Beauty isn’t just skin deep. Nutrition for healthy skin, body and mind
By Hannah Braye, Nutritional Therapist (DipCNM, mBANT, CNHCreg)
Did you know we shed millions of dead skin cells daily and create a whole new layer of skin every 17-42 days? Unpleasant, but true. Skin is the largest organ in the body and second largest for detoxification. Crucially, it is the only organ we have on-going visual access to and its appearance can reflect and give useful insights into the health of other systems within the body. So it turns out beauty isn’t just skin deep!
A number of nutrients are important for skin health, and many work synergistically together. Therefore eating a varied, balanced wholefood diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and healthy sources of fat and protein is paramount. However, there are a few that are particularly important.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant found on the skin surface. It is stored in our fat cells and secreted onto the skin through the sebum, roughly 7 days after consuming vitamin E-rich foods. We depend on adequate dietary intake to maintain optimum levels. In rat studies, deficiency has been shown to damage skin collagen. Vitamin E is especially important in preventing damage from sun exposure. Through a process known as phytoprotection, Vitamin E can help prevent UV-induced free radicals cells from damaging the skin. This, in turn, can reduce the risk of skin cancer and inflammation.
Whole food sources of vitamin E include: spinach, turnip greens, chard, sunflower seeds, almonds, peppers, asparagus, collards, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts and olive oil. As vitamin E is fat soluble, it’s important to eat these foods with healthy fats to boost the body’s absorption.
Vitamin A (also known as retinol), is an important nutrient in the prevention of acne. It reduces excess oil production; supresses androgen hormones such as testosterone; and promotes skin cell turnover, which in turn prevent blocked pores. Lack of vitamin A can cause skin to become rough, dry or scaly. Small, rough, raised bumps on the back of the arms (known as Hyperkeratosis pillaris) are a common sign of vitamin A deficiency. It can also important for eye health.
Tere are two types of vitamin A:
- Pre-formed vitamin A, which is immediately ready for use by the body, is found in animal products. These include liver, kidney and other meats, butter, and egg yolks. If you are a meat eater and like the taste, consuming organic liver 1-2 times per week can be a good dietary strategy for those with stubborn acne.
- Pro-vitamin A, found largely in plant-based foods, has to be converted by the body into the active form before use. The most common type of pro-vitamin A is beta-carotene. Food sources of carotenoids such as beta-carotene may reduce the risk for cancer whereas beta-carotene supplements have not been found to. Food sources include orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. Broccoli, spinach and most dark green, leafy vegetables are also good sources.
Vitamin A is also available in supplemental form. However caution is required as it can become toxic at high levels. Pregnant women in particular are advised to take caution when considering Vitamin A supplementation. If you think you may suffer from low levels of this vitamin it is best to seek professional advice.
Zinc is an essential mineral. In skin it assists in the proper structure of cell membranes, improves wound healing and has anti-inflammatory effects. Like Vitamin E, it also helps protect against the Sun’s UV radiation.
Both acne and eczema sufferers have lower zinc levels than normal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of studies indicate that dietary zinc may be as effective as antibiotics at reducing acne – and without the side effects.
Dietary sources of zinc include:
- Meats such as organic beef, lamb and liver
- Seafood such as oysters, scallops, and other shellfish
- Vegetarian sources such as pumpkin seeds, tofu, legumes, and nuts –zinc-rich plants often contain phytates, compounds which can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb minerals. These compounds can be broken down by soaking raw pulses and nuts in water for a few hours before preparing.
Zinc is also available in supplemental form. However, again caution is needed as long term or excessive supplementation can cause imbalances with other minerals in the body.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Many skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and acne are inflammatory by nature. Therefore, reducing inflammation is a key therapeutic aim for improving symptoms. This is done by ensuring that we have a balanced Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio.
In simple terms, Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, whereas many Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. Modern Western diets tend to be unbalanced in intake, with too much Omega 6 and too little Omega 3. Increasing dietary Omega-3 fats and reducing foods high in Omega 6 is therefore beneficial and may lead to a visible reduction in inflammatory skin conditions.
- Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids include: oily fish – salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring (“SMASH” for short), flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
- Food high in Omega 6 that we may need to reduce include: vegetables and sunflower oils, processed foods, excessive meat and dairy.
The key is getting a balance. The ideal ratio is around 1:4 Omega 3 to Omega 6.
Probiotic, Fermented Foods
The “skin-gut axis” has been studied since the 1930s, and epidemiological evidence shows an association between gut problems and skin disorders. Intestinal permeability (also known as “leaky gut”) occurs when the lining of the digestive tract is damaged. This allows proteins from foods and environmental toxins to pass into the blood stream. This leads to inflammation, which can be reflected in our skin. Our gut flora also influences our skin health, with altered gut bacteria potentially contributing to systemic inflammation and influencing the amount and composition of sebum production.
Supplementing our diet with fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, probiotic yogurt, kefir, kombucha and miso is a great way to support both gut and skin health. They provide beneficial probiotic bacteria for the gut that keeps your biome diverse. They is also evidence to suggest that they can help improve mental health.
Probiotic supplements can also be beneficial. However, if use of probiotic supplements or foods triggers a flare in either skin or digestive symptoms, seek the advice of a nutrition professional. Flare ups can be an indication of an underlying imbalance in the digestive system, such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), a common culprit in skin conditions, and may require specialist support.
For healthy skin, body and mind we should eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils, peas) and whole grains – and if desired, a small amount of fish and meat. Interestingly the preparation of food is emerging as a key factor in making us beautiful from the inside out. So grab your mason jars and start souring your cabbage and soaking those nuts.
About the author
Hannah Braye, Nutritional Therapist (DipCNM, mBANT, CNHCreg)
Hannah is a registered nutritional therapist providing evidence-based nutrition advice from a naturopathic, person-centred approach. She offers 1-1 consultations, personalised nutrition and lifestyle recommendations, meal plans, recipes and continuing support to help you meet your health goals.
Hannah is also a member of the World Health Heroes, a network of health and well-being practitioners, promoting affordable health and well-being across local communities; an Assistant Clinical Supervisor at the College of Naturopathic Medicine; and she works part-time for the Soil Association, helping caterers improve the quality and sustainability of their food.