During COVID-19 our cortisol levels are at an all-time high.
By Murray Clark
Lockdown ennui is written all over your face. The pale skin. The listless gaze into the void of another Zoom. The sudden breakouts. You can explain it all away by reasoning that this is winter, and this is what winter likes to do – and you’d be right. It’s a time of year in which life feels like one long album by the xx. But the usual not-so-new year crash has been compacted by the fact that this February belongs to coronavirus – another month in yet another lockdown.
The long-term effects are beginning to reveal themselves. A study carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than eight in 10 British adults had experienced increased stress throughout the pandemic. Across the pond, the figures were even more alarming: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a 31 percent increase among Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. These numbers are a huge cause for concern. The forecast grows grimmer still as young men continue to battle an ongoing mental health crisis that exploded long before reports of a respiratory virus in Wuhan.
The tell-tale signs of anxiety and depression are not only felt mentally, but seen visibly as the effects wreak havoc on your skin, hair, nails, weight – pretty much everything. You can blame a naturally occurring steroid hormone by the name of cortisol.
“We have all sorts of stress hormones and cortisol is one of them, and it’s really intricately linked with our physical health and our psychological health. We know that brain and body, of course, impact one another,” says Beth Anfilogoff, psychological therapist at The Recovery Centre, a London-based integrated therapeutic clinic. “Persistently high levels are bad for physical and mental health as it suppresses the immune system, and that of course encompasses skin, hair, and nails.”
It’s not just your palms that get sweaty. Cortisol can stimulate an overproduction of sebum (the science-y word for natural oils) which can clog the pores. This means brand new spots and breakouts, but also flare-ups of old, existing conditions. A 2013 study by the research group Acta Derm Venereol found that psychological stress could exacerbate eczema and atopic dermatitis, lending credence to a long-held view that poor mental health can compromise skin health. Increased cortisol has also been linked to sensitivity and dryness, with one 2014 study reporting signs of advanced aging in subjects with high levels of stress. “The exact mechanism of how stress impacts skin aging is still quite elusive but recent research has provided evidence that suggests the proteins collagen and elastin are impacted by stress,” says Victoria Hiscock, medical communication manager at science-driven skincare company AlumierMD. “This can lead to lines, wrinkles, and skin laxity. We also know more about the relationship between inflammation and aging which has led to a new term in cosmetic dermatology: ‘inflammageing’.”
Which is as scary as it sounds. Increased cortisol hampers the body’s ability to absorb the essential nutrients that keep us looking nice and handsome. “Healthy hair and nails need vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium, and protein,” says Hiscock. “As stress can impact our appetite and the body’s repair system, it can lead to thinning hair, hair loss, and brittle nails. Furthermore, hair pulling and nail biting during stressful periods is common, which can further impact hair and nail health.”
Cortisol isn’t an out-and-out bad guy. Considered to be the human body’s natural alarm system, the stuff works with the brain to regulate mood and thus activates the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism when and where appropriate. It also regulates blood pressure, reduces inflammation, and modulates sleep patterns. “It naturally rises in the morning and gets us out of bed,” says Anfilogoff, going on to say that, in small doses, it’s also linked to confidence and extroversion. But, when your brain encounters a dangerous situation every single day – let’s just say, oh I don’t know, during an unprecedented global pandemic – your body reacts like there’s a tiger lurking in the shadows all day, every day. The resulting surplus of cortisol is where things start going wrong.
Getting rid of it, unsurprisingly, requires thorough de-stressing, which is far easier said than done when every day is book-ended by Huw Edwards reeling off death counts. In fact, cortisol levels aren’t “something you can control,” says Anfilogoff. “It’s a natural response that is unfortunately unhelpful when it’s out of sync with the ‘threat’ we are facing. Constant deadlines and notifications on our phones don’t require the fight or flight response our body can go into. We can think of anxiety as a fire alarm – useful if there’s a fire, but you don’t want it going off when you’re only making toast.”
For those who’ve suffered increased anxiety throughout lockdown, Anfilogoff suggests a few moments of respite. “Relaxation is really important here. Do things you enjoy. It doesn’t particularly matter what, you just need a break and it’s worth making time for. Try something creative or gentle exercise. This is of course harder in lockdown, but research has shown nature is really beneficial for mental health.” Acknowledging the anxiety can also help, with Anfilogoff recommending regular communication with a trusted individual to alleviate added stress. Or, if it’s really impacting your life, “reach out to professionals via your GP, or private organizations through professional bodies like the BACP.”
Certain products will also abet the R&R, for a one-two punch that soothes the skin on the outside of your head as you calm the stress spikes on the inside. “Retinol could be the best tool in your anti-aging toolkit, second only to daily SPF,” says Hiscock. “It can help reduce the appearance of lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tones. It’s a very active ingredient and can cause a good amount of dead skin to shed at first so the advice is start low, and go slow.” Exfoliation and hydration are just as important too, with Hiscock recommending salicylic acid-based products as a way to “deep clean” pores during times of stress.
For all the benefits of a bigger grooming kit though, the Zoom calls never lie. Well, not unless you’ve got the beauty slide turned up to max. And if that’s your solution to greying skin and stress-related breakouts, then perhaps it’s high time you take a hard pass on the next two-hour conference call entirely.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors. (image from Dreamstime.com – PA)