Stress Can Inhibit Immune Function and Exacerbate Acne Symptoms
It is well known that putting an organism under stress makes it more susceptible to infection. This is true not only for humans, but for other animals and even plants. The same neural and biochemical pathways that make stress feel uncomfortable can also disrupt the delicate balance of a properly functioning immune system.
In the words of the experts:
“Activation of neurohormones by psychological stress occurs largely via the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, with subsequent upregulation of key stress hormones, such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), ACTH, and glucocorticoids (Cacioppo et al., 1998; Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005). Via these stress-related hormones, accompanied by additional stress response mediators such as neuropeptides or neurotrophins (Webster, 2002), immune responses are profoundly altered (Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005). For example, glucocorticoids inhibit the production of IL-12, IFN-γ, and tumor necrosis factor by antigen-presenting cells and T helper 1 (Th1) cells but upregulate the production of IL-4, IL-10, and IL-13 by Th2 cells (Wonnacott and Bonneau, 2002).” -Arck, et al. 2006.
To summarize that for non-scientists:
Stress causes changes in hormonal balance and that directly impacts the functioning of the immune system. These changes appear to suppress immune functions that encourage the direct killing of pathogens, instead shifting the immune response to a more passive-aggressive approach.
Glucocorticoids and Stress
One of the most well known stress-released hormones is cortisol (aka hydrocoritosone). Many people have heard the claims on late night infomercials about the effect of stress on weight gain (and how they have a product that can fix it). Specifically, these marketers are referencing research that shows that stress induces the release of a molecule called cortisol, which can potentially induce the growth of adipose cells (fat cells). Cortisol is part of a group of molecules called glucocorticoid steroids (corticosteriods). These molecules have many functions, but one of their primary functions is to suppress the immune system. The release of corticosteroids by the body in response to stress could explain why immune function is diminished in stressed individuals. Corticosteroids are often medically administered to treat severe allergic reactions (like poison oak) and inflammation. But because of their negative effect on immune function, consistent use is rarely recommended.
Stress and Acne Symptoms
The hormonal changes that are induced by stress can worsen acne problems. The resulting combination of increased sebum production and a suppressed immune system provides conditions that increase the likelihood of acne. It is well known that stress relief and relaxation can improve over-all health, and acne is no different. Decreasing psychological and physical stress (e.g. binge drinking, hyper-glycemic diets, drug use, injuries, etc) can improve acne and general health.
References and Sources
Neuroimmunology of Stress: Skin Takes Center Stage.
Arck, et al. 2006. For article abstract, click here.
Neuroendocrine regulation of sebocytes – a pathogenetic link between stress and acne.
Zouboulis, et al. 2004. For article abstract, click here.
Sebaceous glands in acne patients express high levels of neutral endopeptidase.
Nakamura, et al. 2002. For article abstract, click here.
The Response of Skin Disease to Stress.
Chiu, et al. 2003. For article abstract, click here.
Stress, Acne and Skin Surface Free Fatty Acids.
Kraus. 1970. For article abstract, click here.