Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, have been used for thousands of years. All mindfulness practices harness the concept of increasing one’s awareness by consciously focusing attention on each moment; thereby, one becomes connected to both the body and mind. These practices provide us with stress-reduction and mental clarity, among other benefits. But what effects could these practices bring in skin health?
Stress and Chronic Inflammation
For decades, researchers have recognized that psychological stress significantly contributes to symptom exacerbation in many chronic inflammatory conditions.1,2 More recently, scientific studies have uncovered deeper connections between stress and our skin. Research suggests that the skin not only reacts to stress but also plays an active role in our bodies’ stress response through many mechanisms, including the ‘Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis.3
The HPA axis is a powerful stress response mechanism in the human body. This hormone system is responsible for initiating our “fight or flight” responses to stress and danger. When stress is experienced or danger confronted, the hypothalamus, a region in our brain, releases hormones that initiate a hormone cascade which act upon other organs, such as the adrenal glands, to initiate a stress response. The two most notable of these hormones are cortisol and adrenaline. The end result of HPA axis stimulation or suppression is change in many biological processes that are vital to health and wellbeing, such as digestion, energy level and importantly, the immune system.
The connection between the HPA axis and the immune system, which mediates inflammation in the body, has sparked the curiosity of researchers. One research group studied psychosocial stress in young and adult patients with eczema, or atopic dermatitis, and other atopic diseases.2 The researchers assessed the relationship these inflammatory conditions have with the HPA axis.2 The researchers in this study found that those with the atopic disease had reduced responsiveness to the HPA axis, meaning they showed a blunted response to cortisol.2 This finding made the researchers question whether or not this reduction of the HPA axis plays a role in the stress-induced worsening of eczema and other atopic diseases.
Can Mindfulness Practices Reduce Inflammation?
Researchers in the psychology and mental health fields have been studying mindfulness practices and their potential health benefits for some time. In recent decades, neuroscientists have taken to recognizing the effects mindfulness practices have on our brains and the signals they produce. Now, dermatologists and other practitioners recognize the vast benefits mindfulness practices may have in patient health and wellness. Here we explore two different mindfulness practices, meditation and yoga, and the research supporting their use in restoring skin health.
The practice of meditation has a long history in many cultures and religions around the world. As a broad term, meditation is a practice of mindfulness where an individual trains the mind through focused attention which sets one into a particular mode of consciousness. Many varieties and practices of meditation techniques exist. Researchers are now investigating whether or not meditation can reduce the severity of inflammatory diseases.
In a small trial, researchers compared 31 adult life-long meditators with an age and sex-matched control group and measured inflammatory responses and psychological health markers.1 The researchers artificially induced psychological stress via a stress test and inflammation via a capsaicin topical cream applied to participants’ forearms.1
The results showed that meditators actually produced lower levels of measured salivary cortisol, a hormone related to stress, and scored lower on perceived stress compared to the control group.1 In addition, meditators produced smaller reactions to the topical cream compared to their matched controls. They also showed increased levels of wellbeing and resilience.1 The researchers concluded that long-term meditation may reduce stress reactivity and thus could be therapeutically beneficial in chronic inflammatory conditions.1
Another technique of mindfulness is yoga, an ancient practice originating in India. Yoga itself includes a variety of styles. Each yoga type follows the same basic principle of a steady breathing pattern, inhaling and exhaling deeply through the nose. This mindfulness practice incorporates many active physical poses that increase strength, flexibility, and balance. Scientists have become interested in assessing whether yoga may provide benefit to inflammatory disease.
In a small randomized trial, researchers compared participants engaging in yogic breathing exercises with controls who read for the same amount of time and measured salivary inflammatory signal molecules (cytokines).4 Three of the ten measured cytokines were significantly reduced in the yogic breathing group compared to the control group.4 This study is the first of its kind to measure salivary cytokines after yoga practices and indicate that mindfulness practices like yoga play a role in reducing overall inflammation.
Reducing stress and increasing awareness have widespread benefits for our bodies and minds. Some research studies suggest that mindfulness practices, including meditation and yoga, can reduce inflammation in our bodies and reduce our levels of stress.1,2,4 These findings may support their use to augment therapeutic regimens for chronic inflammatory conditions, particularly those of the skin. Traditional mindfulness practices have been cultivated and fine-tuned over thousands of years. As a therapy that both improves health outcomes and stands the test of time, it’s no wonder that practitioner interest has piqued for mindfulness practices.