SKINCARE: HEALING ON THE INSIDE
SKIN/ILLNESS, THE EARLY YEARS.
For as long as I can remember, I've always had dry, sensitive skin. And, while topical products have helped over the years, both dryness and sensitivity are often due to internal imbalances, such as nutrient deficiencies (or lack of nutrient absorption), digestive issues, and immune dysfunction.
When, in my early teens, I experienced severe rash-like lesions all over my entire body, I knew there was something internally imbalanced. But no one really knew what. I went back and forth, meeting with different doctors for nearly two years, undergoing blood test after blood test. Eventually, my test results came back positive for lupus or SLE (systemic lupus erythmatosis), an autoimmune disorder where the immune system becomes overworked, resulting in hyperactivity and attacking healthy tissues, organs, and systems in the body. I was 13 when my body first showed signs of attacking itself. There was an imbalance, a disconnect.
To combat my symptoms of skin rashes and joint pain (inflammation all around), doctors prescribed steroids, ones that were so strong, I had to visit an eye specialist every few months to make sure I wasn't losing my eyesight — a side effect of using these drugs. Instead of providing education about how I might be able to change my diet and lifestyle to address my symptoms, I was given a temporary (and damaging) solution. After a few years of taking the medication, I grew tired of this treatment, and took it upon myself to find other, more holistic remedies.
The journey has been a long one. In my late teens, I took my first steps towards holistic wellness, but even so, the changes have been incredibly gradual. Today, I'm able to manage my lupus virtually symptom-free thanks to the changes I've made through diet and lifestyle.
ACNE, A MESSAGE FROM THE INSIDE.
When it came to skin health during my adolescent years, I experienced minimal breakouts — a pimple or two around the same time of the month, every month. Otherwise, I never really considered having "skin issues." It wasn't until my mid-20's, following a horrible breakup, when I first encountered acne. But, it was more than that. It was heat and inflammation built up inside of me, looking to escape through whatever passageway was available. It was toxic residue and rotten energy needing to find a way out. In this case, via the skin. I was developing cystic acne, rooted in deep hormonal imbalances, not-so-coincidentally brought about at the very time that I was under a great deal of emotional stress.
I would have liked to share pictures of what my skin looked like then, but it was rare for me to have my photo taken at that time.
SKIN HAS FEELINGS TOO, YOU KNOW.
While I choose to maintain the privacy for why the breakup occurred, both of us were very hurt in the end and it caused a lot of emotional trauma. Following this breakup, both my physical and mental health stooped to an all-time low. In the first few months, I lost a dramatic amount of weight in a short period of time, then I regained everything and more. I was anxious and depressed. I broke out in a rash covering my torso, arms, and upper legs — a rash that was extremely inflamed, red, and hot to the touch. Acne showed up all along my jawline, and what would later cover parts of my cheeks and even move up towards my forehead.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acne and breakouts located on the jawline and lower cheeks is related to feelings of grief and physical issues of the immune and respiratory systems, as well as hormonal imbalances.
To cope, I barely left my apartment. I had my few closest friends come visit me. I couldn't stand to look at myself in the mirror. I was unable to, for months, when my skin was at its worst, look anyone in the eye. I felt so ashamed of the way I looked and I felt incredibly unwell.
Emotionally, I began to harbour feelings of resentment towards myself. I blamed myself for much of my circumstances, and dangerously entered a downward spiral of lack: a lack of self-worth and self-esteem.
With my health at its worst, I tried a variety of approaches to heal myself. I ate a healthy, well-balanced diet, particularly high in healthy fats (because those are important for building hormones and skin healing, right?). I sought the help of a naturopathic doctor, who blended custom topical ointments for me to apply each night. I changed my pillow case frequently. I kept my hair pulled back. I became so attentive to every small thing I was coming into contact with and how it might be contributing to my acne. I was convinced that I had become allergic or sensitive to any and all personal care products I was using. I did a massive overhaul of all my products — tossed everything out and switched to more natural, non-toxic alternatives. I drank litres of water and parsley tea, to help flush the kidneys and help remove toxins from the body. To help clear my acne topically, I transitioned to oil cleansing, trying both jojoba and hemp seed, the oils closest to our skin's natural sebum production and therefore the most user-friendly for all skin types.
With everything in my life seemingly spiralling out of control, I was trying to take back my control through these approaches — only to experience little to no improvement.
I still felt horrible on the inside, and my skin showed this. Because on the inside, I was screaming. I was holding on for dear life. I was grieving, and there remained so much hurt, anger, and sadness inside of me. I was sick, and the acne that persisted was my body's way of communicating that something wasn't right. I knew I had to heal what I had been avoiding: my thoughts, my emotions, the stuff that so many of us have been raised to ignore and dismiss.
MAKING THE DECISION TO HEAL.
And then, I made a choice. I made the choice that I was better than who I was presenting to myself, and that I needed to share this with others. I remember the moment so clearly, when I made this decision. I told myself: "it's what's on the inside that matters" and then proceeded to make a list of everything I was grateful for (as hokey or cliche as this is, it worked). This exercise evolved into a daily meditation practice. Every morning upon rising, I coached myself. I set an intention for the day and sat with myself in silence. Except it wasn't silent at all — my mind was noisy. I slowly learned how to navigate the noise (ps. still learning).
I still spent a lot of time in my apartment alone, but instead of self-sabotaging my wellness with mindless eating or negative thoughts, I became proactive in acknowledging, understanding and moving through my emotional journey. This involved asking myself difficult questions, getting to really know myself outside of a relationship (very specific to me at this time, but I know a lot of you could probably relate), and later, working with a therapist to help me move through some of the more difficult thoughts or emotions with the help of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) practices.
Instead of trying to control my circumstances, I surrendered and learned self-acceptance.
When I integrated daily meditation practice, personal reflection, and journaling into my routine, the acne began to clear. Surely this makes sense: meditation having a positive affect on my brain, calming the nervous system, thereby supporting the digestive system, increasing nutrient absorption, addressing nutrient deficiencies, and nourishing the adrenals to manage and even reduce cortisol levels and balance other hormones in the body. (oof)
EMOTIONS AFFECT YOUR DIGESTION ET AL.
Yes, your emotions 100% affect your digestion. Try eating when you're stressed or anxious, you'll see what I mean. The gut is home to the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is made up of millions of nerve cells connected to the spinal cord, and therefore the brain. These nerve cells line the gastrointestinal tract, helping the GI tract digest food. It is believed that the GI tract sends messages to the brain and vice versa. When under stress, our bodies respond with the "fight or flight" system, which relates to cortisol and is controlled by HPA or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. When faced with acute stress, say you fall of your bike or you're nervous about giving a speech, the body responds by releasing cortisol and might experience some physical symptoms like a speedy heartbeat or sweaty palms. In these acute experiences, the stress dissipates — ultimately, your body is responding in a way to defend and protect you. However, if you're in a constant state of stress (easy if you live in a busy city or you have a demanding job or home life, etc), the body responds in the same way. Except this prolonged or chronic stress can cause inflammation in the body, often targeting the gut and microbiome, wiping out beneficial bacteria, which plays an important role in regulating the immune system.
Our skin is a part of our outward presentation to the world. It's also a picture of what's going on inside of us. For these reasons, skin health can be extremely personal.
Acne is there to tell us that something is imbalanced within the body, physical and/or emotional. While I visited practitioners and tried numerous different approaches, in the end, my body knew best. Intuitively, I knew I had to deal with the emotional aspect of my health before the physical would improve. And today, I always address the emotional aspect in conjunction with the physical. I'm a big believer that inflammation in the body is stuck energy or an emotion that needs expressing.
No, you don't have to take up meditating. But I do encourage you to look at what emotions might be tied to what ails you physically. In the meantime, here are other ways to help your emotional journey in skin health (and overall wellness).
Eat a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet, but.
But know that if you're experiencing a lot of stress or dealing with other health concerns that could be affecting your digestion and/or hormones, not all nutritious foods will agree with you. When my skin was at its worst, I ate a lot of healthy fats, because these can be really beneficial for building hormones and nourishing the skin. Only later on, I found out that I wasn't digesting the fats because my digestive system had been compromised with all of the stress. If you're experiencing health concerns and are unsure about your dietary choices, seek guidance from a holistic nutritionist or another healthcare practitioner
Yes, do switch to non-toxic products just because.
It's better for you, anyway; what you put on your skin is absorbed into your bloodstream and can affect organs and systems in the body. I love this NY Times article about the different chemicals in conventional products that we are exposed to every day. I'll be sharing more about the skincare products I use in a follow-up post.
Water: typical, I know.
I still need to remind myself of this one, as some days, I actually struggle to drink enough water! Though I can usually tell I'm dehydrated first based on my mood and energy levels, dehydration is always quick to show in my complexion. Dull, tired skin? Drink more water, eat more colourful veggies.
Get really good, deep sleep zzzz.
There are so many health benefits to getting a good night's rest. Sleep is important for our bodies to repair and replenish (and balance hormones, which can be imperative for those with acne), but this can only be done if we achieve a certain level of rest. Managing stress throughout the day and implementing both morning and nighttime routines can be extremely useful for adequate rest. I encourage all of my clients to create a sound nighttime routine that suits their lives, to help them wind down in the evening and nurture good sleep habits.
Without sounding like a broken record, do the emotional work.
This will look different for everyone. Like a lot of people, I struggle to quiet my mind and to meditate in the more traditional sense. However, having some time to myself each day to reflect on what I'm feeling (day to day, but also on a grander scale) is crucial to my overall health. We get sick when we're emotionally unwell. So, whether you choose to meditate or spend time mindfully focused on a favourite project (maybe that's something creative like drawing or writing), I urge you to find something that allows you to tune into your emotions. When you're moving through the darkness, know that help is here to guide you.
LESSONS LEARNED: WHAT ACNE IS NOT.
My experience with acne taught me a lot. It taught me to listen to my body speak and respond to its messages. It taught me that health shows up for each person in different ways. Acne was my body's way of communicating that there was an imbalance within. In some cases, however, acne is also an indicator of a herxheimer reaction or die-off reaction, which can occur when herbal antimicrobials are used to addressed an infection. The body will naturally start to detox and this can manifest as acne (the storm before the calm). But, perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my time with acne, is that it doesn't define who we are. It's simply a messenger.
Our skin tells a story, and every part of that story is beautiful. It's frustrating, I know. Having lived with acne, it was difficult to not let this manifestation take ownership of who I was on a deeper level. We're bombarded everyday by flawless visuals of skin, of "what beauty should look like." Through ads and the media, we're told that our imperfections aren't acceptable and that we need to correct them with invasive, and sometimes harmful treatments. Since experiencing acne, and as I get older, my skin really has become a reflection of who I am on the inside: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Acne is not a condition. It is not a disease. It is an indicator, a messenger. It's looking out for you, it's telling you something might need to change, or maybe it's telling you that you're actually on the right path (probably a little bit of both). And, it's with this communication that we can then rise above and use our super powers to combat what's going on inside.
Overall, it took me a good three years of hard work and dedication before my skin eventually rebalanced and healed. And, that's not to say I haven't dealt with skin issues since. As I've mentioned before, I also experience eczema on occasion, particularly when I'm stressed and likely due to an imbalance in the gut and when my immune system is being compromised. But, as awful as it was to live with acne (or eczema or other skin concerns), I'm grateful for what it has taught me.
I understand that both physical and mental ailments can affect us in different ways. If you're dealing with skin issues or other health concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out. As a holistic nutritionist, I work to create space and offer guidance, so that you can get quiet with your mind, get reacquainted with your body, and learn to heal yourself from within.