Stress or adrenal dysfunction combined with cold winds, dry indoor heat, hot showers and circulating pathogens create a real challenge for your skin, the largest organ in your body. Winter weather is hard enough on anyone’s skin, robbing it of moisture and heat, causing cracks, and affecting its protective barrier ability. When you add stress to winter’s challenges, the damage is amplified.
The skin is readily visible, and its health can be a helpful reflection of the condition of organs you can’t see. The skin is made up of two primary layers: the epidermis and dermis. The epidermis is the part you see, and its outermost cells are dead. New cells grow upwards from the bottom and migrate towards the surface in a process that takes almost a month to complete. The primary job of the epidermis is to form a protective layer against water loss and pathogens. The dermis lies beneath it, acting as a foundation for the epidermis and a cushion for the body structures. It contains nerve endings, blood vessels, hair follicles and sweat glands. It is also where the hair and nails originate, so anything that influences the health of your skin, including stress, also affects your hair and your nails.
Stress and winter weather can impact the skin in several ways:
Barrier Integrity Damage
During stress, the adrenals secrete a hormone called cortisol. Synthetic medications designed to mimic cortisol (corticosteroids, such as prednisone or methylprednisolone) reduce the barrier activity and growth of the epidermis, making it thinner and weaker. A study was done to discover whether stress had the same effect on the skin as synthetic coritcosteroids.1 Researchers examined the skin and measured the epidermal barrier function and water loss in the skin of 27 students at three different times: low stress (just after winter break), high stress (during exam week), and another low stress (during spring break). They discovered that the students had more disruption in the epidermal barrier at high stress times. This barrier disruption can result in cracked skin, moisture loss, and a greater opportunity for bacteria to penetrate. Bacteria can activate the immune system and sometimes trigger eczema and psoriasis. Cold weather and excessively hot showers can also damage the barrier.
What You Can Do
To help keep your epidermal barrier strong, take fish oil to support cell structure, use warm rather than hot water in the shower, limit the duration and number of showers, and apply moisturizer immediately after showering.
Cold weather often forces people to spend more time inside, frequently in close proximity to others who may be sick. Besides its direct effects on skin’s growth and barrier function, cortisol also suppresses overall immune function. Scientists studied viral loads in students under stressed and non-stressed conditions and discovered that latent herpes virus is reactivated under stress.2 Reactivation of herpes can result in an outbreak of painful blisters on the skin and mucus membranes.
What You Can Do
To help decrease your chances of a reactivation under stress, get plenty of sleep and avoid the spread of other infectious diseases (such as colds and flus) which require your immune system to go into overdrive. In addition, try nutrients such as vitamin A to support skin integrity, probiotics for immune support and L-lysine—an amino acid that inhibits replication of the virus. Used with vitamin C, bioflavonoids and zinc, lysine can help reduce the frequency and duration of outbreaks.3, 4
- Garg, A et al. Psychological stress perturbs epidermal permeability homeostasis: implications for the pathogenesis of stress-associated skin disorders. Arch Dermatol. 2001; 137(1):53-9.
- Uchakin PN, et al. Fatigue in medical residents leads to reactivation of herpes virus latency. Interdiscip Perspect Infect Dis. 2011; 2011:571340.
- Gaby AR. Natural remedies for Herpes simplex. Altern Med Rev. 2006; 11(2):93-101.
- Terezhalmy GT, et al. The use of water-soluble bioflavonoid-ascorbic acid complex in the treatment of recurrent herpes labialis. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol. 1978;45(1):56-62.
- Yucha, Carolyn and Doil, Montgomery. Evidence-Based Practice in Biofeedback and Neurofeedback. Wheat Ridge, CO: Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 2008.