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Srinivasan Pillay

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Acne and Stress Connected Through the Brain

Posted: 02/07/11 08:17 AM ET

These days, when we think of the brain, it is not hard to understand how it may be connected extensively with other body regions, as it directs so much of our bodies. And while a connection between the brain and heart is easy to imagine, with the heart pumping blood to the brain and the brain having an effect on heart rate, the connection between the brain and skin is not quite so obvious. Even less obvious is the connection between the brain and acne ... until we consider an article e-published today in the journal, Gut Pathogens. Enter dermatologists John H. Stokes and Donald M. Pillsbury, who, over 70 years ago, postulated that the brain and the skin were connected through the gut -- partially explaining how acne occurs.

How, you may wonder, are those bumpy aberrations on your skin connected to your brain through your gut? If, at first, it is difficult for you to believe that the brain and the gut could be connected at all, consider the following: We generally associate depression and anxiety with abnormalities of the brain chemical serotonin, but the majority of serotonin receptors are in the gut. Yup -- it is not that strange after all that anxiety is associated with a "queasy" effect on the stomach. In fact, Stokes and Pillsbury suggested that how we feel might alter the normal intestinal microflora (those creatures that keep us company in the gut, breaking things down so that we can adequately digest them).

Thus, if you are depressed or anxious, this may affect the organisms in your gut. This may increase the permeability of the intestine, and as a result, may increase inflammation throughout your body -- including on your skin. After those long 70 years, we now have evidence that gut microbes -- and even drugs that promote gut microbe growth -- can have indeed have very diverse effects on the body. Apart from increasing inflammation, these small creatures can affect glucose control, oxidative stress, tissue fat content and mood, too. And all of these factors can contribute to Acne. The skin condition has been associated with stress and diet for eons. Now finally, we can see how the stress-diet connection may be reconceptualized as the brain-gut connection that impacts the skin.

I highlight this somewhat not-so-obvious connection to make the point that when we think of our health, we need to think of multiple factors at the same time. Often, people focus on just one element. We see people who are in great moods, but overweight. We see people who are in perfect shape, but miserable. And we see people who are in great shape and eat well, but are very stressed. Any one of these problems -- being overweight, miserable or stressed -- can have widespread effects on the body. This emphasizes very overtly that our physical and emotional lives are interconnected and that this interconnection works in both ways.

The Latin "mens sana in corpore sano" translates to "a healthy mind in a healthy body" sometimes translated as " a sound mind in a sound body." These words can be traced back to far more than 70 years ago -- to the Roman poet Decimus lunius luvenalis, known as Juvenal. In fact, Juvenal was active in the last first and early second century AD.

This wisdom, known so long ago, was somehow lost in the deconstruction of our humanity into "mind" and "body." And I believe that it is time for us to challenge ourselves beyond simply recognizing this connection, to actually living it. This real integration, I believe, is one of the biggest challenges we can face and the following situations raise questions that we would benefit from considering:

1. Does the physical exercise you are doing stress you out? If so, can you get your exercise more happily?
2. Does your job make you unhappy and is it worth sacrificing your body over?
3. Does your romantic relationship make you eat differently than is good for you?
4. Is your skin a victim of your brain, through alcohol, sun addiction, sensory deprivation (when was the last time you were touched lovingly?) or fatty foods?

In these examples, I hope that you will find not judgments, but inspiration to see yourself as whole again.

 
 
 

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