Stress-Proof Your Looks
You’re stressed. Between dealing with a demanding boss, holidays shopping, shuffling the kids from soccer to clarinet lessons, feeding the dog and folding the laundry – well, of course you’re frazzled. Stress takes a toll on every part of your body. Your mood stinks, you have backaches, and your energy is, well, you left it somewhere between soccer and clarinet lessons. In addition to spoiling how you feel, did you know that stress can also spoil the way you look? “Anyone who’s blushed knows how dramatic an emotional event can turn into a physical one,” says Ted Grossbart, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “The way we look reflects our emotional state,” he says.
Here’s how you can keep your looks bright and fresh, no matter how much is going on in your life.
The Problem: Acne
When you’re anxious and upset, the body releases more of a hormone called corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which is produced in the sebaceous gland. When that gland is overworking, it produces more oil, leading to those ugly eruptions. Another study found that when high school students were under severe emotional strain, especially before exams, they were 23 percent more likely to break out.
The Fix: Deal with any blemishes by applying a little tea tree oil on a cotton pad. It has a natural antibiotic action and is particularly helpful against acne. Be aware, though, as oil, it may make skin even more oily. So if your face becomes a grease pit, try an over-the-counter medication with 5-percent benzoyl peroxide to melt clogged pores and blackheads, says Manjula Jegasothy, M.D. As a dermatologist and director of the Miami Skin Institute in Miami, Florida, Jegasothy suggests making sure your cleanser contains 2-percent salicylic acid, and use a mild glycolic toner afterwards.
The Problem: Premature Aging
When hassled and harried, the body overproduces the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. In particular, cortisol diminishes the healing power of the immune system, which can lead to a decrease in muscle mass and thinning of the skin, says Stephanie Toureles, a licensed holistic esthetician in Orland, ME. She is author of Organic Body Care (Storey Publishing, 2007). This double whammy zaps the skin of its natural structural tone and protection, leaving it vulnerable to environmental damage, such as with age spots and premature wrinkling. Your body also circulates more blood sugar and insulin under stress, which weakens the collagen-elastin fibers meant to keep skin strong. When these fibers break down, skin looks saggy and sallow.
The Fix: Keep the collagen-elastin fibers plump and supple by taking in plenty of fluids. As part of drinking eight glasses a day, include lots of fresh-pressed juices and decaffeinated green tea, and avoid dehydrating liquids like coffee and soda. Keep blood sugar on an even keel by sprinkling flaxseed, which contains a high percentage of soluble fiber, on your foods like cereal and yogurt. In addition, eat plenty of low-glycemic-index vegetables like broccoli, peppers, and cauliflower.
The Problem: Increased Breakage
Too much cortisol causes problems deep within the hair shaft – proteins that aren’t stacked up correctly, which cause the follicle to pump out weakened hair that’s prone to breakage, says Jegasothy.
The Fix: Biotin, a type of B vitamin used in cell growth, can help strengthen the hair from within. Jegasothy suggests 3 milligrams per day. You can also find topical biotin in certain shampoos and conditioners – look for it in the ingredients – to help coat the hair and keep it strong.
The Problem: Falling out and Balding*
We’re always losing hair, but new locks come in to replace the hairs in your shower drains and brushes. However, when we are overwhelmed, the adrenaline released under stress redirects blood away from the scalp to where it can be of greater use, like for the heart and lungs. Stress can also increase the amount of male hormones circulating throughout the body, which can lead to hair loss. Chronic stress can trigger the autoimmune system to attack hair follicles, causing hair to fall out completely or in clumps.
The Fix: Up the protein in your diet, says Jagasothy. Get plenty of lean meats, nuts, and especially cold-water fatty fish like salmon and light tuna, which contains omega 3 fatty acids. Massage can help increase circulation to the scalp and decrease stress in general. Try rubbing your scalp daily with essential oils of rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, and cedar wood.
*Always check with your doctor because hair falling out can be a sign of low protein levels or thyroid problems, which can be diagnosed with a simple blood test.
The Problem: Dry, brittle nails that crack easily.
Stress causes a lack of nutrients going to the nail, probably because the blood flow to the area is diminished, says Jagasothy.
The Fix: Get a multivitamin with minerals and an extra calcium supplement, which can strengthen the nail plate. Make sure your multi contains zinc, which is important for strong nails, says Tanya Edwards, MD, medical director for the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Always use rubber gloves when washing dishes or whenever your hands are in water, since water leaches moisture out of your nails, says Edwards. Seal moisture back in any time your hands get wet by applying lotion or oil to the nail area. Slather on the lotion before going to bed, and rub in some cuticle cream if you get inspired, massaging the nail to circulate blood flow to the area.
The Problem: Short, Stubby Nails
Nail biting is a common response to stress. Although it may calm your nerves, it makes your nails look awful.
The Fix: Keep nails trimmed, filed, and polished. Put adhesive bandages or colored stickers on your nails to remind you not to nibble. When the urge hits, divert your digits away from your mouth by squeezing a stress ball or silly putty.