In Part 1 of “Stress and its impact on your body”, I discussed the impact of stress on the digestive and immune systems. The impact of stress plays a role in many health conditions, and affects virtually every bodily system, mainly through the release of cortisol and adrenalin from the adrenal glands. These essential hormones are important for our health, but in today’s society where stress is a daily event, and at times seems continuous, far too many of these hormones are released, leading to chemical reactions in the body that lead to dysfunction and disease. It is not only periods of high stress that can lead to disruption in your body, low level chronic stress also has a big impact on all of our body systems.
Part 2 of this series will be focusing on skin conditions, migraines and headaches.
When the body releases cortisol in response to a stressful situation (this can be physical, emotional or environmental stress) the cortisol can increase the production of sebum, the natural oil that lubricates skin. Too much sebum and the pores can become blocked and infected, leading to pimples or acne. A 2003 study published in Jama Dermatology followed 22 university students and graded their acne severity during both stressful periods around their exams and non stressful periods. They concluded that “… increased acne severity was significantly associated with increased stress levels.”
Psoriasis and Rosacea are 2 skin conditions that also flare up during periods of stress. During stress, the skin releases chemicals called neuropeptides which cause inflammation and sensations of numbness, itching and sensitivity. Rather than stay in the skin, these neuropeptides then travel to the brain and increase the reuptake of neurotransmitters, which results in a lower level of the “feel good” neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. This in turn leads to more stress, which then exacerbates the skin condition even further.
Stress, and the release of cortisol, triggers a process called skin mast cell degranulation. This means that the mast cells in the skin, responsible for fighting infection and healing wounds, release certain molecules. Some of these molecules increase blood flow to the skin which can lead to the redness associated with certain skin conditions such as acne and rosacea. Other molecules released increase inflammation, stimulate pain receptors and cause the skin to itch.
As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, stress also has a negative impact on the immune system, leading to an increased risk of skin conditions becoming infected.
Headaches and migraines:
We all know that feeling of a tension headache after a hard day at work, or stress leading to a migraine, but how does being stressed actually cause headaches?
Tension headaches are often caused by the tightening of muscles in the upper back, shoulders, jaw, neck and head. Muscles tense up because of the “fight or flight” response triggered by the release of cortisol and adrenaline. We need our muscles to be tense so we can be ready to either fight the danger or run. The problem of tense muscles causing headaches arises because our body can’t differentiate between stress of a physical kind, when we need to either fight or run and an emotional kind, like work deadlines or life’s many stressors.
When our muscles are continually tense because of stress, our body’s supply of magnesium is depleted because the adrenal glands, when producing the stress hormones, use a lot of this essential mineral. Magnesium is needed to relax muscles so when our stores of magnesium are depleted our muscles can’t relax.
Fluctuating blood sugar levels can also lead to headaches. Blood sugar levels rise markedly when we are stressed and the levels then drop significantly, leading to hypoglycaemia which can also cause headaches.
In addition to cortisol and adrenaline, aldosterone is also released during stressful periods. Aldosterone signals the kidneys to retain salt and water and to eliminate potassium. This in turn can raise blood pressure which can lead to a headache or migraine.
The adrenal glands need certain vitamins and minerals to function properly. During times of stress, they need an increased supply of these nutrients. If the adrenal glands are constantly working to produce the stress hormones, the body can become depleted of these nutrients which can lead to headaches and migraines. Vitamin B6 is one of the very important vitamins essential for adrenal health and it is also essential for the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Low serotonin levels have been discovered in people who suffer from migraines, leading researchers to believe that low Vitamin B6 can cause migraines and headaches. It is important to note that high levels of Vitamin B6 can cause some serious side effects, so never self prescribe.
Inflammation is another leading cause of migraines and headaches. Although cortisol has an anti- inflammatory action in the body, prolonged release of cortisol becomes inflammatory. This inflammation can then cause swelling in the tissue and blood vessels in the brain, which then press onto nearby nerves causing pain. Histamine, an inflammatory chemical, is released during stressful periods, and can also contribute to migraines and headaches by increasing inflammation in the body.
If you suffer from a skin condition, migraines or headaches, high levels of stress could be the culprit. For assistance on getting your cortisol levels down and keeping them down, seek the advice of a Natural Medicine professional.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705