The Brain in Our Skin
Dr. Claudia Aguirre which has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from USC and travels the world lecturing on a broad range of topics from neuroscience to skin care has been researching the power of the skin and its connection with the brain.
The skin is highly innervated and intricately connected to the brain and central nervous system, just as other sensory organs are. Dr. Claudia Aguirre is discovering that the skin has a lot of neuro potential, or neuroplasticity, that has gone unrecognized. For example, just as our eyes have receptors that transduce light photons into signals to the brain that we process as vision, we’re discovering that our skin also has light receptors. Although we don’t yet know how they work, we speculate that they might be signaling the brain to make systemic changes that affect the full nervous system. Similarly, olfactory receptors in the hair follicles, just as we do in the nose.
Another example is touch, for which our skin is the primary sense organ. Skin is also our largest organ, which gives us a clue as to how important touch is. Different receptors in the skin can tell us not only whether what we touch is hot or cold, rough or smooth. Skin can even sense the intention behind the touch. A gentle touch feels much different than an aggressive one. We can tell whether the person giving us a massage is paying attention or whether they’re distracted. Moreover, different kinds of touch elicit different biochemical and hormonal responses, which have systemic results. A hug or kiss stimulates the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, through the bloodstream, while a punch or shove will release adrenaline and cortisol. All of these capabilities are what we say by the hidden brain in the skin.
The skin is connected to the nervous system; it’s connected to the endocrine system. The skin is impacted by our emotional states and, conversely, our skin can impact how we feel about ourselves. Cultural stress and anxiety can trigger or aggravate many skin conditions—from acne to eczema to herpes, psoriasis, and rosacea. Conversely, a disfiguring skin condition can trigger stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Chronic, generalized anxiety can create chronic inflammation and exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions, such as the ones mentioned previously. Chronic stress can result in chronic anxiety, hypervigilance, poor sleep, and a whole cascade of effects resulting in a constant breakdown of tissues and organs, including the skin. There’s a whole new field of medicine being developed called psychodermatology, which is the study and treatment of the psychological component of skin conditions. Better understanding of the neuropotential of skin also opens the possibility of whole new avenues of treatment with light therapy for many of our chronic conditions.
In Kaiyan Medical we have understood that neuroscience should absolutely be part of the conversation about skincare and beauty because the brain and the skin are intimately connected. Skincare is important not only for the skin, but also the brain. That's why we keep developing light therapy devices for skin and brain. In Kaiyan we always recommend to listen for all the little signs that your skin tells you that you tend to ignore. You get a rash, and you brush it off: “Maybe it’s just dry out. Maybe I need to switch creams.” But if it occurs repeatedly, you need to look more closely and ask, “What could my skin be trying to tell me?” Are you repressing emotions? Is there a relationship issue you’re avoiding? Is there some other life circumstance that’s “gotten under your skin”? The body has a wisdom we should listen to.