“So you’re saying that this ludicrously expensive cream, in this teeny tiny pot, is going to transform my skin and make me look ten years younger?” How many times have you caved in to a good sales pitch about a miracle face cream? Even though I’ve been strangely lucky with my skin (given some dubious lifestyle habits in the past), I’ve still been sucked into buying creams for my face with the hope that it will make a difference. But since studying nutritional therapy I really have come to the conclusion that the best way to nourish the skin is from within. Yup, unfortunately it actually takes some effort. And here’s why.
Our skin is a living, breathing organ, working closely with the liver, kidneys, lungs and gut to remove toxins from our cells. So many people seem to be on an endless quest to find a solution to poor skin but find themselves going round in frustrating and increasingly expensive circles. No matter how beautiful the packaging, or how crazy the price tag, caking our skin in lotions and potions can actually make the problem worse by giving our body yet more chemicals to deal with. Once you realise your skin is the end result of overall health, the focus changes to diet and lifestyle.
So what to do? In general, a nutrient dense diet full of whole foods is a good baseline. Try and keep the foods that come out of brightly coloured packets a small part of your diet - a few treats aren't going to wreak havoc with your skin, just keep them in balance. However, there are certain nutrients worth paying extra attention to. But before we get to that, how much water are you drinking on a daily basis? Boring as it sounds, this is probably the best thing you can do to help you skin stay fresh and healthy. All the cells in our body exist in a fluid environment, and frankly most people are chronically dehydrated. Headaches, tiredness and dry skin are all signs of dehydration. So make sure you are drinking a good 1.5 litres of water a day, and more if you exercise heavily or it’s a hot day. But what other specific nutrients does our skin need? I’ve picked a few key ones, but there are many nutrients that support healthy skin.
Modern medicine is well aware of how vitamin A supports skin, and synthetic forms have been used for severe acne and psoriasis since the 80s (but as usual, these synthetic forms can cause all sorts of problems). Vitamin A promotes skin cell turnover, and deficiency causes the skin to become scaly and bumpy (check this out by feeling the skin on the back of your arms). Liver is probably the best source of vitamin A, but surely I can’t be the only one that would be hard pushed to add that into my weekly diet. So fear not, you also find high levels of preformed vitamin A in egg yolks and butter. Beta carotene, another form of vitamin A, is found in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, such as peppers, carrots, leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, mangoes, apricots, cherries and melon. Our body has to then convert it to active vitamin A, and not everyone does this brilliantly, but a diet rich in fruit and veg is pretty essential.
Zinc is also involved in cell division. This amazing mineral supports wound healing and has anti-inflammatory effects which is useful in protecting against UV radiation. Zinc interacts with vitamin A, so low levels of zinc will automatically affect our vitamin A levels. The best sources of zinc are from animals products, such as beef, lamb and seafood (shellfish in particular are very high in zinc). For those of you who are vegetarian, pumpkin seeds are great, as are nuts in general.
Probably the most well known vitamin, for good reason. It has so many important roles, but in relation to skin it helps regulate collagen synthesis, which is needed for the actual structure of our skin. Vitamin C deficiency leads to scurvy, which you probably associate with sailors stuck on a boat for months on end with nothing but salted meat to live off. Whilst true vitamin C deficiency is uncommon, it is possible that many people are getting sub optimal amounts in their diet. Although it is widely found in most fruit and vegetables, many people simply don’t eat enough in their diet. To up your vitamin C intake, go for kiwis, citrus fruits, and yes, you guessed it, green leafy vegetables such as kale, watercress, spinach and chard. But frankly, if you are eating a good 6 portions of fruit and veg a day then you’d be well on your way.
Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, refer to omega 3 and omega 6 fats. Omega 3 fatty acids are known for their powerful anti-inflammatory effects. The crucial thing here is to have the correct balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Too many omega 6s and we are likely to see signs of inflammation. Our Western diet tends to lean towards this, so when making healthy changes to the diet we usually start with recommending an increase in omega 3 fats. For more information on healthy fats, have a look at my previous blog.
Omega 3s/EFAs are essential for skin health, not only due to lowering inflammation, but also because all the cells of our body (including our skin cells) are surrounded by a membrane that requires the right balance of fatty acids to function properly. Low levels of omega 3s can show up as dry and dehydrated skin, prone to inflammation. The evidence behind use of omega 3s in clinical trials is mixed in terms of skin health, as well as its other benefits, but this is where I can tell you first hand that I notice when I stop taking it after about 4-6 weeks, and the edges of my feet become really dry and I’m more likely to need moisturiser on my face after a shower. This goes once I start back up on the omega 3s.
So where do we get these great fatty acids from? Basically, in oily fish – salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies. Three servings a week will give you a good level of EFAs. If you don’t like fish (like me) or are vegetarian then you can take a supplement. I wouldn’t recommend taking them everyday – go for 3 to 4 times a week. Do make sure if you take them that you are also eating a good amount of fruit and veggies, as they contain antioxidants to help protect the EFAs, which are very delicate and easily damaged oils. It’s also important that if you are taking blood thinning medications, such as warfarin, that you check with your doctor first. As with all supplements, you get what you pay for. So don’t stint, otherwise you’ll find yourself with a fish oil capsule with very low levels of omega 3 and God knows what else in them.
Some people who have significant skin problems, such as psoriasis, severe acne or rosacea, would likely benefit from a more in depth look at their health by a nutritional therapist. This is because skin health is very affected by what is going on in the gut, and sometimes just having a healthy diet isn’t enough to fix that on its own. But none of the above will do any harm, so serve up that salmon. From a personal point of view, I find juicing works wonders for my skin. So for any of you who have a juicer collecting dust on a shelf, get it down and put it to good use!