Note: this article is an edited extract from the Annihilate Your Acne eBook. In the book you’ll find extra information on reducing stress, such as specific foods that directly inhibit cortisol.
You might be surprised to hear this, but if you ever asked your grandma how to cure your acne and she replied “stop worrying about it”, she was completely correct. It wasn’t the worrying itself that caused acne, but rather that it raised your cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the main stress hormone in humans and many animals. Like many factors behind acne, cortisol doesn’t damage your skin in low quantities; in fact cortisol is important to control glucose metabolism and blood pressure. Temporary spikes, such as those induced by heavy exercise, are also fine.
However, when cortisol becomes chronically elevated, possibly induced by a mind full of worry and anxiety, it becomes the worst hormone in the business. When dermatologists offer advice about acne-causing hormones, it is typically testosterone and DHT that they leap to. Actually, cortisol is a far bigger culprit. To cure your acne, you absolutely must keep your cortisol levels in a healthy range.
First though, you need to know how cortisol works in the body and how it routinely saved our lives when we lived in the wild.
Cortisol has many functions but primarily, it is a stress hormone. Whenever you feel mental stress, your mind signals your adrenal glands to increase cortisol secretion, which then exerts several biological effects in the body.
Back in the prehistoric days, such effects routinely saved us from death. Imagine that a prehistoric man is exploring the savannah and is suddenly stalked by a ferocious and bloodthirsty lion. He understandably gets anxious, and this sends a signal to his body to increase cortisol. The cortisol then triggers the classic fight or flight response in the man’s brain, and at the same time, cortisol gives him heightened awareness and a sudden burst of energy. These effects make him far more likely to either kill the lion or successfully flee from it. While the man’s survival is not guaranteed, the useful effects of cortisol boost his chances far higher than if there were none.
Another example is a man who is running along the edge of a cliff and suddenly falls down, only to grab the edge with his two hands. Without a stress response he would weaken and plummet to his doom. Cortisol though, increases the metabolization of glucose from his body’s energy stores, providing a quick burst of energy so that he can haul himself to safety.
All this made cortisol extremely important when an ancient human was faced with a deadly threat. In the modern world, such situations still occur; for example, if you are assaulted by a mugger, or about to drive your car into a tree.
However most of the stressors we react to these days are completely unworthy of the response. If you are approaching the man or woman of your dreams and are hoping to get them on a date, you might get stressed out and thus the cortisol response will kick in. You’ll get sweaty palms, heightened awareness, and a racing heartbeat. There is absolutely no need for this biological response; you’re not about to die. However, because the human body only reacts to stress in the mind, cortisol increases regardless of whether you are in danger or not.
Having this mostly pointless cortisol response ingrained in our bodies would be fine if the spikes were merely temporary. The problem is that the nature of our problems has changed from temporary to long lasting, so the stress never ends either. In our prehistoric days, most stressors we faced were temporary; a pack of wolves on one’s tail, or a rival clan hunting you down with spears. Nowadays though, we are faced with financial insecurity, for example. A gigantic mortgage bill cannot instantly be solved by using the flight or fight response; it is a long lasting problem that weighs heavily on the mind and thus causes nearly constant stress.
Fear of being sacked from your job, economic uncertainty, health scares – all contribute to chronic stress. In this day and age, chronically elevated cortisol levels are more common than ever…
…and if you are stressed out, you too might have cortisol levels high enough to cause acne.
How chronic stress wrecks your skin
Basically, the biological effects of cortisol, like the energy burst, the heightened awareness and improved tolerance to pain, take a toll when sustained for too long. A good illustration of cortisol’s strong effects on human health is Cushing’s syndrome. This disease, which affects 1 in 50,000 British citizens, occurs when a tumour grows on the adrenal glands and forces them to produce too much cortisol. Cushing’s patients have red, ruddy looking skin. This skin may have an irregular, blotchy appearance due to impaired wound healing. Cushing’s patients may permanently be in a bad mood due to irritability and mood swings.
Perhaps the strongest demonstration of cortisol’s power is the altered fat distribution it causes. Cushing’s patients develop a very weird body shape; their arms and legs are as thin as rakes, while they gain huge visceral fat deposits that create an enormous round stomach. Cushing’s patients also have “moon face” – a round, puffy looking face caused by high fat deposits in the cheeks. Cortisol is an extremely powerful hormone. Your levels are almost certainly not at this catastrophic level; moderate chronic stress isn’t generally enough to generate serious health problems. Nevertheless, it’s still a problem for acne:
Disrupted insulin metabolism – the energy surge provided by cortisol has two sources. Cortisol 1) calls upon your energy stores to recruit more glucose into the bloodstream, and 2) decreases the activity of your glycogen receptors, making them less responsive to insulin. If insulin has no effect, more glucose will remain in the bloodstream to give you energy.
Basically, cortisol causes insulin resistance. It’s not clear whether elevated cortisol causes insulin resistance in the long-term. However high cortisol is linked to oily skin, and any hormone that disrupts your glucose metabolism this strongly is not one to mess with on a long-term basis. This is a classic example of a healthy short term effect that goes awry when sustained.
Weak skin – consistently high cortisol can weaken the proteins in your skin. These include elastin, which gives young skin elasticity, and the all-important collagen. By damaging the structure of collagen, cortisol increase the vulnerability of your skin to inflammation induced by pimples. Also, cortisol may impair the creation of collagen by inhibiting the enzymes that do so.
Delayed wound healing – inhibiting healthy proteins also prevents them from reforming your skin’s epithelial cells, from repairing inflammatory damage, and correcting other damage inflicted by acne. Thus, your old pimples take longer to fade away. Slow wound healing is a classic sign of high stress.
Probably the biggest explanation of why stress causes acne is the brain-gut axis. Emerging studies have found that your thoughts and emotions are intricately linked to your gut flora – the gut has even been dubbed “your second brain”. Some gut bacteria have been found to manufacture serotonin, and correspondingly, those with a barren gut flora appear to be at higher risk of depression. One estimate is that 95% of all bodily serotonin is created by gut bacteria. Even cortisol itself is partly manufactured in the gut.
Gut health is being furiously researched for its link to autism: in 2013, Italian researchers reported that compared with healthy children, the guts of autistic children contained significantly smaller colonies of healthy Bifidobacterium. Californian scientists conducting a 2013 study could actually use bacteria to induce autism in new-born mice. They fed the mother a virus which led to the offspring having altered gut bacteria, and just as expected, these mice demonstrated significantly more developmental and social problems associated with autism. Books, studies, and mainstream scientific opinion are all realising that gut bacteria controls your emotions like puppets on a string…
…and what’s important for acne is that the reverse is also true: your emotions wield huge power over your gut health. Witness, for instance, the butterflies in your stomach that occur almost instantly after extreme anxiety. Before a big speech or a hot date, you’re far more likely to vomit; keeping food down becomes a herculean task for some. These effects are a direct response to your emotions. They are symptoms of the stress response altering your gut bacteria, the release of digestive chemicals, the function of critical enzymes, and much more.
Some of the digestive problems associated with the stress response include…
-Up to four times less blood flow to your digestive system.
-Damage to healthy intestinal bacteria.
-Decreased nutrient absorption.
-Impaired activity of enzymes required to efficiently digest food – possibly by 20,000 fold.
-Decreased oxygenation in your gut.
The biggest and most important though, is increased activation of immune system mast cells. When targeted, cortisol is generally an anti-inflammatory hormone. Doctors prescribe cortisol in the form of catabolic steroids to treat shoulder pain, neck problems, and to heal stubborn wounds.
However, the one place where chronic stress is highly inflammatory is your gut. Stress has been shown to increase the activity, the amount of pro-inflammatory cytokines churned out, of intestinal mast cells. Also, stress can activate more of these cells. Your intestinal barrier is assaulted, paving the way to leaky gut syndrome. Stress has been shown to reduce the integrity of the epithelial cells that the important semipermeable membrane is comprised of. There’s also evidence that stress can relax the tight junctions of your gut, independent of the heightened inflammation. Symptoms of food allergies, which are strongly linked to leaky gut syndrome and can also cause acne themselves, can be soothed by lowering stress. Stress also exaggerates the inflammatory response to generic unhealthy food – hence why people often vomit when anxious.
These digestive responses are the main reason why calming your stress down can improve your skin. Delayed wound healing can mess up your skin tone, but it’s the increase in gut inflammation that allows anxiety and worries to create a family of new pimples within hours. The problems of intestinal permeability mean that chronic stress can also cause a long-term increase in inflammation. The good news is that because stress partly relaxes the tight junctions directly, calming stress can bless you with improvements very quickly compared to healing the structural damage wrought by cereal grains.
What you must do
You must reduce stress in whatever way you can. The first strategy is to eliminate the source of the stress. Clearly you will have your own circumstances – what causes you anxiety is unique to your life. However, if it’s your acne that provides a lot of stress, heed this message: there’s easily enough information in this book to cure your acne for good. If your acne is only moderate and your lifestyle is standard for this day and age, you won’t have to follow anywhere near the full strategy. You could skip organic foods and still get clear skin, you could use too many chemical laden soap formulas – you won’t have to follow a strict lifestyle that drains away all pleasure.
Doing that will help, but it’s not necessary. If your acne is severe, then this book and the supernaturalacnetreatment.com website are still strong enough for your needs. As previously discussed, not even the strongest hormones and genetics can stand in the way of clear skin. There’s no need to be stressed over acne!
Also, don’t worry if improvements are taking a while. Eliminating sugar, pesticides, dairy, and vegetable oils will kill pimples quickly, but healing a leaky gut and boosting vitamin D levels, for instance, can take months. That’s to be expected, so don’t worry. The results will come and if they’re not perfect, you can choose from a further war chest of strategies that’s nearly endless.
Secondly, stress and cortisol can be reduced using several surprisingly effective mind games. Mystical practices like meditation are fantastic at reducing stress, but they take too long. If you already practise meditation, then keep going, but for less patient people, a better strategy is to hijack your flight or fight syndrome. The stress response is designed to only go away when you either kill the enemy or flee from it – that’s how it keeps us alive. That’s why losing a game of tennis gives you the urge to punch the wall. If you follow these instincts, you can trick your body into relaxing the stress response. Punching a heavy bag or fighting in the dojo can lower cortisol, as can going for a manic and energetic run around the block.
Also useful is simply improving your posture. Repeated studies have demonstrated that adopting a “power posture”, one in which you stand up straight and generally make your body cover as much space as possible, then your cortisol levels will fall by twenty percent! The best part of this body hack is that it yields effects in just two minutes. You can do it right now and see a reduction in your cortisol levels. Also remember that the opposite pose, a defensive one in which you slouch and make your body cover less space, will increase your cortisol.
Finally, any pleasurable activity should reduce stress by boosting levels of the happiness hormone serotonin. Laughter has been shown to utterly crush cortisol levels. Watching a comedy film or simply having funny friends is thus a great idea. One almost fool proof method for eliminating stress is to listen to happy and upbeat music. Science has clearly shown that exposing stressed people to music makes them much more relaxed and happy, reducing cortisol by up to 50%.
My personal recommendation is that you ignore relaxing music and instead focus on music that puts you in an upbeat and positive mood. Music mainly combats stress by increasing serotonin, a happiness hormone that, in certain circumstances, functions as a direct antagonist to cortisol. Therefore you need music that has a strong emotional effect on you, music that gets you in a great mood. To kill stress being happy is more important than being relaxed. Gentle piano music is more likely to put you to sleep than reduce stress.
The exception is natural audio tracks of running rivers, a sea tide, or rainwater. Exposing patients to non-musical yet relaxing sounds in nature has been shown to reduce cortisol well.
Does smoking really relieve stress?
Most smokers now acknowledge that their habit will lead them to an early grave. However many cigarette puffers continue to defend their habit by claiming it relieves stress. Technically this is true, but it’s the cravings that create this stress in the first place. Cigarettes only provide a relief from higher cortisol that they themselves cause.
Tobacco does not have a magical cortisol lowering effect, neither do any of a cigarette’s endless other chemicals. If you smoked a cigarette for the first time you would not experience any reduction in stress.
Smokers actually spend most of their life with higher levels than average, because the addiction is not entirely satisfied for a large portion of their day. Overall, there is still no need to smoke.
The tales are true: stress does cause acne. The stress response in humans causes digestive problems, delayed wound healing, and weaker skin.
Eliminating stress and eating foods that blunt the stress response can make clearing your skin substantially easier.
Thanks for reading!