Eating for your skin
There are many nutrients necessary for beautiful skin. Vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and flavonoids, to name a few, help to repair and maintain the structure and functioning of your skin, and they can only be supplied from a nutritious diet based on whole, unrefined foods.
According to research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (Purba), certain diets can decrease the number of wrinkles produced by intermittent sun exposure. This study revealed that, after taking into consideration age and smoking, better skin quality, which appeared to be more resilient to regular sun exposure, was associated with higher intakes of antioxidant-rich vegetables, olive oil, fish and legumes such as beans and lentils. Extensive skin wrinkling was more prominent in people who regularly consumed refined foods and sugar products such as soft drink, icecream and cordial, as well as cow’s milk and butter, processed red meats and margarine.
Long-term dietary changes can give your skin a healthy glow and assist with many skin conditions including eczema, psoriasis, acne and premature ageing. The following are the top skin saviours and skin saboteurs.
1. Feast on the right fats
Dietary fats, including those found in linseeds and fish, influence skin hydration and smoothness because they are converted by the body into powerful hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins influence your hormones, blood vessels, blood clotting, cells and skin hydration and smoothness. The human body has more than 30 different types of prostaglandins and they’re grouped into three families called series 1, 2 and 3 prostaglandins. Which series a prostaglandin falls into depends on what type of fat it’s originally made from — omega-3, omega-6 or saturated.
The good: Omega-6 essential fatty acids, from vegetable oils and seeds, should convert to series 1 prostaglandins. Series 1 have been found to improve circulation, lower blood pressure and decrease inflammatory responses such as eczema, PMS and arthritis-like pain — but only if specific enzyme reactions occur.
If you lead a stressful lifestyle, have a poor diet or a genetic tendency to suffer from inflammation, an enzyme reaction known as delta-6-desaturase may not be functioning optimally. Without this reaction, the omega-6 you consume from your diet converts into arachidonic acid, the main building material for pro-inflammatory series 2 prostaglandins. Over the long term, this can sabotage not only your skin but also your cardiovascular health.
Evening primrose oil and borage oil contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which your body can more easily convert to series 1 prostaglandins. Evening primrose oil supplementation, especially when used in conjunction with omega-3, can be beneficial for people with severely dry skin.
The beautiful: Omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in fish, flaxseed oil, walnuts and linseed-containing breads, form series 3 prostaglandins — the beauty prostaglandins. A study, recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition (De Spirtal et al) showed that 12 weeks of consuming flaxseed oil can significantly improve skin hydration and decrease roughness and scaling.
The bad: Saturated fats from meats, butter and other dairy products can be used to manufacture the inflammation-inducing series 2 prostaglandins, which is why they should not be consumed to excess. Due to the increased consumption of red meat and omega-6-rich vegetable oils and margarine, Western diets contain excessive amounts of saturated fats and omega-6 essential fatty acids.
On the other hand, our modern diets are generally too low in omega-3 fatty acids and this imbalance of fat ratios can lead to health problems including irregular blood clotting and inflammatory conditions such as eczema, acne, asthma and arthritis. To prevent this imbalance and bump up your skin’s ability to hold moisture, add omega-3-rich foods such as fish, walnuts, dark leafy green vegetables, linseeds and flaxseed oil to your diet.
The helpers: Certain foods can help protect your health from the damaging effects of bad fats or series 2 prostaglandins. These include onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric and flavonoids from brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Salmon, trout, sardines, herring, mackerel and fish oil supplements contain a substance called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which can decrease inflammation and improve skin moisture. Drinking green water (such as liquid chlorophyll or barley grass) can also help lower acidity in the body caused by consuming saturated fats and other acid-promoting foods.
2. Eat quality protein
The resilience and elasticity of your skin is largely determined by your collagen and elastin, found within the dermis layer of your skin. As you age, elastin can thicken and lose elasticity, like an old swimsuit that no longer fits snugly. Collagen fibres can stiffen, reduce in numbers and become disorganised and tangled (Rocquet).
With more than one-third of collagen made up of the amino acid glycine, with lesser amounts of proline, lysine and other amino acids from protein, it’s essential to eat quality protein foods each day. Superior protein foods include salmon, rainbow trout, sardines and other low-mercury fish, free-range eggs, skinless chicken, legumes/beans, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin C, iron, manganese and zinc are also necessary for collagen formation, so add to your diet fresh, colourful fruits, zinc-rich oysters and sweet potato. For firm, healthy skin, team them with copper-rich foods including crab, legumes, wholegrain breads and cereals, vegetables and Brazil nuts.
3. Up your antioxidant intake
Studies show that as you mature, less antioxidants are present in your blood and increased oxidation damage occurs, which is thought to contribute to the ageing process (Murad). Oxidation damage from free radicals can be likened to human rust, as when a car corrodes after regular exposure to salty air. An important anti-ageing antioxidant produced by the body is glutathione, which works like internal anti-rust, protecting the body from the free radicals produced when we breathe oxygen.
Glutathione is made up of the amino acids cysteine, glycine and glutamate. During liver detoxification, glutathione also binds to and allows the safe removal of toxic metals, so it’s essential that our bodies produce this antioxidant. While there is no scientific evidence that taking a glutathione supplement can improve your glutathione levels, according to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Moskaug 2005), dietary flavonoids (antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables) can increase your tissue levels of glutathione. Boost your glutathione levels naturally by feasting on flavonoid-rich fruits and pile your plate with at least five serves of vegetables each day.
Anti-ageing antioxidants such as selenium, vitamin E, lycopene and beta-carotene can also minimise sun-induced DNA damage — the kind that contributes to skin ageing (Cesarini, 2003). You’ll get a decent dose of selenium from a few Brazil nuts and a serving of fish. Lycopene can be found in red-pigmented foods, particularly tomato and watermelon. Team these with vitamin E-rich foods including wheatgerm, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds and extra virgin olive oil.
Studies show that lycopene becomes more available for the body to use when eaten with foods rich in good oils. Beta-carotene, as the name suggests, can be found in carrots and other orange foods such as sweet potato, mango, pumpkin and rockmelon. Other antioxidant-rich foods include berries, prunes, beans (black, red and pinto), buckwheat, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli, beetroot and avocado.
For maximum skin protection, eat a diet rich in colourful fruits and vegetables and fresh nuts, and remember to adorn yourself with the best anti-ageing products available: sunscreen and a hat.
4. Consume alkaline-forming foods
Youthful skin needs an efficient blood supply to transport the nutrients required for repair and maintenance of collagen and elastin (Tortora). As you age, however, blood cells can become “sticky” and clump together, so blood flow may be hampered and vital oxygen and nutrients may not reach your outer layer as quickly as required. Like a garden that is not watered and tended to adequately, this can leave your skin looking dull and dry, and sores may not heal as effectively.
Poor blood supply to the skin can be caused by an “acidic” lifestyle — one that promotes excess acids in the body. The usual suspects include a poor diet rich in takeaway meals and flavoured drinks, big serves of red meat (more than twice a week) and other foods rich in saturated fats such as butter, pastries and full-cream dairy products. Your favourite cup of caffeine, and alcohol, accompanied by a cigarette, all promote acid, as does stress. Breathing in chemical cleaners, being dehydrated and poor bowel health can also concentrate acid levels in the body.
One way to reduce these acids and promote a healthy pH is to consume alkaline-forming foods. The pH, meaning “potential of hydrogen”, measures your body’s acid and alkali balance. The blood needs to be slightly alkaline — at a pH of approximately 7.35–7.45 — for it to be healthy. Your body has several back-up systems to keep your blood pH within safe limits, including leaching alkaline minerals such as calcium from your bones (hello osteoporosis).
However, you can reduce the body’s acid burden by consuming plenty of alkaline-forming foods, include dark leafy greens and other vegetables, linseeds/flaxseed oil, almonds, Brazil nuts and certain fruits including avocado, apricots, banana, lemons and limes. Chlorophyll is highly alkalising and offers many health benefits when consumed daily (see green water recipe).
Lemon, raw tomato and apple cider vinegar are acidic before digestion, but once digested and broken down by the body, they become alkaline. These alkaline-forming products can not only help to keep your blood pH healthy, but they also bind to and help safely remove a range of toxins from the body.
Do you need more alkaline-forming foods in your diet?
Circle any symptoms you suffer from on a regular basis (three or more times a week or enough to disrupt your life):
Unexplained fatigue, weakness and lethargy after eating meals; frequent colds/flu; low immunity; poor circulation; cold hands/feet; low blood pressure; burning sensation during urination; kidney stones; excessive urination; headaches; pallor; dull complexion; abdominal pains; acid reflux; diarrhoea; gas; ulcers; nervousness, anxiety, depression; bleeding or inflamed gums; cracked lips; tooth sensitivity; muscle cramps; arthritis-like pain; split nails; allergies and food sensitivities; runny nose; candida albicans; bad breath; unpleasant body odour; dry skin, eczema, acne, hives, itchy skin, red and patchy skin; osteoporosis.
If you have circled four or more symptoms, you may need to increase your intake of alkaline-forming foods. These symptoms can also be caused by other factors, so see your doctor if you are concerned.
5. Promote good digestion and gastrointestinal health
To make the most of a healthy diet, you need to digest and absorb your foods properly so your body can extract all the nutrients necessary for sumptuous skin. Signs of poor gastrointestinal health, such as abdominal pain and bloating, should not be ignored as your body gives these warning signs when your health is out of balance.
Do you have signs of poor gastrointestinal health?
Circle any symptoms you experience on a regular basis (three or more times a week or enough to disrupt your life):
Foul-smelling gas or stools; excessive gas; excessive burping; bloating; food allergies; food sensitivities; abdominal discomfort/pain; fatigue after eating; candida albicans or worms; premature ageing; constipation; diarrhoea; nausea; reflux; headaches; constant hunger; irregular bowel movements; skin blemishes; rashes; undigested food particles in your stools (other than seeds and corn, which are normal); “pellet” poos; pale, hard-to-flush stools; irritable bowel syndrome; blood in stools*; unexplained back/shoulder/abdominal pain*
(* You should tell your doctor if you experience pain or notice blood in your stools.)
If you’ve circled three or more symptoms, you may need to improve your digestion and bowel health. Simple ways to improve your digestion include relaxing during mealtimes and chewing your food properly — at least 20 times each mouthful.
If you are experiencing diarrhoea or have oily stools after eating greasy foods or oil supplements, such as omega-3 and flaxseed oil, you may not be digesting and eliminating fats properly. If so, add 1 tablespoon of soy lecithin granules to your diet. Studies show that lecithin works a bit like dishwashing detergent: it makes fat become water-soluble, which enhances digestion of good fats and allows the safe removal of excess saturated fats and cholesterol from the body (LeBlanc, 2003).
Fibre could also be your bowel’s best friend, as it can prevent constipation (which causes acidity in the body) and decrease your risk of bowel cancer. Dietary fibre is exclusively supplied by plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, seeds, legumes, nuts and grain products. For healthy bowels and clear skin eat 3–4 serves of quality carbohydrates each day, including sweet potato, rolled oats, brown rice and wholegrain breads.
A love of sweet treats, a course of antibiotics or a bout of diarrhoea can upset the naturally occurring gut bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract (hello bloating and unpleasant gas). A probiotic supplement containing beneficial bacteria can assist the body’s restoration of gut flora and oppose harmful microbes.
In the Journal of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society, naturopath Jason Hawrelak noted the benefits you get from probiotic supplements are strain-specific: they do not all work in the same manner. Probiotics for digestive complaints should have one the following strains written on the label: L. rhamnosus GG; L. johnsonii La1, L. plantarum 299v; L. paracasei Shirota; Propionibacterium freudenreichii HA-101 and HA-102.
Adults can take 1–3 capsules per day, in between meals, or as the manufacturer suggests. Or let food be your medicine and supplement your diet with a daily dose of sauerkraut and green apples to promote beneficial gut flora.
Healthy skin also needs a liquid boost to maintain suppleness and assist with toxin removal through sweating. A study of 88 men and women with dry skin showed that increasing your water intake improves skin hydration (Mac-Mary 2006). Mineral water was used in this scientific study, but you can simply purify tap water with an inexpensive water filter jug to improve the taste and quality of your drink while leaving the essential minerals intact.
If eight glasses of water each day is not your cup of tea, try warm water with a squeeze of lime or lemon. Drink fresh vegetable juices or herbal teas including dandelion tea, which boosts liver detoxification capability.
6. Eat less
Scientific studies show that if you eat less you’ll delay the onset of ageing and improve longevity. One explanation is that eating less increases the production of anti-ageing hormones such as melatonin. For the easiest way to reduce calorie intake (without the arduous task of calorie counting, which I don’t advise), eat 30 per cent less food than you usually do.
Follow these tips: use a standard-sized dinner plate and fill half the plate with salad or cooked vegetables. One-quarter of your plate is for a small serve of protein (about the size and thickness of the palm of your hand) and another quarter for wholegrain carbohydrates. Don’t overstuff this side of your plate. Avoid going back for seconds and skip dessert.
Have approximately three dinner plates of food per day (minus the 30 per cent or with 50 per cent of the plate comprising vegetables). Make sure there are lots of greens on your plate as they’re the most anti-ageing of all the vegies and they ensure that your body has a healthy acid and alkaline balance.
7. Go low-GI
The glycaemic index, or GI, is a measure of how foods, specifically the carbohydrate content of foods, affect your blood glucose levels (commonly called blood sugar). Low-GI foods are digested at a slower rate and are often “low human intervention foods” — those which are unprocessed or minimally processed, such as rolled oats and vegetables.
8. Eat mineral-rich foods
Minerals help keep the skin, hair and nails strong and resilient. Sea vegetables are rich in minerals, as are bone broths (see anti-ageing broth below). Conventional fruits and vegetables are lower in these skin-loving ingredients than those organically produced. This is mainly due to mineral-depleted soils.
1. Antioxidant-depleting habits
Skin ageing is associated with decreased blood concentrations of antioxidants and the culprits, which rapidly deplete these vital antioxidants, include cigarette smoking and excessive caffeine intake and alcohol consumption (Rocquet & Bonte 2002). Preserve your skin by minimising antioxidant-depleting habits.
Along with sun damage, stress and smoking, sugar is another S-word you should shun in the name of beautiful skin. Research over the last decade suggests that sugar consumption can contribute to physiological ageing via a process called glycation (Ramamurthy, 2003).
Glycation is the chemical reaction whereby sugars, such as glucose, link to and alter the structure, function and digestibility of proteins (Ramamurthy 2003). This response creates new formations, or bridges, of cross-links, which may be responsible for the loss of elasticity in the dermis layer of the skin observed during ageing (Pageon 2006).
Suggestions to reduce the occurrence of glycation include eating glutathione-promoting foods such as fruits and vegetables, limiting sugar intake and keeping blood sugar levels steady. You can minimise blood-sugar highs and lows by eating foods that have a low GI. When choosing healthy bread, look for lots of grains and a glycaemic index symbol on the packaging with the word LOW written underneath. Avoid rapidly digested carbohydrates such as processed cereals, white bread and instant oats. Say no to sugar-rich icecream, biscuits and pastries and swap them for antioxidant-abundant fresh fruits.
3. Saturated fats
Saturated fats supply arachidonic acid, which can be used by the body to manufacture series 2 prostaglandins, known as the bad guys in the biochemistry world. Reduce your red meat intake to twice a week, with servings no bigger than the palm of your hand (and eat with lots of fresh vegies). Also cut the amount of butter and full cream dairy products you consume and favour good-quality organic yoghurt. Avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are used in biscuits, margarines, crackers, pastries, pizza dough and many fast foods.
4. Artificial chemicals
Packaged foods often contain a long list of chemical ingredients designed to give the product a longer shelf life, artificially enhance the flavour or improve the appearance of the product. Check food labels and avoid manufactured goods with artificial preservatives, artificial colours and flavour enhancers. Then adopt the approach: if the ingredients list is long or great-grandma wouldn’t have recognised it as food, don’t eat it. If you want your body to have a long shelf life, you cannot beat a fresh diet.
Stress and similar states such as anxiety, worry, fear and anger all stimulate the fight-or-flight part of the nervous system and can create skin havoc. Stress triggers a decrease in blood supply to the gut and liver and prevents the release of digestive juices (which equals poor digestion). Stress also alters your blood levels of hormones and can suppress the release of insulin — a vital hormone needed to process blood sugar and keep the blood healthy. This increases your risk of skin breakouts and, over the long term, your risk for more serious dilemmas such as type 2 diabetes.
When you relax, you not only feel good but you also allow your body to focus on repairing and maintaining your internal organs, your blood and your skin. Effective ways to relax include having a warm bath, listening to relaxing music, gentle exercise and deep breathing.
The next time you glance in the mirror and curse your genetics, remember that healthy skin begins with a body that is nourished and valued. Beauty follows.
Recipes for beautiful skin
Green water helps balance the acid and alkaline levels in the body, assists with liver detoxification, reduces body odour and minimises food intolerances. Drink daily.
1–3 tsp liquid chlorophyll
1 glass water
This smoothie contains antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E. Wheatgerm and egg yolk supply vitamin B complex and chromium (note: don’t use raw egg whites as they can cause a biotin deficiency, which leads to dermatitis). The lecithin granules, omega-3-rich linseeds and egg yolk supply nutrients that are essential for cell membrane health.
Serves 2, preparation time 5 minutes
2 tbsp wheatgerm
1 tbsp ground linseeds or flaxseed oil
½ mango (1 cup diced mango), pre-frozen
½ cup papaya/papaw, peeled, sliced and pre-frozen
1 free-range egg yolk
1 tbsp soy lecithin granules
2 cups (500ml) chilled plain mineral water
Method: Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend on high until smooth. Serve immediately. (from The Healthy Skin Diet, Exisle Publishing)
Salmon with sweet raspberry, avocado and watercress salad
This tasty salad is bursting with skin-loving antioxidants to help strengthen the capillaries. Watercress is a nutritious dark, leafy green vegetable and a source of calcium. Salmon supplies selenium and omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory.
Serves 4, preparation time 15 minutes
2 cups brown rice
2 firm, ripe avocados, skin removed and diced
250g punnet raspberries
1 tbsp mild, organic apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp flaxseed oil
¼ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp honey, heated slightly so it’s runny
6 cups lightly packed watercress sprigs, trimmed
4 salmon steaks
1 lemon, juiced
Method: Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bring a pot of water to the boil, add the rice and simmer for 20 minutes. Line a platter with the watercress and arrange the avocado and raspberries on top. Make the dressing in a separate bowl by whisking together the vinegar, flaxseed oil, turmeric powder and honey, and spoon over the fruit and watercress.
Cut four 30cm-long sheets of aluminium foil and baking paper and place one sheet of baking paper on top of each piece of foil and set aside. Heat a dash of olive oil in a frying pan on high heat and quickly fry the fish to brown the outer layer, for 1 minute each side. Remove the fish and place in the middle of each sheet of baking paper and fold up the edges of the foil. Pour the lemon juice over the fish and close the ends of the foil over the fish to make parcels, and place in a baking tray. Bake fish parcels in the oven for 8–10 minutes or until cooked.
The anti-ageing broth is a liquid stock that contains many of the nutrients needed for healthy collagen production. For centuries, broths have been prescribed for all sorts of ailments involving the connective tissue (collagen and elastin), including problems with the skin, joints, digestive tract, lungs, muscles and blood.
A well-made broth coats the gut lining, heals digestive complaints and aids digestion. It’s rich in sulphur and glycine (one of the main amino acids needed for your body to make its own supply of anti-ageing glutathione), so it enhances liver detoxification and treats skin complaints such as pimples and eczema. Broth made with chicken meat and bones makes a flavoursome soup that contains cysteine. Cysteine reduces mucus, so offers the body relief when you have the sniffles.
1–2 organic chicken carcasses
cold water (to start) to cover bones
1–2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp dried mixed herbs (Italian herbs make an aromatic broth)
1 red onion
1 nob fresh ginger, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fresh parsley
1 strip kombu or seaweed (optional, to increase metabolism and add extra minerals)
1 cup chopped cabbage
ground black pepper and quality sea salt
Method: Boil up ingredients. Add more water when required. Simmer for 6–12 hours. A slow cooker can be a great investment if you want to cook over a longer period. After the broth has cooled, strain. Remove any fat globules that remain on the surface. This will keep in the fridge for five days or alternatively freeze in batches. (from The Healthy Skin Diet, Exisle Publishing)
Karen Fischer is a nutritionist and author of The Healthy Skin Diet (Exisle Publishing). W: www.healthbeforebeauty.com
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