Beauty from the Inside Out
By Heather Pratt, MNT
They say beauty is only skin deep, but “they” obviously don’t know anything about how the skin works. Considering that our skin is a direct reflection of what is happening on the inside, it is much more accurate to say “beauty is much deeper than skin deep.” Nearly every condition of the skin, from wrinkles and age spots to acne, eczema, and psoriasis, can be influenced by a deeper bodily imbalance. Standard efforts to treat the skin focus mostly on topical solutions with very little acknowledgement of the underlying causes. While topical treatments may work to a certain extent, it is also important to investigate what is happening internally. Being proactive with your food choices is one crucial step in maintaining the health of your skin and to start creating beauty from the inside out.
The skin is the body’s largest organ and belongs to the integumentary system, which also includes the hair and nails. The outermost layer of the skin is called the epidermis and helps protect us from infection, extreme temperatures, and ultraviolet radiation; it is constantly renewing itself. The next layer is the dermis, which is a thick connective tissue layer made up of water, collagen, and elastin fibers. Collagen is like the scaffolding, giving structure and firmness to the skin while helping to keep it hydrated, while elastin give the skin elasticity. Directly below the dermis is the subcutaneous layer that, among other things, contains fat tissue, blood vessels, and nerves that connect the skin to the rest of the body; this layer also contains some collagen and elastin. Like all other body systems, the integumentary system is dependent on nutrients for optimal function and is susceptible to imbalances caused by poor diet, stress, and toxins.
Understanding the Imbalances
In the past several years there has been an influx of skin care products containing antioxidants, and with good reason: the most widely accepted theory of aging is the free radical theory. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage cells, proteins, and DNA in the body. When it comes to the skin, free radicals initiate the breakdown of the skin’s structural support (collagen and elastin), decreasing the elasticity and suppleness of the skin, while increasing inflammation. Free radicals are generated by natural bodily processes but are also formed from tobacco smoke, chemical toxins, pollutants, UV radiation, and certain foods. The body has built-in antioxidant systems to balance the effects of free radicals but when these systems are overwhelmed, excess free radicals damage the cell membrane, making them stiff and inflexible. Ultimately this damage leads to an inflammatory response. Inflammation is at the root of nearly every skin condition – it leads to collagen breakdown and initiates the clogging of pores; it is also responsible for the raised, red, and often itchy skin that comes with rashes, eczema, and psoriasis.
Free radical damage is not the only thing that can cause inflammation in the skin. Ultraviolet radiation exposure, air pollution, certain diseases, stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, and sugar consumption all contribute to skin inflammation. What many people don’t realize is that sugar consumption, with its ensuing blood sugar and insulin spike, is a real killer for the skin. Not only does elevated blood sugar create free radicals and promote inflammation, it also leads to the formation of AGEs; and AGEs do exactly what they sound like they do – they age us. Their outward manifestations can be seen as tough skin with deep lines. Sugar’s destructive effects on the skin don’t stop with AGEs, because with a rise in blood glucose comes a rise in insulin. As insulin levels rise, a hormonal cascade that favors tissue growth is set into action. In the skin, these hormones can encourage clogged follicles, the destruction of collagen, and the formation of abnormalities like skin tags. The effect that elevated blood sugar has on the skin is massive. And you don’t have to be diabetic or prediabetic to experience the damaging effects of raised blood sugar. New research has shown that damage can occur even with slightly elevated blood sugar, still within the ‘normal’ range. Keeping your blood sugar stable throughout the day is critical to protecting your skin.
Whether you are fighting wrinkles or acne, it is wise to focus on balancing your blood sugar and reducing free radical damage, but know that conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or acne may require additional work to correct underlying imbalances, including excess inflammation. Believe it or not, looking to the gut might be the best place to begin – when the intestinal lining is damaged it can lead to systemic inflammation. The connection between digestive conditions and skin manifestations are well recognized: constipation and acne, celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis, food allergies and eczema. Researchers are just beginning to understand how the beneficial bacteria in the intestines may influence the skin; for example, probiotics modulate inflammation and several studies have linked probiotic intake with improvements in acne. Besides, the health of the digestive tract determines the efficiency with which you digest and absorb the foods you eat, and thus the nutrients that will be available to feed the skin.
Feed Your Skin from the Inside
There are plenty of ways to support skin health through the diet. The following is a brief list of some exceptional skin foods and practices.
? Balance the blood sugar by avoiding foods that cause a spike, including all sugars, flour products, and even fruits for some people. Eat at regular intervals and be sure to include adequate protein and fat.
? Get plenty of antioxidants by eating a rainbow of vegetables every day. Other good sources of antioxidants include berries; green and white tea; chocolate (but only if it is 80% cacao content or higher, otherwise you run the risk of getting too much sugar and the benefits are lost); and herbs such as turmeric, ginger, rosemary, and cinnamon.
? Get the right fats to balance inflammation. Eat plenty of omega-3s, found in wild, coldwater, fatty fish, and avoid pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats from vegetable oils and trans-fats. Also include a variety of monounsaturated and saturated fats such as those found in avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, butter, and naturallyraised animal products. They help modulate inflammation and maintain a healthy cell membrane.
?Consume probiotic rich foods daily such as yogurt, kefir, unpasteurized sauerkraut, kim chi, miso, and kombuchato support the health of the digestive system.
? Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Pure water not only helps to keep the skin clean and hydrated but also helps to fight inflammation.
? Sulfur-rich foods such as eggs, meat, poultry, onions, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables help to build collagen and glutathione, the body’s most potent internal antioxidant.
? Vitamin A is a potent antioxidant and important for promoting skin cell turnover. Foods high in vitamin A include liver, grass-fed butter, eggs, and cod liver oil. Red and yellow fruits and vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and red peppers supply beta-carotene, which is also an antioxidant that the body can convert to vitaminA. (Note: a large number of the population does not efficiently convert betacarotene to vitamin A, so supplementation may be necessary.)
Every meal and snack gives you the chance to foster skin health from the inside, letting your beauty shine through. So go ahead, feed yourself gorgeous!