Skin Conditions May Not Be Skin Deep: The Neuroscience of Skin Health

Millions of people suffer globally from skin afflictions, treating them with ointments and immune suppressants – but what if skin health is just a reflection of our mental well-being?

Neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre has made intriguing discoveries that shed some light on this topic.

Claudia Aguirre - TEDx - The Hidden Brain in your Skin

The Evolution of the Brain from Skin
There is numerous evidence to suggest that there is a brain inside our skins, as pointed out by Aguirre.

Perhaps our skins are in fact our original brains?

When a fetus is forming in utero, the first layer to form is the skin, and from there on out, all other organs develop. The very next organ to develop is the brain!

Not surprisingly, the central nervous system and our stress response, which is present in our brains, is also in the skin. Scientists are now theorizing that this first developed in the skin, as a response to pathogens or outside threats.

Regarding this information, it is also intriguing to note that the first part of the brain to grow from this skin layer is the Brainstem.

The Brainstem is closely related to our automatic responses, such as breathing, our heartbeat and blinking. However, it is also involved in our central and autonomic nervous system stress reactions, which tie into our skin’s stress responses too. This also puts a new spin on the idea of “breathing through the skin”!

Interestingly, our sense of hearing also developed out of our sense of touch.

Towards the end of the presentation, Aguirre mentions how the skin alerts us to extrasensory information such as sensing Infra-red or being able to tell the time before our actual brains can.

It seems that our skin plays a larger role in our mental health than we realized. Let’s take a deeper look at how both these organs affect on another in a bit more depth.

Sensitive Touch and Emotional Cognition
Upon being born into the world, we seek out a mother’s touch.

This touch is vital for infants, helping them to develop and make the beginning neural connections essential for development.

It has repeatedly been shown that infants who are neglected, missing out on this sense of touch, are far more likely to develop cognitive and emotional disorders, such as Reactive Attachment Disorder.

The neurons associated with this gentle mother’s touch appear to stimulate certain portions of the brain, namely:

  • Posterior Insular Cortex – Relatively little is known about this area of the brain, other than it is involved in sensory processing and energy homeostasis (balance). According to Aguirre, this part of the brain relays information to the emotional centers of the brain, letting us know how touch affected us emotionally. This is why touch is crucial to establish a sense of connection between lovers or to strengthen the bond between mother and child.
  • Angular Gyrus – This area of the brain plays roles in comprehension, reading, number processing, retrieval of memories, spatial cognition, attention span, reasoning and social cognition[1]The Angular Gyrus. Aguirre points out that this part of the brain is connected to how we view ourselves concerning others (social cognition). Therefore, soft touches influence a large portion of our perception and interaction with the world.

When we understand just how many of the brain’s processes are affected by touch, it becomes clear why touch is so important for children as well as ourselves in everyday life.

If at any point along the line this sensitive touch was deprived from us or we experience physical damage to our skins, there is a good chance that it will directly interfere with our mental health, emotions, and cognition – according to this line of logic.

The Skin, the Brain and Stress
In fact, emotions and stress (largely perceived in the mind) do play a role in the severity of skin diseases as well as mental health disorders.

Upon becoming majorly stressed, the body ultimately releases inflammation as a part of the immune system response. In the context of chronic diseases of both the skin and brain, heightened levels of inflammation worsen their progression.

Many with dermatitis or Psoriasis have breakouts when they get stressed.

This may have something to do with sensitive touch in the skin and our emotional responses related to our skins in general.

Often having a breakout results in a stress of its own, as there are a lot of stigmas attached to how we look within society. The social embarrassment of having a skin affliction tends to exacerbate the stress in these patients, making the condition even worse or resulting in depression.

Hyperactive stress hormones ultimately produce neuroinflammation in the Hippocampus, shrink the brain and prevent neurogenesis, which will correlate with both physical depression and neurodegenerative disorders.

Not surprisingly, those with mental health disorders also often have skin diseases related to high levels of stress in their systems.

Furthermore, the brain imprints events and situations that are majorly stressful.

The mind takes these imprints of stress and compounds them in our subconscious minds, making it appear stronger each time to ensure we avoid the stressor.

This means that every time you encounter something that stresses you out, in the same way, you are placed at the mercy of your subconscious mind and will likely feel even more stress than before.

For skin patients, this can result in worse breakouts until medicines start to become ineffective.

So the next time you have a breakout on your skin, it might be useful to take a look at the contents of your mind, as well as how you feel, to get to the cause!

How to Work with the Mind for Skin Disease Relief
To heal from any chronic condition, it is important to work with your mind to lower your stress levels and stop engaging with these imprints that no longer serve you beneficially.
1. Keep A Diary
It was shown that keeping a journal to discharge emotional stress actually helps to calm people down.

Students perform 10% better on average if they write down their emotions before entering an exam environment.

Keeping a journal will not only help you to alleviate stress at any given moment, but it will help you to keep track of your subconscious mind. Through time you will be able to notice a pattern between the situations that stress you out and can start to work with your subconscious mind.

You can use this technique to alter your perception and remain calm through situations that would otherwise cause stress.
2. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation is another way that we can tap into our subconscious minds and prevent stress from having as strong a hold over us.

This ancient technique trains our attention and focus, allowing us to decide where our minds place emphasis or not.

This helps us also to pinpoint what goes on in our awareness at any given moment and allows us eventually to intervene with our pre-conditioned stress responses.

Enhance your focus, reduce stress, and get a grip on how you perceive the world through learning how to meditate!
3. Reduce Bodily Inflammation
Naturally, perception and how much stress we carry with us is only one part of the equation.

Through a healthy diet, you can severely lower bodily inflammation and contribute to remaining calm on a physical level. Herbal teas and antioxidant-rich foods are the best ways to achieve just that!

Green Tea contains a wealth of anti-inflammatory compounds that are well known to enhance cognition as well as provide relief for those with skin lesions. You can drink it or apply it topically to a rash to help reduce inflammation.

The anti-inflammatory powers of turmeric can’t be denied. This powerful spice has been used in a many different systems of medicine (such as Ayurveda) to help with just about every chronic lifestyle disease.

Both Vitamin D3 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids (from fish) are essential for reducing bodily inflammation and restoring balance to an overactive immune system.

Green vegetables contain an especially high level of antioxidants. By adding this green powder into smoothies or raw food every day, you can start to boost your health.
4. Invest in Gentle Massage Therapies
Now that we have established a skin-brain health connection, gentle massage can greatly help those with both skin and mental disorders by alleviating stress!

A soft sense of touch will improve cognitive function, as well as alleviate stress on a physical and emotional level. If you have a partner, this could also be an excellent opportunity to bridge any gaps and form a deeper bond.

Combine these very soothing essential oils with a gentle massage and you will have an even more potent anti-stress solution!

Make sure you use a good quality carrier oil to dilute the above oils as alone they are too strong for the skin.

Olive oil is an excellent carrier oil with soothing properties for the skin, and has been shown to help prevent symptoms of numerous skin conditions.


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