Life Extension Magazine®
Couple taking hike for lower cortisol levels and better skin and hair

Elevated Cortisol Ages Skin and Hair

High cortisol levels can lead to hair loss and wrinkled skin. Certain plant extracts can safely lower elevated cortisol.

Scientifically reviewed by: Dr Gary Gonzalez, MD, on July 2021. Written By Marsha McCulloch, RD.

With age, levels of most hormones in our body decline. That’s not true for cortisol.

In several studies, cortisol concentrations have been found to increase after midlife.1,2

Stress also elevates cortisol levels.1,3

Higher cortisol in older adults is linked to increased risk of chronic disease and mortality.1

Chronically elevated cortisol also damages the skin and hair.4,5

Scientists have identified plant extracts that can safely help lower cortisol.6,7

This can provide support for the skin and hair.

In one study, 72% of participants who took a lychee-green tea extract blend had a noticeable decrease in fine lines, and reported improvements in hair growth and thickness.8

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate numerous bodily functions, including the stress response. It’s sometimes called a “stress hormone.”3

Blood levels of cortisol normally ebb and flow. They typically peak in early morning, then gradually decline to their lowest level around midnight.9

But chronic stress disrupts this daily rhythm.10

In addition, many studies show that average cortisol levels gradually increase in older adults as they age.1,2

Increased cortisol is associated with higher blood glucose, high blood pressure, weakened immunity, muscle loss, low bone mass, and cognitive decline.1

Chronically elevated cortisol also wreaks havoc on the skin and hair.4,5

Cortisol Production

Example of adrenal glands that produce cortisol

Cortisol is primarily produced by the adrenal glands, which are located atop each kidney.

When the brain perceives stress, it triggers the release of cortisol from these glands.9

Other organs and tissues, including the skin, also secrete cortisol.11,12

The epidermis (outermost skin layer), dermis (inner skin layer), melanocytes (melanin-producing cells), and hair follicles all synthesize the cortisol hormone.11

Both physical and psychological stress can trigger cortisol secretion from the skin.10

Enzymes that control cortisol activity are also found in the skin and hair follicles.11,13

One key enzyme is 11-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-1 (11-beta-HSD1). It converts inactive cortisone to active cortisol.14

Rapid Skin Aging

Woman touching skin concerned with skin's barrier

Higher cortisol levels have been found in aging skin.15

With aging and obesity, the enzyme 11-beta-HSD1 increases.14 This leads to more activation of cortisol in cells.15

In addition, ultraviolet light affects cortisol activity in the skin.9 The sun’s UV rays increase the enzyme 11-beta-HSD1.14 These actions result in increased skin cortisol levels.13

Elevated cortisol contributes to thinning skin, a decreased ability to make new skin cells, and inhibition of collagen synthesis.13,15 This makes it more difficult to heal cuts and sores.4,14

Increased cortisol also promotes inflammation and the production of damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS).16

Higher ROS levels can contribute to an increase in wrinkles, dark coloration under the eyes, and age spots.16

Chronically elevated cortisol also impairs the skin’s barrier function.4

The skin barrier helps keep moisture and nutrients in, while guarding against toxins, pathogens, physical damage, and allergens.17

A disrupted skin barrier can result in dry, flaky skin.9 That may lead to an increased susceptibility to infections and a greater likelihood of becoming sensitized to allergens.9

The Skin Microbiome

Every square centimeter of the body’s skin harbors millions of microbes, primarily bacteria.18

This skin microbiota plays a key role in maintaining barrier function and helps prevent the overgrowth of harmful microbes.18

Cortisol can disrupt the makeup of the skin microbiome,19 leading to disease promotion by harmful skin bacteria.18

For example, cortisol can increase susceptibility to skin infection by group A Streptococcus pyogenes.19 These bacteria can cause cellulitis, a serious infection characterized by swollen, red, and painful skin.20

Cortisol can also worsen the inflammation triggered by Propionibacterium acnes, one of the main types of bacteria that cause acne.18

What you need to know

Plant Extracts Reduce Cortisol for Skin and Hair Health

  • Higher average cortisol concentrations, often due to aging or chronic stress, can have damaging effects on skin and hair.
  • Increased cortisol levels can contribute to signs of skin aging, including wrinkles, thinning skin, age spots, and slower healing of sores.
  • Elevated cortisol can also disrupt the skin barrier and the skin microbiome, contributing to dry skin, acne, skin infections, and eczema.
  • Excessive hair loss, thinning hair, and dry scalp are also linked to higher cortisol levels.
  • In clinical trials, lychee-green tea extracts significantly lower cortisol levels. In one pilot study, taking 100 mg of this blend twice daily reduced fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots.
  • Bark extracts from magnolia and phellodendron trees also significantly lower cortisol levels in clinical trials. This could help promote youthful skin and hair.
  • Combining a lychee-green tea blend with magnolia-phellodendron extracts may help optimize the benefits for hair and skin health.

Unique Lychee Polyphenols

Lychee fruit rich in polyphenols

Lychee is a tropical fruit rich in polyphenols that help reduce cortisol levels.25

To allow better absorption of the polyphenols in lychee, scientists developed a proprietary blend of low-molecular-size extracts from lychee fruit and green tea. This enables the beneficial compounds to be absorbed three to four times more readily than regular lychee polyphenols.26

Damaged Hair

When we think of hair loss, we think of baldness in men. But in midlife, women may also experience significant changes in the texture and growth of their hair, including thinning.21

Both short-term and chronic stress, which trigger increased cortisol secretion, can promote hair loss.5,21

High cortisol levels reduce the synthesis and accelerate the breakdown of hyaluronic acid and proteoglycans in the scalp by about 40%.This deters the normal activity of hair follicles and can lead to hair loss.5

Aging makes this even worse. The synthesis of proteoglycans, which are vital to hair growth, generally decreases as a person ages.5

Research shows that exposing human skin in culture to low cortisol levels stimulated the synthesis of hyaluronic acid and proteoglycans and slowed their breakdown by about 25%.5 That may support hair growth and health.

Lowering Cortisol with Lychee-Green Tea

Woman holding green tea leaves that can be paired with lychee

Human studies of a lychee-green tea extract blend have shown it can reduce cortisol.22

Scientists gave 100 mg of lychee-green tea blend or a placebo once daily to 19 sedentary but healthy young men. After a month, the lychee group had significantly lower blood cortisol levels at rest and after an exercise challenge, compared to the placebo group.22

In another study, 13 healthy young men took 100 mg of lychee-green tea blend half an hour before dipping their legs into hot water (a stressor). Their blood cortisol afterward was significantly lower than in the placebo group.6

The men’s levels of two inflammatory cytokines, IL-1beta and IL-6, were also significantly lower after taking the lychee-green tea blend, compared to placebo. These cytokines increase in response to stress and trigger cortisol release.6

Healthier Skin and Hair

Woman showing off hair with increased thickness

This lychee-green tea blend has been tested directly for skin benefits.

In a pilot study, a group of sedentary men took a lychee-green tea extract blend daily.

After three months:8

  • 72.7% had a decrease in fine lines,
  • 18.2% had a decrease in deep wrinkles, and
  • Participants consistently had a lighter and brighter complexion, including fading of freckles and age spots, as well as less skin redness.

In addition, 54.5% of those taking the blend had decreased blood levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.

Three participants taking the lychee-green tea blend also reported an increase in hair thickness and new hair growth along their hairline.8

Bark Extracts Reduce Cortisol

Extracts from the bark of magnolia and phellodendron trees have been tested for their ability to lower stress and cortisol.

Both tree barks have been used in traditional herbal Chinese medicine since ancient times.7,23,24

In one study, 56 men and women with moderate stress took 250 mg of the combined bark extracts twice daily for a month. They had an 18% reduction in daily salivary cortisol, compared to a placebo group.7

The bark extract group also had an 11% reduction in overall stress and a 13% decrease in tension, based on questionnaires.7

By helping lower cortisol, magnolia-phellodendron bark extracts could support healthy skin and hair. Taking these extracts in combination with a lychee-green tea blend may maximize benefits for skin and hair health.

Summary

Couple outside during a hike reducing cortisol levels

Higher levels of cortisol can contribute to visible signs of aging skin and hair.

Reducing cortisol levels may help deter wrinkles, fine lines, and skin spots, as well as protect the microbial balance of the skin.

Lowering cortisol may also help support a healthy scalp and hair growth, while inhibiting hair loss.

Lychee-green tea and magnolia-phellodendron can help maintain healthy cortisol levels.

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.

References

  1. Yiallouris A, Tsioutis C, Agapidaki E, et al. Adrenal Aging and Its Implications on Stress Responsiveness in Humans. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2019;10:54.
  2. Moffat SD, An Y, Resnick SM, et al. Longitudinal Change in Cortisol Levels Across the Adult Life Span. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2020 Jan 20;75(2):394-400.
  3. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/. Accessed June 17, 2021.
  4. Choe SJ, Kim D, Kim EJ, et al. Psychological Stress Deteriorates Skin Barrier Function by Activating 11beta-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase 1 and the HPA Axis. Sci Rep. 2018 Apr 20;8(1):6334.
  5. Thom E. Stress and the Hair Growth Cycle: Cortisol-Induced Hair Growth Disruption. J Drugs Dermatol. 2016 Aug 1;15(8):1001-4.
  6. Shin Y-O, Lee J-B, Min Y-K, et al. Effect of oligonol intake on cortisol and cytokines, and body temperature after leg immersion into hot water. Food Science and Biotechnology. 2011;20(3): 659-63.
  7. Talbott SM, Talbott JA, Pugh M. Effect of Magnolia officinalis and Phellodendron amurense (Relora(R)) on cortisol and psychological mood state in moderately stressed subjects. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Aug 7;10(1):37.
  8. Fujii H, MacKenzie AR, Kitadate K. Effects of Oligonol Supplementation on the Appearance of Skin Photo‐aging, Wrinkles, Hyperpigmrntation and Lentigines. The FASEB Journal. 2010;24(S1):lb319-lb.
  9. Chen Y, Lyga J. Brain-skin connection: stress, inflammation and skin aging. Inflamm Allergy Drug Targets. 2014;13(3):177-90.
  10. Pondeljak N, Lugovic-Mihic L. Stress-induced Interaction of Skin Immune Cells, Hormones, and Neurotransmitters. Clin Ther. 2020 May;42(5):757-70.
  11. Jozic I, Stojadinovic O, Kirsner RS, et al. Stressing the steroids in skin: paradox or fine-tuning? J Invest Dermatol. 2014 Dec;134(12):2869-72.
  12. Taves MD, Gomez-Sanchez CE, Soma KK. Extra-adrenal glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids: evidence for local synthesis, regulation, and function. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Jul;301(1):E11-24.
  13. Boudon SM, Vuorinen A, Geotti-Bianchini P, et al. Novel 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 1 inhibitors reduce cortisol levels in keratinocytes and improve dermal collagen content in human ex vivo skin after exposure to cortisone and UV. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0171079.
  14. Terao M, Katayama I. Local cortisol/corticosterone activation in skin physiology and pathology. J Dermatol Sci. 2016 Oct;84(1):11-6.
  15. Kinn PM, Holdren GO, Westermeyer BA, et al. Age-dependent variation in cytokines, chemokines, and biologic analytes rinsed from the surface of healthy human skin. Sci Rep. 2015 Jun 2;5:10472.
  16. De Tollenaere M, Meunier M, Scandolera A, et al. Well-aging: A new strategy for skin homeostasis under multi-stressed conditions. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2020 Feb;19(2):444-55.
  17. Slominski AT, Zmijewski MA, Zbytek B, et al. Key role of CRF in the skin stress response system. Endocr Rev. 2013 Dec;34(6):827-84.
  18. Kim HS, Yosipovitch G. The Skin Microbiota and Itch: Is There a Link? J Clin Med. 2020 Apr 22;9(4).
  19. Holmes CJ, Plichta JK, Gamelli RL, et al. Dynamic Role of Host Stress Responses in Modulating the Cutaneous Microbiome: Implications for Wound Healing and Infection. Adv Wound Care (New Rochelle). 2015 Jan 1;4(1):24-37.
  20. Walker MJ, Barnett TC, McArthur JD, et al. Disease manifestations and pathogenic mechanisms of Group A Streptococcus. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2014 Apr;27(2):264-301.
  21. Mirmirani P. Managing hair loss in midlife women. Maturitas. 2013 Feb;74(2):119-22.
  22. Lee JB, Shin YO, Min YK, et al. The effect of Oligonol intake on cortisol and related cytokines in healthy young men. Nutr Res Pract. 2010 Jun;4(3):203-7.
  23. Poivre M, Duez P. Biological activity and toxicity of the Chinese herb Magnolia officinalis Rehder & E. Wilson (Houpo) and its constituents. J Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2017 Mar.;18(3):194-214.
  24. Kim JH, Huh JE, Baek YH, et al. Effect of Phellodendron amurense in protecting human osteoarthritic cartilage and chondrocytes. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Mar 24;134(2):234-42.
  25. Lee JB, Shin YO. Oligonol supplementation affects leukocyte and immune cell counts after heat loading in humans. Nutrients. 2014 Jun 24;6(6):2466-77.
  26. Kitadate K AK, Homma K. Effect of lychee fruit extract (Oligonol) on peripheral circulation, a pilot study. Nat Med J.6(7).