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How sleep, chronic stress and elevated cortisol effects your skin health.


We have all encountered a sleepless night or two. Some of you may even know the misery of chronic insomnia. Upon waking we look in the mirror and are traumatized by what we see: puffy eyes, dark-circles, droopy eyelids, and sallow skin. To add insult to injury, more wrinkles may be visible due to tossing and turning. When it's just one night, it's relatively easy to recover. But poor sleep for a prolonged time is a recipe for disaster.

There are three hormones that are affected when we don't get adequate amounts of sleep. These are cortisol, growth hormone, and melatonin, and they all have a direct effect on how our skin ages.

Cortisol is our stress response hormone. When we are not sleeping well, we're like a battery that does not have the chance to recharge. Our body identifies this a stressful situation and starts producing cortisol. Like a jolt of caffeine form a morning coffee, this spike in cortisol keeps us moving, but at a cost.



As part of our normal diurnal rhythm, cortisol levels rise naturally in the morning and are at their highest at around 7am. Under normal circumstances these levels then begin to drop, reaching an all-time low in the evening as we prepare to sleep. The problems arise when we experience chronic low-level stress, whether it’s caused by money worries, an overactive inbox or health issues, because our stress response stays activated. Being in this constant state of high alert can quickly have a detrimental effect on several functions, including our sleep, diet and our skin.


Elevated cortisol levels break down collagen, resulting in less skin elasticity. Additionally, high cortisol levels prompt the skin’s sebaceous glands to produce more sebum (oil). The additional oil clogs the pores leading to the development of inflammation and bacteria– resulting in acne. Acne leads to picking and picking all-too-often results in post acne scarring (blemishes) and hyperpigmentation.


Growth hormone is responsible for building muscle, bone, and tissue-including skin. It is one of our anti-aging hormones and replenishes as we sleep, rehydrating the skin and allowing for cellular repair.

Last but not least is melatonin. This is our sleep hormone, and it plays a role in the immune system. It is a significant contributor to the functional and physical integrity of our skin. Without quality sleep, growth hormone and melatonin are not produced in sufficient quantities, while cortisol is overproduced. The result is overall poor skin condition, including dryness, dullness, fine lines, and wrinkles.

If these aren’t reasons to try to achieve good sleep hygiene, then how about the way you position your face on your pillow? Some dermatologists say that women who sleep on their side tend to develop wrinkles in their cheeks, while men will tend to develop wrinkles on their forehead (Note: I have certainly observed this with my clients) It is believed that sleeping on your back will avoid the risk of "sleep lines".

Melatonin supplements are available over the counter in the United States, but are prescription only in many other countries. There is also a plethora of natural stress reducing herbs and supplements available to help balance the body system.


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Bear in mind that supplements are just that, supplementation to support healthy lifestyle habits and living. In other words, supplements are not intended to replace good nutrition, proper hydration, stress reduction and regular restful sleep.




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