At least 90 per cent of women develop cellulite, making it a very normal part of being female. And, generally speaking, cellulite is not a signifier of ill-health or of being overweight. Those who lead an otherwise exemplary life in terms of diet and exercise still get it and so do those who are on the skinny side — though there’s no doubt that lifestyle and diet factors can be the difference between mild and chronic cellulite.
As normal as it may be, however, many of us would prefer to banish it. A simple treatment or “cure” is still elusive, probably because the main drivers are inextricably linked to female architecture: a constant flow of oestrogen in our bodies and the fabric of our connective tissue. As we go through the hormonal turbulence of puberty and pregnancy, it tends to get worse and lunar-type landscapes spread from bottoms to thighs, arms and tummy.
As we age, cellulite becomes deeply entrenched and more difficult to eliminate. However, the orange peel, cottage cheese, mattress effect — or hail damage (I think I’ve covered all the terms) — can be somewhat reduced and even prevented by a healthier diet and lifestyle. Machinery can help, too.
Most health practitioners and doctors alike agree that a multi-pronged approach to cellulite will yield the best results. Here, we present some of the lifestyle practices and treatments that will help smooth out your skin.
The physiology of cellulite
The outermost layer of skin is the epidermis. Directly beneath this is the dermis, which carries hair follicles, sweat glands, blood vessels, nerve receptors and connective tissue. Below this lie our layers of fat. Cellulite develops in the most superficial of these layers, known as the hypodermis, or subcutaneous fat layer. It is unique in the way that it stores fat cells in chambers surrounded by strands of connective tissue called septa.
Emma Hobson of the Dermal Institute says, “The apex of these upright fat chambers looks like a dome that’s weak and prone to collapse when undue pressure is applied. This pressure could be from excess weight, fluid retention or lack of strength due to little or no exercise.”
She adds, “These larger chambers generate smaller compartments of fat cells that cluster tightly under the skin. The combination of free-standing fat cell chambers and compartmentalised clusters of fat cells is what creates the change in the appearance in the skin’s surface — in other words, what we know as cellulite.”
The fat cells in the two lower layers are dispersed in a loose network. Fat storage here is influenced by genetics as well as diet and lifestyle factors. These layers are not responsible for cellulite, though. Unlike cellulite, this is the fat that the body burns as energy.
Male and female fat
In women, the subcutaneous fat layer is organised into large vertical chambers where an abundance of fat can be stored. The chambers in men are arranged as small diagonal units that not only store smaller quantities of fat but are also unlikely to result in cellulite formation. Men also have thicker epidermis and dermis tissue layers in the thighs and buttocks, which gives a smoother appearance.
Two types of cellulite
Cellulite comes in two types. First, there’s the mildest type — the kind you have when young. You only really notice it when pressure is applied to the legs or skin — it’s common in most women of different ages and is a result of the compression of the fat cell chambers under the skin.
The second kind has the orange peel appearance that becomes noticeable even when a woman is standing and there’s no pressure being put on the skin externally.
Causes of cellulite
Our hormones determine how we store fat (before you curse oestrogen, remember it’s also the hormone that keeps your skin looking plump and wrinkle-free) and the structure of female connective tissue also contributes to its formation. Together, these factors lay the foundations.
The factors that trigger cellulite formation include a decrease in microcirculation due to many variables, such as a sedentary lifestyle, ageing, genetics, sickness, poor diet and smoking. As microcirculation decreases, tissues are not fed properly. This, on top of a lymphatic system that isn’t working efficiently to remove toxins from the tissues, results in a build-up of toxins and fluid in the adipose tissue. That causes swelling and starved and weakened connective tissue, which hardens around engorged fat cells, causing them to protrude into the dermis, in turn giving the bumpy appearance.
Cellulite usually appears in areas of poor circulation. Once it forms, it slows circulation even more. Ageing results in a loss of thickness and tone of the connective tissue within the dermis and the superficial fat layer. The outcome is a more visible and flabbier cellulite. Cellulite can also develop after a traumatic injury where the circulatory system has been disturbed.
The keys to reducing cellulite
Support connective tissue and fat cell integrity
The health of the connective tissue can be improved by diet and exercise. Read our Healthy Skin Diet (pg 40) and Ageing Skin section of Skin Doctor (pg 59). Nutritionist and author of The Healthy Skin Diet, Karen Fischer, says, “The body is home to billions of fat cells that sit together, side by side and layer by layer. The connective tissue keeps them in place. If your fat cells are faulty, this can also affect integrity of connective tissue.
“Fat cells are a great place for the body to store toxins. If bombarded with toxins, they become damaged and leaky. As cell membranes are largely made up of lipids, the kind of fats used to build your cell walls will determine how resistant they are to leakage. Saturated fats from meat and dairy make rigid cells and essential fatty acids from nuts, seeds and fish oils contribute to more flexible, resilient cells.
“The best patching materials for leaky cells are EFAs, such as omega-3s. EFAs also draw water from outside the cell back into the cell. This means EFAs help to keep fluid in the right place so you have hydrated cells and healthy-looking skin.”
She adds, “Your cell membranes are also made up of lecithin, which sits in the cell walls and helps to determine what enters and leaves your cells. A shortage of lecithin equals faulty cell membranes that can leak fluids into your subcutaneous layer. Lecithin is found in egg yolk, liver, nuts, corn and soy products, or you can buy lecithin granules.”
Reduce fluid retention
Nutritionist Alison Cassar says eliminating excess fluid from your tissues will dramatically reduce the amount of swelling in the skin. “Minimise dairy, salt (eat only Celtic salt) and diuretics such as coffee, tea, alcohol and fizzy drinks. Drink natural diuretics that are high in minerals, such as dandelion tea or coffee and vegetable juices (celery, fennel, cucumber). Drink more water, not less.”
Eat foods rich in antioxidants
Free radicals break down collagen in connective tissue; they are also the main agents of damage to our circulatory systems. Antioxidants in foods protect against free radical damage. Lots of different-coloured fruits and vegetables mean lots of different antioxidants, especially if you choose organic.