Life Extension Magazine April 2011
How Chronic Insomnia Destroys Skin Health
By Robert Haas, MS
Most of us have witnessed the adverse cosmetic impact on the face caused by just one night of sleep deprivation.
A person may look a decade older in response to stress-induced changes in facial tissues that often accompany insomnia.
Few people are aware, however, that chronic insomnia inflicts significant damage to skin tissues that range from premature aging1,2 to disorders like eczema, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis.3-6
As you will read, there are natural approaches that can help you get a full night’s sleep and enjoy refreshed, healthy-looking skin.
To maintain healthy, youthful-looking skin, most experts recommend you get at least 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep each night. In today’s hectic, stressed-out world, that’s difficult for most people to do, with a heavy toll taken on skin health and overall health as a result.
Numerous studies have established that stress-induced sleep debt (insomnia) can dramatically impair skin function and integrity.7-11 In addition to inducing such inflammatory skin conditions as eczema and psoriasis,3,6,12 sleep deprivation can exacerbate both allergic and irritant contact dermatitis.4,5
Regrettably, many victims of these sleep debt–related health conditions don’t take the right action to treat them because they (and their doctors) don’t recognize the real source of their problem.
Poor sleep quality often accompanies normal aging. Fortunately, scientists have identified some of the underlying mechanisms that interfere with healthy sleep patterns as humans mature.
For instance, insufficient or poor-quality sleep has been associated with elevated stress-hormone (cortisol) levels13,14 and increased mortality from all causes.15-18
A decline in the body’s melatonin production is a well known underlying factor for sleep problems in older adults. This is often accompanied by other health conditions.19
Collagen, one of the skin’s primary components, plays a key role in its structure and integrity—and healthy elasticity and youthful appearance. Sleep deficit can affect the optimal process of the skin’s collagen formation.
A crucial function of the skin is to maintain a barrier that prevents excessive water loss and blocks entry of toxic foreign substances. The cascade of events that occurs during the process of collagen formation is highly dependent on immune synchronization that is initiated during restful nights of sleep.11,20-22
Insidious Link Between Sleep Debt and Skin Aging
Numerous studies have established that stress-induced insomnia can dramatically impair skin function and precipitate numerous skin disorders.7-11 Sleep researchers have found that animals subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation develop ulcerous lesions on their legs and suffer increased risk of bacterial invasion through the skin owing to a breakdown in skin membrane integrity.23-27
In humans, sleep debt and stress have been definitively linked to skin disorders—so much so that an entire sub-specialty of dermatology has developed over the past two decades called psychodermatology. It emerged after an abundance of published studies revealed that many skin conditions respond well to antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, in addition to traditional dermatologic interventions.28-30
Scientists attribute the link between chronic insomnia and skin disorders to the immunomodulatory or immune-altering effects induced by the release of excess glucocorticoids triggered by sleep debt and stress. As the name suggests, this class of hormones regulates the metabolism of glucose. Every cell in the human body possesses receptors for glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids also happen to play a central role in immune function. (Cortisol is the most important of the glucocorticoids.)
Excess glucocorticoid production has been shown to negatively affect nearly every tissue in the body and accelerate the aging process.31
In terms of skin health, the sequence of events involved in the formation of collagen is highly dependent on the immune-balancing processes initiated during restful nights of sleep.7,20-22 As the major structural component of your skin (and other bodily tissues), collagen protects against UV damage and bacterial infection, maintains your skin’s elasticity, seals in moisture, and preserves its youthful, healthy appearance.
This nighttime balancing process is disrupted in the presence of excess glucocorticoids (cortisol in particular). Sleeplessness ultimately has a cumulative immunosuppressant effect. Of particular significance for skin health are reduced levels of interleukin-1 (IL-1) observed in insomnia sufferers. At healthy levels, this protein triggers increased white blood cell production in response to foreign invaders and plays a central role in the production of collagen.7 When levels of IL-1 are too low, collagen formation deteriorates.
This is how chronic insomnia can cause skin disorders related to immune dysfunction. In addition to inducing such inflammatory skin conditions as eczema and psoriasis,3,6,12 sleep deprivation has been shown to exacerbate both allergic and irritant contact dermatitis.4,5
As you learned in the previous article, bioactive milk peptides significantly reduce stress-induced elevations in cortisol and have been demonstrated in human clinical studies to promote sustained and restful sleep patterns. They operate along the same neurological pathways as benzodiazepines without the side effects associated with long-term benzodiazepene use.
Nutrients to Enhance Skin Health While You Sleep
Studies have shown that Indian gooseberry and ashwagandha—medicinal herbs used for thousands of years by Ayurvedic practitioners—promote healthy skin function and appearance.32-35
Indian gooseberry has been shown to exert broad-spectrum antioxidant activity in the skin and to protect the skin from the damaging effects of free radicals.36 For these reasons, Indian gooseberry has been used variously for dermal wound healing,37 skin carcinogenesis protection,38,39 preventing photoaging,40 and in general-purpose skin care products.32
In one study, a proprietary combination containing Indian gooseberry and ashwagandha extracts demonstrated a 54% inhibition of enzymes that break down collagen and an 86% inhibition of those that break down hyaluronic acid, the skin’s natural moisturizer.41 This proprietary combination was shown to prevent free-radical damage to the skin and to rejuvenate skin cells by increasing circulation of oxygen and nutrients through a reduction in stress hormones known to exert destructive effects on the skin.
Ashwagandha has also been shown to protect the skin against the effects of stress, especially in stress-related health conditions. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 98 chronically stressed adults were assigned to receive a patented standardized extract of ashwagandha for 60 days. Study participants received either 125 mg once or twice a day, 250 mg twice a day, or a placebo.42
All groups taking ashwagandha saw significant reductions in their stress and anxiety levels and blood pressure. The group receiving 125 mg once a day had a 62% reduction in anxiety compared to those taking the placebo, with anxiety scores declining even further in the group taking 250 mg twice daily. The group receiving the daily dose of 125 mg showed a 14.5% reduction in cortisol levels and a 13.2% increase in DHEA, with the group taking 250 mg twice a day reporting significantly greater benefits.42
All treatment groups taking ashwagandha experienced a decline in blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation in the body. The study’s authors concluded that the “Daily use of Withania somnifera [ashwagandha] would benefit people suffering from the effects of stress and anxiety without any adverse effects.”42
The Sleep Hormone
Melatonin is the primary sleep hormone produced nocturnally by the pineal gland in a process driven by a “biological clock” located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus.43 Melatonin promotes sleep in humans44,45 by acting as an endogenous regulator of the sleep-wake cycle.46,47
The body’s own melatonin levels decrease with age, presumably due to a decline in circadian rhythmic functions or to a gradual decline in function of the pineal gland.48-51 It is widely accepted that internally produced melatonin promotes sleep and stabilizes the human sleep-wake cycle. Thus, a decline in melatonin levels due to aging may contribute to the common complaint of poor sleep quality seen in the elderly.52 This suggests the possibility of improving sleep in aging people suffering from insomnia by appropriately timed treatment with melatonin.
Controlled-release melatonin, a formulation that releases melatonin gradually in the gastrointestinal tract following oral administration, has proven effective for the short-term treatment of adults aged 55 years and older who suffer from primary insomnia.53-57 It is considered effective enough that controlled-release melatonin has been licensed since June 2007 in Europe and in other countries for the short-term treatment of primary insomnia.58
Over 30% of Americans suffer from chronic insomnia, while approximately 60 million experience problems falling asleep in a given year. Few people understand the profoundly negative effect of chronic insomnia on skin health.
Scientists have uncovered how excess cortisol and certain immune-signaling imbalances can negatively impact both sleep and skin health. By attacking these underlying factors, bioactive milk peptides and other nutrients may protect against various skin disorders, preserve youthful skin appearance, and facilitate more refreshing sleep patterns.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Health Advisor at
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