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‘Skin, skin, glorious skin – it keeps your outsides out and your insides in’ (sung to the Flanders and Swan tune of ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud’). But joking aside, skin is a wonderful living, breathing mantle that can indicate a great deal about the state of our health.
Everyone ages. That is an inexo-rable and natural fact of life, but how well one is ageing is reflected in the skin, since this organ mercilessly mirrors what is happening to the body – both internally and externally. However, when it comes to the skin, most mere mortals, especially those of the female persuasion, are more concerned about keeping the visible, external parts smooth and glowing than fussing too much about internal skin care. Both concerns have merit, as a good skin care regimen can certainly help modulate the ravages of time and environmental aggressions.
Skin, as you may know, is the largest organ of the human body. It accounts for about 16% of total body weight, and – impressively – we generate a completely new outer skin every 27 - 30 days. It is also through this chameleon-like organ that we are made aware of our environment, since skin is more richly supplied with nerve endings than other body parts. It is therefore not only our largest body organ, but our largest sense organ too.
From fore to aft (mouth to anus), inside and out, the skin is continuous with the mucous membrane that lines all the cavities and orifices that open to the surface of the body. Among its many and varied other functions, it therefore provides a barrier between the ‘dry’ external environment of the body and the watery environment of the body cells. When skin and mucous membrane are intact and healthy, they provide a physical barrier to invading microbes and foreign substances, so it’s vital to keep this living barrier as nourished as possible.
The state of the skin, e.g. wrinkles, dry, oily and/or acneic skin, inflammation, eczema, psoriasis, etc., is regarded, in natural medicine terms, as an external sign of internal health. The signs and symptoms related to skin disorders are often visibly expressed or mirrored via the skin, whether they result from unhealthy food choices and inadequate nutrient intake, harsh commercial cosmetics and chemicals, topical drugs, or a plethora of other toxins that reflect via the skin canvas.
WRINKLES AND CRINKLES
If, the next time you look in the mirror, you find yourself reaching for a brown paper bag to put over your head – don’t despair! There is plenty you can do to feed your skin and slow down the inevitable. First and foremost – drink! And by this I mean lots of good, pure water and not other tempting libations, such as those laden with sugar, caffeine or alcohol. Dehydrated cells are unhappy cells and they tend to fight back in interesting ways, including making one look haggard and dessicated! Water helps to keep us in ‘plump plum’ rather than ‘pickled prune’ mode, and it’s essential for the dewy skin look.
NUTRIENTS FOR GLOWING SKIN HEALTH
In an ideal world, we would get the perfect proportion of micro- and macronutrients from our food sources – but we all know we don’t live in Utopia, so what to do? Besides ensuring that we drink enough of the right liquids, eat wholesome, natural food, and avoid unhealthy behaviours like smoking (which plays absolute havoc with the skin), stress, sleep deprivation, excessive sun worshipping and too much hooch, there are several vitamins, minerals and antioxidants available to us that will nourish the skin from the inside. These include silica, zinc, essential fatty acids, antioxidants like selenium, and vitamins A, C and E, biotin (vitamin B7) and copper.
Silica, a trace mineral, is a good place to start, since it strengthens and provides elasticity to all parts of the integumentary system: skin, nails and hair, as well as connective tissue in general, plus tendons, ligaments, muscles, cartilage and bone. Together, silicon and oxygen (the most abundant elements on earth) make up silica. Silicon is an essential trace element that is crucial to human metabolic and structural processes (such as cell formation). Brittle nails and slow-healing wounds also benefit from silica supplementation, which is readily available in the biochemic tissue salt form. The horsetail (Equisetum) species of herbs (biosilicifiers) are well known for containing a natural form of silica. Food sources include almonds (and other nuts), apples, asparagus, beans, brinjals, cabbage (raw), cereals and grains (unrefined), celery, cherries, cucumbers, fish, honey, mangoes, oranges, pumpkin, raisins, rhubarb, seeds and strawberries.
Zinc, another mineral, is needed for healthy skin, as well as proper immune function and the maintenance of smell, taste and vision. Acne, for example, may be a symptom of zinc deficiency, since zinc controls the skin’s oil production process, as well as certain hormones that may be implicated in acne. Zinc deficiencies can manifest as impaired sense of smell and taste, loss of appetite, and frequent colds and infections. Zinc-rich foods include Brazil nuts, eggs, ginger, oats, oysters (raw), pecan nuts and pumpkin seeds. Zinc consumption is recommended for male reproductive and prostate gland health.
Essential fatty acids, especially omega-3, are required for healthy skin and many other functions, including cardiovascular health. The skin functions of EFAs relate to general skin repair, flexibility and moisture content. Omega-3 deficiencies can manifest as dry, itchy skin and brittle nails and hair, among other conditions. Dietary sources include several fish, seeds, nuts, oils, and to some extent fruits and vegetables, as well beef and poultry (choose free-range) and tofu. So make sure you eat cold-water fish such as mackerel and pilchards, salmon oil (but make sure the source is not contaminated with heavy metals), sardines, scallops, chia seeds, flax seeds and oil, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, soybeans and oil, olive oil (extra virgin), raspberries, strawberries, beans (green, kidney, navy, soy), broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce and squash.
Selenium, another mineral, is also a good antioxidant and protects the skin inside and out. In general, antioxidants neutralise free radicals generated in the body. They play a role in differentiation and proliferation of cells, help to maintain normal DNA repair, prevent cellular protein, carbohydrate and lipid damage, stimulate the immune response, block nitrosamine formation, and generally maintain the integrity of cell membranes and matrixes. Besides keeping the skin flexible and healthy, selenium also protects it from ultraviolet damage. Selenium deficiencies can manifest as white flecks on the fingernail beds, discoloration of skin or hair, and general muscle pain. Dietary sources include Brazil nuts, the most highly concentrated source (3 - 5 a day should be sufficient), barley, brown rice, eggs, garlic, certain mushrooms (portabella, shiitake), mustard seed, tuna and salmon, and also turkey, chicken, lamb and wholewheat bread. It is, however, important to remember that the selenium content of food is highly variable, since it depends heavily on soil conditions.
The powerful antioxidant vitamins A, C and E are also regarded as skin nutrients. Of these, vitamin C is considered most effective at reducing free-radical damage, whether from the sun or other environmental aggressors like pollution, especially when combined with vitamin E. Being such a powerful antioxidant, it is effective in lessening oxidative stress on the body in general. It also has many other health-supporting roles in addition to its skin care benefits, such as maintaining healthy blood vessels and cartilage. Vitamin C is required for energy (the creation of ATP), and is also essential for creating peptide hormones, dopamine and tyrosine. It is thought to be of benefit in lowering cancer risk, too. Deficiencies of vitamin C result in problems such as poor wound healing, frequent colds or infections, and other respiratory system-related disorders. Since the fibres that support skin structure, collagen and elastin, are damaged by free radicals, we need to get an adequate intake of antioxidant nutrients to keep this scaffolding intact – especially if we want to prevent wrinkles and other signs of ageing. Food sources of vita- min C include acerola, blackcurrants and camu berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, citrus fruit, guava, greens (dark, leafy), herbs (especially parsley, rosemary and thyme), pawpaw, kiwi fruit, peppers (bell) and chillies (red and green), strawberries, sundried tomato and turnips. Unlike vitamins A and E, vitamin C is water-soluble, so it’s pretty safe to supplement with this vitamin if your dietary intake is inadequate.
Next in the skin-vitamin line is vitamin E. This one is great for the skin, whether taken internally or applied topically, especially when combined with vitamin A. Vitamin E deficiencies can manifest as tingling or loss of sensation in the extremities, and digestive system problems such as malabsorption and liver and gallbladder disorders. Food sources include almonds and hazelnuts, apricots (dried), asparagus, avocado, cabbage, herbs (basil and oregano), paprika (and red chilli powder), olives, peaches and prunes, pinenuts and peanuts, spinach, sunflower seeds, corn, safflower, and soyabean and wheatgerm oils.
The last in this skin-nutrient trio is vitamin A, which is essential for preventing dry skin, acne and other skin conditions. The prescription drug for acne, Retin-A, is derived from vitamin A. In general, this vitamin keeps mucous membrane cells in good nick, in addition to its functions in vision, reproduction and growth. Vitamin A also helps to resist infection by maintaining a healthy immune system. Deficiencies of vitamin A include goose-bumpy skin, frequent viral infections and night blindness. Although it is found only in foods of animal origin, certain carotenoid compounds (including beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and gamma-carotene) present in some fruit and veggies can be converted into vitamin A by the body. Excessive vitamin A supplementation can be harmful, so it’s a good idea to get your daily dose from your diet – either in the form of retinol from animal sources, or carotenoids (provitamin A) from plant foods. Food sources rich in vitamin A include apricots, carrots (yellow and orange foods in general), dandelion, leafy greens, liver, melons, spinach and Swiss chard, as well as sweet potato.
The B vitamins are also beneficial for skin health. Biotin (vitamin B7), is the star of the B-complex show, however, since it forms the basis of skin, nail and hair cells. Although the body does make some biotin, a deficiency can manifest as seborrhoeic dermatitis, cradle cap and alopecia (hair loss), as well as flabby muscle tone and muscle cramps, besides other conditions. Food sources of biotin in-clude bananas, eggs, oats, rice and Swiss chard.
The mineral copper, together with zinc and vitamin C, helps to develop elastin fibres, which in turn help to provide skin structure. Copper deficiency can manifest as skin sores, fragile blood vessels that rupture easily (bruising) and hair loss, among other conditions. Food sources of copper include barley, cashew nuts, liver, soybeans, spelt and sunflower seeds.
INSIDE OUT AND OUTSIDE IN
Although the issue of skin penetration by topical substances, including cosmetics, drugs and other chemicals, can be contentious, it is safer to err on the side of caution and be as careful about what you put on your skin as you need to be about what you put in your body. Petroleum derivatives and products, such as commercially available aqueous cream or products made from it, are therefore often avoided by folk who follow natural health principles, since such products serve more as a barrier than a nourisher. If you say NO to petrochemically derived aqueous cream (made from mineral, aka baby oil), you do have other options. You can easily make your own natural skin care products, since there’s a wonderful array of nutrients that nourish the skin from the outside, including the many vegetable oils and butters provided by Nature. To learn how to make your own skin care products and cosmetic toiletries from scratch, various affordable DIY workshops are offered in South Africa by Kitchen Cosmetics (email@example.com).
Good skin health can be just a colourful daily plate of food, and a dab of wholesome cream, away. Bon appétit!
1 Chinnoi L, Exley C. New insight into silica deposition in horsetail (Equisetum arvense). BMC Plant Biology 2011, 11: 112.
2 He K, et al. Intakes of long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and fish in relation to measurements of subclinical atherosclerosis. Am J Clin Nutr 2008; 88(4): 1111-1118.
3 Bonjour JP. Biotin. In: Machlin LJ, ed. Handbood of Vitamins. 2nd edition. New York: Dekker, 1991: 393-427.
DR SANDI NYE, ND.
Tel: 021 531 3545
She is a naturopath with a special interest in aromatic and integrative medicine. She is multi-registered with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA), and represents Naturopathy on the AHPCSA Professional Board for Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Phytotherapy. She serves as editorial board member and/or consultant for various national and international publications. She is in private practice in Pinelands, Cape Town.
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