Hair, Skin and Nail Health
The creation and maintenance of healthy hair, skin, and nails begins at the cellular level. It requires high quality protein for strong, supple connective tissue, essential fatty acids for healthy cell membranes, and a multitude of vitamins and minerals that act as cofactors, catalysts and antioxidants to create and repair the tissues. Hormones and other chemicals in the body also influence the way the cells respond and repair. For example, the subjective experience you feel as stress impacts these tissues physiologically because of the release of specific hormones. In other words: when you are under stress, it can show up on your face, your hands and your hair.
Your Stress Response
When you are under stress, be it a looming midterm, a throbbing broken ankle, or a smoggy traffic jam en route to an appointment, your body’s physiology responds the same way. Deep in the brain, a structure called the hypothalamus signals the pituitary, or master gland, to signal two little glands that sit on top of the kidneys, called the adrenal glands, to secrete stress hormones that prepare the body to deal with the stressor. The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenals together are known as the HPA axis, and it is this axis that is responsible for the regulation of the stress response throughout your body. This same stress response has been around since humans wore loincloths, and it primes the body to react to the stressor with a physical “fight or flight” response.
21st Century Stress and Tissue Health
On the other hand, 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 increases in your cell phone bill, an impatient driver tail-gating your car, or rumors of lay-offs 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 you are fighting for your life, the importance of growing your hair or digesting your lunch pales in comparison to being able to pack a quick punch! Unfortunately, the physiological adaptations that could save a person’s life in the past may not help with 21st century stress, and may even become harmful over time. Nevertheless, cortisol continues to be secreted, and stressors continue to arise with no physical way to dissipate them. When stress is chronic or prolonged, the detrimental effects of cortisol become cumulative. Your 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 your tissues. The end result is that the tissues of your skin, hair and nails do not receive all they need to grow and thrive. Conversely, if your adrenal glands become depleted by chronic stress (as in adrenal fatigue), they may not be able to maintain adequate cortisol levels to sufficiently sustain energy and stimulate nutrient metabolism and immune function for optimal tissue growth, repair and protection. With both high adrenal function and adrenal fatigue, chronic 21st century stress can be detrimental to your hair, skin and nails.