Nowadays, it’s hard to walk down the street without seeing someone in yoga attire and a mat on their back or getting into a conversation with a friend who attended the best class ever. Let’s face it with nearly 30 million people practicing regularly worldwide, yoga is totally trending. And this comes as no surprise, considering its physical, mental and emotional health benefits.
As both a dermatologist in residency and a yoga instructor, I find the topics of “skin” and “yoga” interesting—and potentially related. How, you may ask. The simple answer is that the mind, body and skin are all connected. Let me break this down.
The Stress-Skin Connection
Researchers have examined the role of neuropeptides, hormones and neurotransmitters in what we call “psychodermatological” disorders. Psychodermatology is a relatively new discipline that explores the interaction between the mind and the skin. What these studies found is that there’s a correlation between stress and skin inflammation, and this can manifest as dermatologic problems like acne, hair loss, various types of eczema and dermatitis, oral and genital herpes, excess sweating, itching, psoriasis, rosacea, urticaria, warts and breaking or ridging of the nails.
Stress activates two biological systems: (1) the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which regulates the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and (2) the sympathoadrenal medullary system, which regulates the release of catecholamines. Cortisol and catecholamines have been shown to have potent effects on the immune system as well as the inflammatory response.
Aside from being a well-known trigger of many dermatologic conditions, stress may also lead to abnormal skin-barrier function, such as wound healing or our skin’s ability to fight off bacteria. Atopic dermatitis (eczema), for example, is classified as a psychophysiological disorder. It is not caused solely by stress, but it can be precipitated or exacerbated by it. In fact, it was found that stressful life events preceded the onset of itching in more than 70% of patients with atopic dermatitis. And as most of us know from personal experience, the increase in cortisol has also been described in the exacerbation of acne during times of stress.
Bottom line: psychological factors affect the management of skin conditions in more than one-third of reported dermatology patients, so it is important to consider these factors, especially for chronic dermatological conditions.
How Yoga Can Help
Various studies suggest that people who participate in even brief yoga programs may see improvements in anxiety, somatic stress and discomfort, health-related quality of life and self-rated sleep quality—all benefits that can help medical conditions, particularly those that are dermatologic in nature.
One study examined psychological (e.g., self-rated stress and stress behavior, anger, exhaustion, quality of life) and physiological (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate, urinary catecholamines, salivary cortisol) measurements obtained before and after a 10-session yoga program that participants completed over a four-month period. Results showed significant improvements (P<0.05) on almost all stress-related subjective and physiological variables. The results were even comparable with cognitive behavioral therapy .
Not only has it been shown that yoga helps patients on a psychological level, but a recent study reported that 90-minute sessions of mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga over an eight-week period led to observable benefits on a cellular level in distressed breast cancer survivors . Studies have also described the benefits of yoga in managing various other cancers, depression, asthma and Type 2 diabetes mellitus [3,4].
And because some dermatologic problems have increased risk factors of other medical problems — such as psoriasis with arthritis and metabolic diseases like abdominal obesity, diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, dyslipidemia, metabolic syndrome and chronic kidney disease — it is even more crucial to consider approaches for a healthy mind and body as a supplement to medical care.
In summary, many dermatologic problems can cause stress and vice versa. Therefore, utilizing supplemental interventions like yoga may be beneficial. With accurate diagnosis by a dermatologist and appropriate conventional treatments, yoga can definitely help improve dermatologic problems.
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