By Carrie Dennett, M.P.H., R.D.N.
Environmental Nutrition Newsletter
Healthy skin reflects overall health, which means it can be influenced, for better or for worse, by the nutrients in your diet. A poor diet can contribute to inflammation, oxidative stress, and glycation (bonding of a protein to a sugar molecule), three factors that contribute to skin aging, as well as age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Inflammation and oxidation takes a toll on skin.
“The two biggest disruptors of skin health are inflammation and oxidation, because they cause destruction of the normal network that gives skin its elasticity and strength, collagen and elastin,” says Alan Dattner, M.D., who practices integrative medicine and holistic dermatology in New York. “It’s important to protect against the cascade of events that leads to inflammation and damage of the elastic tissue of the skin.”
Your body constantly produces free radicals, molecules that can damage DNA or cells. At normal levels, they help your body function. In excess, they lead to oxidative stress, which contributes to health problems, as well as premature skin aging by destroying collagen and elastin.
“Sun damage, excessive alcohol intake, and cigarette smoke can produce excessive free radical damage,” says Dattner, adding that eating foods rich in antioxidants can help prevent this oxidative damage.
Many nutrients and phytochemicals may help protect against UV rays, especially vitamins A, C, D, and E; and carotenoids, including beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein.
“Carotenoids have been very well known and better studied in particular diseases,” Dattner says.
Increasing the level of antioxidants, including carotenoids, in the skin helps neutralize free radicals before they can cause damage. Studies show that people with high levels of carotenoids in their skin look young for their age, with less wrinkling and skin roughness. The yellow-to-red carotenoid pigments in plant foods also contribute to healthy skin color.
The impact of glycation
Processed, fried and sugary foods contribute to accelerated aging from glycation, the linking of sugars (glucose and fructose) to amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to form advanced glycation end products (AGEs,) according to the AGE Foundation. In youthful-looking skin, collagen and elastin, both proteins, are flexible and repairable. When sugars in the skin bond to collagen and elastin, they become stiff and unrepairable.
AGEs can be formed in the body or come into our body already formed. Dry, high-heat cooking methods–think of the skin of a roasted chicken, the golden crust on bread, or grill marks on meat–form AGEs. Lowering AGEs may reduce the systemic inflammation and oxidative stress that contribute to premature aging.
The AGE Foundation suggests eating a diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables and whole grains rather than sugary and processed foods, as well as using moist cooking methods, such as poaching, steaming, stewing, and boiling. Cooking and marinating with herbs and spices, including cinnamon, cloves, oregano, allspice, ginger and garlic, also can inhibit AGE formation.
Food over supplements
If your diet is already adequate, will improving it further by taking supplements make you look better? To date, the evidence for taking isolated nutrients in supplement form is inconclusive. The healthiest and safest way to get the nutrients you need to promote healthy, attractive skin is to eat them.
Regular intake of fruits and veggies is the best strategy against premature skin aging because it increases the concentration of antioxidants in the skin. Focus on getting these nutrients daily:
1. Vitamin C: fruit (especially citrus) and vegetables
2. Vitamin E: dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, avocados
3. Beta-carotene: orange fruit and vegetables
4. Lycopene: tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, papaya, guava
5. Astaxanthin: microalgae and the fish that eat them, salmon in particular
6. Lutein: green leafy vegetables
Other skin-protecting nutrients include selenium (Brazil nuts), zinc (sesame and pumpkin seeds), green tea polyphenols, proanthocyanidins and resveratrol (grapes), silymarin (artichokes), genistein (soy) and curcumin (turmeric). Getting adequate vitamin D helps maintain bones and may help protect skin cells from UV damage.
(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)