Food for the Skin?
By Geoffrey R. Harris, MD
I’ve been thinking about a patient I saw recently. She was a busy mother in her late thirties who had come in for a bladder infection. Pretty routine, but at the end of the visit she asked me about her skin.She felt that her skin had changed. She felt that she was breaking out more, looking more dry and flaky, and had developed bags under her eyes. She told me she was sleeping seven to eight hours each night and was using a daily skin moisturizer with antioxidants and sunscreen and a night firming cream. She was wondering what else she should be using on her skin.
That is when I asked her about her diet. It was a mess. She rarely ate breakfast because she was busy getting the kids to school. Lunch was often fast food and dinner was often macaroni and cheese (or whatever else the kids wanted.) She couldn’t even identify a vitamin C-containing food from the previous day’s meals.
It may be hard to believe, but her problem wasn’t what she needed to put on her skin, but what she needed to eat to nourish her skin. Many of us don’t think about nutrition and the skin, but there is a great deal of research about antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids and their benefit to the skin. In 2001, over 400 participants in the International Union of Nutritional Sciences (IUNS) “Food Habits in Later Life” had their diet and skin evaluated. The study found a lower amount of sun damage, wrinkling, and skin aging in the participants who had a high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and olive oil. Recently, numerous other studies have looked at nutrition and skin health.
Antioxidants and phytonutrients in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, black olives, and soy serve many purposes in the skin. The skin needs nutrients to rebuild collagen damage and improve turn-over of the outer layer of the skin. But even more important is preventing “oxidative” damage that occurs in the skin from sun exposure and normal skin metabolism (the normal processes of cellular functioning create free radicals that damage cells and DNA via oxidation).
We have long known the benefits of vitamin E and vitamin C as antioxidants, but there is a larger picture. Recent research has shown that phytonutrients like carotenoids (e.g. beta-carotene), anthocyanins, sulfuranes, flavonoids, and isoflavones from fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and soy work together with vitamin C and E to prevent skin damage and aging. These nutrients have been shown to improve collagen which helps improve wrinkles and skin elasticity, reduce sun damage and redness, and even lower the risk of skin cancer. The best way to get these nutrients is in whole foods where the multiple nutrients exist in combination in their natural forms. Supplements that are derived from whole foods can also provide the beneficial mix, but in no way should they be an alternative to eating whole foods.
The other nutrient to discuss in skin health is omega-3 fatty acids. Typically we think of fish oil when we think of omega-3, but there are other sources of omega-3 beyond fish. The benefit to Omega-3 fatty acids in the skin seems to be their anti-inflammatory properties. Acne, psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea are all inflammatory processes of the skin in which the immune system is over-active. This over-activity of the immune system results in inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect and bring balance to the immune system.
Knowing that improving nutrition can improve the skin, my discussion with this patient focused on improving her nutrition. There are of course other benefits to this woman’s improving her diet, including reducing her cholesterol, preventing cancers, and lowering her risk of heart disease and stroke. I asked her to watch what she eats…and, as I typically do when a patient asks about the best foods to eat, I recommend the SuperFoodsRX books by Dr. Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthews.