I used to try all kinds of diets to ease my cyclical acne
Back when I worked in the film industry as a lighting technician on TV shows like Boardwalk Empire, Orange is the New Black and White Collar (Photo below is of me on the OITNB set on Halloween). I had chronic digestive issues and cyclical breakouts. Mainly due to the fact that my hours were so irregular and stressful, which always threw off my eating schedule. When I did finally take a minute to eat, it was rushed and often standing. I ate healthy, but I’d take big bites just to finish faster and get back to work. My body was not having it and my skin was really starting to make me feel self-conscious.
Fun on the set of Orange Is The New Black
So I took action with many different elimination diets. I cut gluten for several months because I thought that my digestive issues (and ultimately my skin issues) could be caused by a gluten intolerance. I’ve seen it work for many others, but for me, it made no lasting difference. It actually made me crave carbs even more because I loooove bread. Same with going dairy-free. The difference was minimal for the number of yummy foods I was eliminating. I also did Whole 30 to detox and hopefully heal my cyclical acne. It was great for training my palate to not crave sugar but no huge improvement for my skin. On each of these diets, I’d see maybe a week or two of progress, but nothing seemed to make a lasting difference. What was going on?
Then I learned about the connection between stress, eating, and acne
Eating pizza while working on set
During my aromatherapy certification at Aromahead Institute, I learned the science behind what I was experiencing first hand. WELL. Did you know that our nervous system, specifically our autonomic nervous system, has two main nerve pathways? One is called the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for homeostasis in the body. The other is our sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s response to threats. “In a nutshell, the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic system (SNS) is in charge of running our body,” explains Dr. Caron, a family physician who also happens to be my dad! “They work in opposite direction. For example, the sympathetic system will increase your heart rate during exercise and the parasympathetic will slow it down after.” These very powerful systems have influence over a less-known part of the autonomic nervous system called the enteric nervous system.
Sometimes referred to as a “second brain” the enteric nervous system governs the digestive system, beginning at the esophagus and ending at the anus. “After sensing that food has entered the gut, neurons lining the digestive tract signal muscle cells to initiate a series of intestinal contractions that propel the food farther along, breaking it down into nutrients and waste,” explain experts at Harvard Medical. It also communicates with the other nervous systems through a series of hormones. This is where the term “brain-gut axis” originated because it’s clear that psychological or social stress can impact digestion. “When a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, for example, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can divert all its internal energy to facing a perceived threat,” explain experts at Harvard Medical.
So, what does this all mean? If you are rushing or anxious about work while eating, your body is in sympathetic “mode,” or fight or flight. Meaning stress can impact the enteric nervous system by restraining “non-essential functions,” like digestion. So no matter how healthy your diet may be, if you are constantly eating while your body is in sympathetic mode (aka while stressed), it could cause skin issues. Poor digestion can lead to indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, poor nutrient absorption, and over time, acne or eczema.
Now my acne is under control and I enjoy my food so much more
Enjoying the best company
Looking back, I didn't realize when I started a new elimination diet, like going gluten-free, it forced me to slow down and really pay attention to what and how I was eating. During the work week, I really paid attention to what I was eating or brought in the food I cooked for myself the night before. Also, because I was trying so many elimination diets (aka restricting myself), I would REALLY savor the food that I did eat! I chewed it slowly, with purpose, and shut out the stress of the day. Problem is, once I got used to a new way of eating, it became routine. So I stopped slowing down to consider my food and to savor it, and the symptoms would reemerge.
The progress I saw from changing my diet was not from the diet itself, it was because I inadvertently went from eating in a state of stress and slow-digestion to enjoying my food with a fully-functioning digestive system. Today, my skin is clear thanks to this simple eating habit and as well as eating clean, regular exercise and my natural skincare routine. If I rush for one or two meals, I don’t notice a huge difference. But if I have a stressful week where I don’t mindfully eat, my skin starts to get dry, blotchy, and inflamed.
Here are my favorite tips to lower stress before you eat
Working on the set of Blue Bloods
1. Take a walk or do a breathing exercise before eating
Taking a walk is one of my favorite ways to decompress before eating. It really helps reduce any tension in my body and lets my mind work out any stressful thoughts I might be having. IF taking a walk before a meal is not realistic, doing a few breathing exercises, with the intention to shut off the day’s stress, will help my body and mind find calm before my meal. It can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths through your nose to slow down when you close your laptop or clean up your workspace before heading the lunch.
2. Take a proper eating break
So many of us eat at our desk or while working. This keeps us in that stressful mindset instead of being in the moment. A proper break also includes sitting down somewhere that is not your desk/workspace (no driving/walking and eating), putting your phone down, and closing your current read. Try to sit outside or next to a window.
3. SAVOR your food
I love food. So this one is easy and fun for me. With each bite, I close my eyes and think about every flavor I can taste in my mouth. You will be amazed by how much more you enjoy your food when you pay attention to what you are eating. How does it smell, look, and taste?
4. Enjoy your meal in good company
Food is meant to be shared! Enjoying a good meal in the company of people that make you laugh and can help you take your mind off work or other stressors can really help! If you are having lunch with coworkers and work is a source of stress, try to implement a no work talk and phone rule during lunch breaks.