What does stress do to our skin? And can sleep fix it?

5 min read

How to Manage Sleep and Stress for Better Skin

A refreshing deep sleep is nature’s inbuilt stress-reduction mechanism, something that we could all tap into more.

Most of will have nights where we struggle to fall asleep, and often this corresponds to our stress levels. Right now, many of us have been impacted by Covid-19, causing stress, anxiety, and difficulty falling asleep.

While poor sleep and stress often go hand in hand, there are ways we can learn to manage it and get a better night's rest.

How are sleep and stress related?

Stress triggers a range of reactions in our body (this is called the “stress response”) including the release of the stress hormone, "cortisol". Stress puts us into a state of hyperarousal, as if the brain and body is on high alert. Our reaction to stress is part of our survival instinct, in the wild we would want to be on high alert to survive.

To make matters worse, when we are sleep deprived our body makes more cortisol. This is because lack of sleep is perceived by our brain as a "stressor". Stressors fall into two categories: physical stressors and psychological stressors. Physical stressors include sleep deprivation, low blood sugar levels, physical injury and overly intense exercise. Psychological stressors are what we more typically associate with stress such as worrying about something. So sleep deprivation is a physical stressor, triggering the stress response and causing our body to produce more cortisol. It's a vicious circle where psychological stress causes us to be on "high alert" and therefore no sleep, and then our sleep deprivation causes us to be more stressed. High levels of cortisol also drives inflammation - too much can be bad news for our health in many ways, including our skin.

When our stress is related to modern day problems rather than true survival challenges, (e.g. a tight deadline at work vs being chased by a lion), a state of “high alert” is not useful - especially when it impacts our ability to get a good night's sleep. Looking at ways to dial the stress down, especially in the evenings, is essential for our beauty sleep and overall health.

What does stress do to our skin?

  • It causes wrinkles and speeds up the signs of ageing. When cortisol is released, it increases the sugar levels in our blood. This damages our collagen (one of the key proteins that makes up the middle layer of our skin) - through a process called “glycation”: collagen hardens, and this causes or worsens wrinkles.
  • It leads to dry skin, as cortisol decreases the skin’s production of its own hyaluronic acid (the amazing water-storing ingredient we use in moisturisers to top up moisture levels).
  • It causes break outs by stimulating our skin's oil production.  Blemishes are caused when our pores (which normally act as a drainpipe for the sebum (or skin oil) that our skin produces) get blocked with dead skin cells, dirt or bacteria. The blockage prevents oil from escaping and bulges up behind - causing a blackhead or whitehead. When a bacteria called P-acne gets into the pore, it causes inflammation and redness under the skin. So, the more oil our skin produces, the more likely we are to break out because there is more oil trying to escape from our pores and more sticky stuff for dead skin cells or dirt to get trapped in. (Note that you can have oily but dehydrated skin at the same time - great.)
  • It makes "tics" worse. Lots of us have a habit or "tic" which gets triggered when we feel stress or anxiety.Things like nail biting, skin picking, pulling out hair are common ones. These types of behaviours can lead to permanent damage on our bodies, including scarring or bald patches.
  • It can trigger skin disorders or medical conditions. For those of us that struggle with medical skin conditions, like ezcema, rosacia, hives, or cold sores, stress can trigger flare ups or make symptoms worse. This is because stress causes our immune system to stop being as effective as normal, preventing it from managing these existing conditions.

None of us want to be stuck in the stress-sleep cycle. So, what can we do to end this?

First, assess how well you are sleeping

Ask yourself the following three questions to assess your current sleep health:

1. Do you wake up feeling refreshed and energised

2. Do you wake up and the same time every day, give or take 30 minutes, without an alarm?

3. Are you able to drop off within 30 minutes of trying?

Ascribe the following points to each answer:

Never – 0 points

Occasionally – 1 points

Almost always – 2 points

A score of 0 indicates poor sleep health, whereas as a score of 6 is excellent.

How did you do?

Considering these questions gives a great snapshot of your current sleep health. It is helpful to do this before and after making any sleep enhancing lifestyle tweaks to assess your progress.

Now you know how you're doing, time to make some changes to your…

Bedtime routine:

  • Avoid stressful topics, and definitely do NOT check your work emails. We know it can be tempting, but maintaining a work/life balance is important in our busy modern lives.
  • Add a few drops of lavender oil to your pillow (sprays are great too).
  • Try adding Epsom salts to your bath, these contain magnesium which has relaxation benefits.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness (like meditation, or breathing exercises) can be especially effective if you are kept awake by racing thoughts.
  • Write a journal before bed of things you are grateful for. Now, this may sound a bit off the wall, but science has shown that it is a simple and effective way to increase life satisfaction and lower depression and anxiety levels.
  • Make your bedroom a sleeping haven of comfort. Marie Kondo is making a comeback. Declutter your room, invest in a good mattress, ensure your room is dark and remove all unnecessary light sources.
  • The perfect temperature for sleeping is around 17 degree Celsius so open a window to cool the room down if necessary. It is better to sleep in a cool room with more blankets than a warm room with one blanket.
  • You know we’re going to say it… sorry Instagram and TikTok addicts! Avoid taking your phone into your room at night to avoid the temptation to scroll before bedtime or during the night. Invest in an alarm clock.
  • Have a herbal tea before bedtime. This will boost your hydration levels which is important, as your skin repairs itself and replenishes moisture while you slumber.


Nurture your adrenal and thyroid glands (hormone glands most affected by stress) by eating plenty of foods rich in these nutrients:

  • Iodine in fish, eggs and seaweed
  • Zinc in meat, shellfish, whole grains and some nuts
  • Vitamin E in olive oil, nuts and seeds
  • B vitamins in eggs, rice, meat, fish, wholegrains, pulses and dark green leafy vegetables
  • Vitamin C in peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits and berries
  • Selenium in Brazil nuts, fish, meat and eggs
  • Magnesium in green leafy vegetables and nuts.
  • Vitamin D in sunlight, oily fish, egg yolks, liver and mushrooms.

Sweet dreams…⚡️

Jessica Ferrari-Wells

Jessica is a London-based qualified nutritionist specialising in women's health. Having first studied psychology and neuroscience at the University of Oxford she became fascinated with how our wider health, diet and lifestyle impact our mental and physical wellbeing. Going on to work in a highly pressured corporate law environment, she experienced a deterioration in her own health and the health of her colleagues, in particular hormonal health and resilience. She went on to study and train in nutritional therapy and since qualifying has specialised in women's health, primarily hormone balance, energy, immunity, resilience, and mental wellbeing. Jessica unravels exactly what it takes to be well in the modern day - supporting her clients with clear, practical and educated advice and debunking common myths along the way.

Learn more about Jessica or get in touch with her for some personalised tips here.

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