Hello gorgeous souls! It’s been a while since I delved into some of the questions/topics which I get asked about a lot and I’ve really missed this process! Today, we’re talking about skin health.
Skin, in particular skin complaints, is an area which comes up frequently in nutritional therapy clinics. Our skin, formally known as the integumentary system, is our largest organ; it is our protective cloak, an excretory vessel and the structure which holds us together. In nutritional therapy, the skin provides us with possible indicators as to what may be going on internally; possible imbalances, inflammation, dehydration and more.
Common skin complaints include:
- Contact dermatitis
- Dry, oily and/or sensitive skin
Skin health is a subject which I feel particularly passionate about as a result of my own experiences. Having navigated my teenage years with only the odd ‘T-zone’ blemish to moan about, it wasn’t until I turned 21 that I was greeted with angry, cystic acne. Whilst my acnegenic skin was fairly short lived in comparison to many people who can suffer for 10+ years, there is absolutely no doubt that it had a considerable impact on my confidence and social life.
After a lot of expense, trial and error, I am so grateful that my skin is more manageable today. That being said, it is a constant work in progress and something I have to be mindful of every day but by remembering to incorporate a variety of skin-loving nutrients and lifestyle hacks into my daily routine, my skin is a different story compared to five years ago. Let’s delve deeper…
The skin has three layers; the epidermis (outermost), the dermis and the subcutaneous layer. Each of these layers is split into further layers, all of which have their own specific functions.
The primary functions of the skin are:
- Protection – From bacteria, radiation, chemicals, loss of fluids or physical puncture
- Thermoregulation – Body temperature regulation via shivering and constriction of blood vessels to conserve heat, or sweating and dilation of blood vessels to cool the body
- Sensation – The skin contains many nerve endings which act as receptors for heat, cold, pain and touch
- Production of Vitamin D – The skin is the site of vitamin D formation, which is required for a wide range of functions in the body, notably bone and immune system health
- Excretion and Absorption – Sweat is the vehicle of excretion for water, heat, ammonia and urea. Fat soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, C, D, E & K) can be absorbed through the skin, as well as certain drugs and chemicals (not all are beneficial – more on this later).
Why Collagen is having a moment
In case you hadn’t noticed, collagen (notably collagen drinks and supplements) is having somewhat of a moment in the media for its ‘anti-ageing’ power. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body. In the skin, collagen exists in the dermis layer as connective tissue fibres, which provides strength and elasticity to the skin. As we get older, our collagen levels naturally decline, resulting in thinner, less elastic skin which can wrinkle more easily. In women, collagen levels are thought to decline significantly after the menopause.
Whilst the jury is out on whether collagen supplements actually work (absorption being the main argument), I thought it was worth mentioning the method behind the madness of drinking gold containing collagen drinks (P.S. if you are vegetarian or vegan, most collagen supplements are derived from fish).
Collagen is incredibly important to skin health, regardless of how you obtain it. Collagen is naturally produced in the body through the combination of amino acids (think protein rich foods), vitamin C, zinc and copper. Of course, you can obtain all of these from a nutrient dense diet, however there are always some individuals who may benefit from collagen supplementation. Please speak to a health professional in this regard.
Key nutrients for skin health:
- Vitamin E – A powerful antioxidant, vitamin E is important for mopping up free radicals which can damage cells. Vitamin E is also thought to reduce damage to the skin caused by UV radiation, by providing a protective barrier. Food sources of vitamin E include nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, avocado and oily fish.
- Vitamin A/Beta Carotene – As well as its excellent antioxidant capabilities, vitamin A is converted in the liver to retinol, which stimulates the production of new skin cells. Vitamin A and retinol-based products are thought to possess anti-ageing capabilities due to its regenerative properties. Food sources of Vitamin A can be both animal derived (organ meats, fish, poultry) or plant based in the form of Beta Carotene (sweet potato, carrots, red/orange peppers).
- Vitamin C – Another antioxidant (are you seeing the theme here?!), vitamin C is a key component in the synthesis of collagen, as mentioned above. Vitamin C can be found in abundance in fruits and vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli) and citrus fruits.
- Zinc – A super mineral known for its role in supporting the immune system, this antioxidant is also required for the formation of collagen. Zinc is known for its healing properties and is thought to support wound healing, particularly for conditions such as acne. Zinc is also believed to assist in the regulation of oil production due to its role in cell regulation. Food sources of zinc include beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, meat and fish (particularly shell fish) and even cacao (yes – dark chocolate!).
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids – These anti-inflammatory powerhouses love your skin. Omega 3 Fatty Acids contain DHA and EPA, both of which have skin-loving properties. DHA plays a role in maintaining healthy cell membranes, whilst EPA is thought to help regulate oil production, cell hydration and also protect against UV damage. You can find omega 3s in both plant based foods (chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seed, walnuts and seaweed) and animal products (oily fish). Remember that Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid, meaning it must be obtained from the diet; we cannot produce it ourselves.
- Selenium – Another antioxidant, selenium neutralises free radicals which are known to damage cells. Selenium also has anti-inflammatory properties, thought to support the immune system to calm angry and inflamed skin. Brazil nuts are the richest source of selenium – just one brazil nut per day will meet the daily recommended amount (RDA).
- Biotin – Also known as Vitamin B7, biotin is a water soluble vitamin mostly known for its role in energy production from food, however biotin deficiency has been linked to skin conditions such as dermatitis. Biotin has been claimed to reduce acne symptoms, however the evidence is less clear on this one unless you are considered deficient in biotin. Food sources of biotin include organ meats, mushrooms, avocados and egg yolks.
A note on gut health:
As I touched upon earlier, our skin’s appearance can be a useful tool in helping to understand what may be happening internally. There is a fairly strong link between gut and skin health; if you are unable to absorb the nutrients mentioned above, your skin is arguably not going to be as nourished as it could be.
As well as absorbing nutrients, we need to make sure that we are excreting waste products effectively. That means regular bowel movements, aided by a diet sufficient in fibre, probiotics (good gut bacteria) and hydration. Probiotics are your gut-loving bacteria; the helping hands when it comes to the successful absorption of nutrients, digestion and immune system support. Probiotics are thought to help support the skin by reducing inflammation and strengthening the skin’s barrier through a theory known as the gut-brain-skin axis.
Including probiotic rich foods in your diet is a great way to support gut and skin health; fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, tempeh and apple cider vinegar are all excellent sources. There are also specific probiotic supplements which are supported by research linked to improved skin health, however please speak to a health professional before purchasing any supplements.
- Hydration – It sounds so simple, however you would be surprised at how little of us actually drink enough water. Hydration is key to maintaining skin’s elasticity and smooth texture – aim to drink at least 2 litres of water a day and carry a reusable water bottle with you so you don’t forget to hydrate. As for alcohol and caffeine, both are known to dehydrate the body so please be mindful in this regard.
- Sleep – There’s a reason they call it beauty sleep! Our bodies regenerate best at night and collagen production increases when we are asleep. Aim for 8 hours of sleep per night and establish a consistent bedtime routine; less scrolling and stimulating your senses, which is caused by blue light from electronics.
- Stress less – They say that stress shows on your face and in basic terms, stress in a biochemical sense equals increased inflammation. Many people who suffer with skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema find that their symptoms are aggravated when they are feeling stressed. Stress (aka fight or flight mode) also results in increased cortisol production, which is thought to damage collagen fibres through a process called glycation. Find out what works for you when it comes to relaxation – yoga, meditation, reading, tuning into a podcast or getting out into nature.
- That endorphin glow – Exercise encourages improved circulation and blood flow, which in turn allows more oxygen and nutrients to be delivered to skin cells. Sweating through exercise enables the removal of waste products from the body and gives you a healthy, albeit slightly tomato-tinged glow! Skin conditions such as rosacea and eczema can be aggravated by excessive sweating so choose a form of exercise which works best for you.
- Clean up your skincare – The skin is our largest organ and surface area and we absorb a lot of what we put onto our bodies. Many popular cosmetic brands (think makeup, skincare, body lotion, shampoo and deodorant) contain chemicals which are worth educating yourself on and perhaps moving away from. Parabens are a preservative added to products, which are known to be endocrine disruptors (i.e. they interfere with normal hormone function). SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate) is popular for its foaming nature, however it can be irritating and drying to skin, whilst aluminium-containing antiperspirants have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer (not yet proven). At the end of the day, nobody is perfect and my advice would be to make small changes where you can. Some of my favourite natural skin care brands include Neal’s Yard, Green People, Ren, By Sarah London and Dr Hauschka.
- Sun protection – If you’re anything like me, you probably spent your teens and early 20s wanting to tan (AKA FRY!) as much as possible as soon as the British summer made its brief annual appearance. It goes without saying that too much sun, particularly without adequate protection from UV radiation, is linked to ageing and an increased risk of skin cancer. Wear SPF and be sun safe – I wish I’d listened to this advice earlier in life!
- Quit smoking – Smoking is known to cause wrinkles, ageing, thinning skin and cancer. Enough said.
My top tips for healthy skin:
- Eat a balanced, plant filled diet full of colour and micronutrients
- Love your gut – probiotics, fibre and regular bowel movements!
- Stay hydrated
- Prioritise sleep and relaxation
- Establish a skin care routine which nourishes and protects
- Move your body, sweat and shower afterwards!
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, questions and if there is anything in particular which has helped you on your own skin journey. As always, please share this post with friends and family – it helps immensely in growing this little community and your support is so appreciated.
Love and light,