Stress can make people nervous, get ulcers, and even die young. If that weren't enough, new research suggests it might contribute to bad skin and play a role in hair loss. Scientists have found that the body's major stress hormone triggers skin cells to churn out oily lipids and make testosterone--a key culprit in both baldness and excessive hairiness, depending on where it shows up.
During a stressful event--say a final exam--the brain releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), a master stress hormone that directs the body to pump up the adrenaline, tense muscles, or shiver. But researchers didn't think CRH had any effect on skin. Researchers have long thought the skin's stress responses--such as tanning to prevent sunburn--was triggered by the immune system, which releases chemicals at the first hints of damage.
Dermatologist Christos Zouboulis of the Free University of Berlin, Germany, and colleagues examined the effect of CRH on cultured cells from human sebaceous glands. These glands are found at the base of hairs all over the body except on the palms and soles. They harbor cells called sebocytes that make lipids, oily compounds that coat and protect the skin in low concentrations, but cause oily skin and acne in high concentrations.
Zouboulis's team found that the sebocytes make CRH and have receptors for the hormone on their surfaces. Sebocytes respond to CRH by oozing up to 60% more lipids, the team reports in the 14 May issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. CRH also caused the cells to crank out 50% more of an enzyme that makes testosterone, which has been linked to both male pattern baldness and hirsutism.
Calling the work "a big step forward" in understanding the skin stress response, skin biologist Andrzej Slominski of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, says that stress hormone's production of testosterone and oil in sebocytes might lead to new topical treatments for a variety of skin and hair disorders. Until then, stress management courses come highly recommended.
Free University dermatology department page