. With a regular basal secretion over the 24 hours, cortisol production peaks early in the morning and reaches a low around midnight. Practically speaking, an increased level of cortisol, which induces an increase in blood sugar, gives us a bout of energy, which is why it peaks in the morning to then decrease at night, when we need to rest. Unfortunately, stress can alter normal cortisol levels, thus its physiological oscillation curve throughout the day.  

In skin cells - keratinocytes, cortisol level is regulated by two enzymes that work in opposite ways: the first increases cortisol, while the second reduces it. Stress has the ability of disrupting the physiological system, thereby unbalancing cortisol levels, driving it to higher levels that cause changes to collagen and hyaluronic acid (skin components that are key in keeping skin firm and compact), interferes with the formation of the epidermal barrier and reduces the activity of fibroblasts, the cells in the dermis. If stress is continued, these changes accumulate and result in skin drynessloss oof suppleness and a dull skin tone, which are all signs of skin ageing.