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The Effects of Stress on Hair, Skin and Nails

Posted Mar 13, 2018

Hair, Skin and Nail Health

A stressful life can be hard on hair, skin and nails, and also on healing speed after an injury. During stress, the body’s survival priority is to prepare you to physically respond to the stressor (the “fight or flight response”). This means growth, maintenance and repair of tissues gets temporarily downgraded to a lower priority.

21st Century Stress and Tissue Health

A “fight or flight” response is rarely appropriate for the stress overload arising from economic, environmental, social and psychological sources in the complex 21st century. Events such as a financial emergency, a hectic commute, or layoffs at work cannot be handled with physically active responses. However, because human physiology functions much the same as it did 100,000 years ago, the HPA axis still triggers adrenal hormones proficient at helping the body adapt to the physically demanding type of stressors faced by our ancestors: trekking through a snowstorm, surviving months of famine, or fending off an attacking predator.

The adrenal stress hormone with the biggest impact on tissue health is cortisol. It makes sure that resources such as nutrients and oxygen go to the muscles first, and releases more glucose into the bloodstream to provide quick energy. All of the metabolic changes that cortisol orchestrates are crucial in these “fight or flight” situations in which the muscles need a lot of nutrients, oxygen and fuel fast. At the same time, the growth and repair of other tissues such as skin, hair and nails, and the function of systems such as digestion get downgraded to a lower priority.

When stress is chronic or prolonged, the detrimental effects of cortisol become cumulative. Blood flow (with its supply of nutrients, oxygen and energy) continues to be shunted away from your skin and digestive organs, limiting the nutrients and fuel for growth they receive. Your blood sugar and insulin remain elevated, potentially damaging tissues.

Skin and Stress

Excessive stress and cortisol have direct effects on the skin. These are superficial and immediately visible effects of the stress response, like a flushed face after an embarrassing situation, but there are deeper effects too. The skin normally has a fatty layer which protects and insulates it, retains moisture, and gives it a smooth softness. Excessive cortisol damages this layer and results in thin, fragile skin prone to easy bruising, stretch marks, and infection. Stress also induces cumulative skin damage over time because it accelerates production of free radicals (the biological equivalent of rust).

When free radicals are generated faster than the cells’ antioxidant mechanisms can neutralize them, they damage the cells and their DNA, interfere with the protein that keeps the skin firm and prevents sagging, hasten the formation of wrinkles, and speed up the aging process. Not only does the skin react to the stress hormones generated by the adrenal glands that circulate throughout the body, but also to cortisol generated within specialized cells in the skin itself.

Each of these cells, called a follicle, has its own equivalent of the HPA axis and the ability to demand and produce cortisol within the skin tissue itself. With over 5 million of these cells in the body, that is a lot of mini-cortisol factories impacting the skin! In addition, when cortisol levels are out of balance it can disrupt the balance of sex hormones like testosterone and progesterone, which also affect the skin.

Hair and Stress

Hair literally reflects stress. Because it is built from the nutrients available as it develops, and it grows approximately 1/4 – 1/2 inch per month, a few inches of hair can be used as a tool to indicate the levels of minerals or toxic substances that were present in the body over a period of time.

Recently, researchers have found that elevated hair cortisol levels are a good predictor of heart attacks! This is because high levels of hair cortisol show that the person’s entire body has been highly stressed for months. Shiny, strong hair requires minerals, and deficiencies can show up as lackluster hair. Under stress, the demand for certain minerals such as magnesium and manganese increases but nutrient absorption and assimilation decreases.

In someone with adrenal fatigue, absorption of these minerals and other essential nutrients is even more difficult, making the combination of high stress with adrenal fatigue particularly detrimental to hair health. A highly stressful event is even capable of precipitating a sudden, dramatic hair loss. It is commonly believed that extreme stress can cause gray hair, but until recently it was not known how this happens. Scientists are now discovering that free radicals generated at a higher rate during stress (the same ones that damage the skin) may well be the culprits, harming cells in the hair shaft that produce the hair’s pigment.

Nails and Stress

Fingernails and toenails are also not immune to the effects of stress. Strong, healthy nails require protein, silica, magnesium, zinc, iron, biotin, and other vitamins and minerals. Because stress makes it more difficult for the body to absorb the nutrients it needs, nail pitting, shredding and ridging frequently flare under stress. As mentioned previously, adrenal fatigue also reduces absorption of nutrients essential to tissue health, making the combination of high stress with adrenal fatigue particularly detrimental to nail health as well.

Biotin is a nutrient that is often useful in the treatment of brittle nails, yet cortisol has been shown to cause a loss of biotin from the body. Finally, many people tend to abuse their nails when stressed, resorting to nail biting or repetitive rubbing that can cause mechanical damage to the nail bed.

Maintaining Healthy Hair, Skin and Nails during Stressful Times

There are a number of things you can do to support the health of your patients’ hair, skin, and nails in times of stress:

Lifestyle changes

•Avoid biting nails, twisting hair, scratching or picking skin, or otherwise taking stress out on the body
•Sleep 8 or more hours a night to allow the tissues to heal and grow
• Eat a healthy diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in sugar and hydrogenated oils to support cell membranes
• Chew slowly and eat in a relaxed environment to allow maximum uptake of nutrients
• Eat sufficient protein for growth and repair of tissues
• Drink plenty of water to hydrate skin and flush waste products

 Nutritional support for the hair, skin, nails

• Silica, calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium and biotin support tissue structure
• Gelatin for tissue structural integrity, elasticity and resiliency
• Antioxidants (including A,C,E and zinc) for protection of cell structure and function
• Nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and manganese support tissue health
• Flaxseed inhibits inflammation, promotes muscle repair, and enhances metabolism of fat

 Supplemental support for the adrenal glands

• Herbs such as licorice, ashwagandha, maca and Siberian ginseng support the HPA axis
• Ashwagandha helps to normalize many of the biological changes brought about by stress
• Licorice helps to counteract cortisol’s immunosuppressive effects
• Nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and manganese support adrenal function
• B vitamins support adrenal hormone production
• Vitamin A helps normalize cortisol levels in conditions of abnormal secretion
• Vitamins A, C, and E help to modulate the HPA axis and stress response

The benefits of managing the stress response system and providing targeted nutrition for the cells will be reflected in healthier, stronger and more attractive hair, skin and nails.