Leading dermatologist explains how stress can wreak havoc on your skin

New York, NY, July 2008 – Stressed out? You might find yourself pigging out on sugary snacks, snapping at your kids or lying awake half the night. And it will show on your skin because stress can lead to skin problems, as well. “We know that stress can have a dramatic effect on the immune system,” says Joshua Fox, MD, founder of Advanced Dermatology and a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. “And quite often, that can create immune-related responses in the skin.”

Everyone faces stress, and we’re all familiar with the theory of “fight or flight,” which explains how our ancestors were able to survive the life-and-death stresses that they encountered. The stress response puts your whole body into high gear, boosting the systems that would help you face a physical threat and suppressing functions that aren’t essential at the moment (this includes the immune system). Once the crisis has passed, everything goes back to normal.

Unfortunately, the psychological “threats” that most of us face today are ongoing, meaning they trigger a never-ending stress response. The body gets stuck in fight-or-flight mode — and all those systems that were temporarily suppressed can stay that way. “In today’s world, the physiological changes that are part of the stress response get misrouted,” Dr. Fox explains. “Instead of helping you attack or run away, they’re triggering inflammatory, autoimmune or allergic reactions.”

Studies have shown that psychological stress can create problems such as acne, hair loss, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. For example, a study of college students showed that acne got markedly worse at exam time. Other studies show that stress leaves skin open to infection. “Stress seems to disrupt the skin’s antimicrobial barrier and reduce the production of chemicals necessary for the synthesis of fats,” Dr. Fox explains. “That means stressed-out skin loses its ability to defend and rebuild itself.”

If you think stress might be causing problems in your skin, see your dermatologist. And consider stress-relieving tactics, which have been shown to help alleviate some skin problems. “We don’t fully understand the biological mechanisms that might be involved, but we know that relaxation does improve your outlook and helps you do things — like eating healthier food, sleeping better and getting more exercise — that improve the health of your skin,” Dr. Fox says.

Here are a few to try:

Meditation. Research shows that psoriasis patients who listened to meditation tapes while receiving ultraviolet light treatments healed much faster than patients who did not use the tapes.

Biofeedback. In one published study, a 56-year-old woman who had suffered from severe psoriasis for several years (and had no luck with standard medical treatments) was cured after 13 weeks of biofeedback therapy.

Hypnosis. One study found that psoriasis patients who were susceptible to hypnosis treatments improved more than patients who resisted hypnosis. Hypnosis has also helped get rid of warts and cure hair loss (in one study, 57 percent of patients had total or partial hair regrowth after undergoing hypnosis).

Talk therapy. It’s been estimated that as many as 60 percent of people who seek treatment for skin problems also have emotional issues, and we know that anger, depression and anxiety all affect the immune system. “Being aware of what’s stressing you can help your overall health — and your skin,” Dr. Fox says.

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