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Consoling Stressed Skin

By: Rebecca James Gadberry
Posted: June 29, 2009, from the July 2009 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
woman with painful neck

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As proof grows to include massage in an effective stress-reduction routine, some psychologists and psychotherapists are adding massage therapists to their office staffs. Dermatologists, plastic surgeons and others may not be far behind. New evidence from scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, showed that mice under stress developed skin cancers in less than half the time of nonstressed mice when both were exposed to UV light.5 Other researchers have shown the time it takes wounds to heal can be prolonged in people who experience even short-term stress, such as a job interview or an argument with their spouse.6

Oddly, besides massage, humming a little tune can also speed up wound-repair. It turns out humming through the nose elevates nitric oxide in the blood, delivering a stress-reducing effect. Levels of the gas also climb in skin tissues and cells, promoting wound-healing by stimulating collagen production and dilating blood vessels to enhance oxygenation and centralize immune cells vital for repair to damaged tissues.2

Stress and essential oils

The stress-reduction response can be strengthened with essential oils of chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), lavender (Lavender officinalis), lavandin (Lavandula hybrida), geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) and ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata). In scientific tests conducted in Japan, the United States, Britain, France and several other countries, all have been found to physically reduce symptoms of stress, most likely due to their effects on the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems that underscore the stress response.7 Interestingly, depending upon whether a person is jumpy or overtired, lavender stimulates the appropriate tract of the nervous system, calming nerves or making more alert. Lavender’s dual nature is probably why it’s the most well-known and well-loved of the stress-relieving essential oils. Almost everyone responds positively to lavender oil.

Peppermint—often used to energize those who are so stressed they’re exhausted—is believed to work by stimulating the trigeminal nerve near the eyes, nose, mouth and along the lower half of the face. Brain waves intensify, sharpening the mind and quickening reaction time. In short, peppermint wakes you up, making you alert and able to think more clearly.

Other scents have also been shown by psychologists or medical researchers to relieve stress. In one Yale study, students who were conditioned to relax when they smelled a particular fragrance were asked to take a test. During one part of the test, they were exposed to the fragrance. Just smelling it reduced their blood pressure by three to five points.8 The same concept is at work when vanillalike heliotropin is used to relax MRI patients, while shoppers tend to buy more when exposed to scents in the chocolate family, which induce relaxation by calming the trigeminal nerve in the face.9 Bergamot, chamomile and rose essential oils have all been linked to endorphin release, the happiness hormone that’s also known as “natural morphine” because it attaches to brain, skin and other cells in the same place as morphine, inducing a similar effect. Running and eating chocolate also stimulate endorphins, which may be the root of exercise addiction and chocolate cravings.