Whilst a good skincare routine is great, what I learnt through doing hundreds of facials as a Beauty Therapist is that the healthiest looking people, the ones with glowing skin, glossy hair and sparkling eyes, didn’t get to look like that through good products alone. No amount of money thrown at skincare and cosmetics can replicate the vitality that comes from exercise, quality sleep, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol and a good diet. Your skin is actually an organ, in fact the biggest organ in your body, so deserves some attention.
Foods that are the building blocks of healthy skin, hair and nails really come down to three categories; Protein, Fat, and Antioxidants, plus a few bonus optional extras if you want to add some superfood power.
Your muscles, hair, nails, skin and eyes are made of protein. Protein is made of 22 different amino acids, and these are needed to repair damaged cells, construct new tissues, and to sustain the life of all cells, including muscles, skin, nails, hair, even white blood cells and the lining of your digestive tract – literally every part of your body. Eight of these amino acids are ‘essential’ because the body cannot make them, and this is where diet comes in. Depending on the part of the body, cells are replaced every 24 hour-ten days, so a regular intake of essential amino acids, is, well, essential! Protein deficiency can be seen as dry skin and hair, flaky nails, puffy bags under the eyes, and water retention (puffy appearance) especially in the ankles, hands and face. Tip: Egg yolks contain the highest amounts of L-cysteine and L-methionine which form keratin to make healthy strong hair. Eggs make a great DIY hair mask as well as to eat!
Good sources of protein include:
Salmon and other oily fish
White fish such as cod
Textured Vegetable Protein (Quorn)
Fermented soy such as Tempeh
Chicken, turkey & other unprocessed poultry
Beef & other unprocessed meats
Protein powders such as whey
By the time you read this I will have to have edited it several times as the research surrounding fat is currently moving so fast, but it’s safe to say a) fat does not make you fat, b) saturated fat does not cause high cholesterol, heart disease, strokes etc, c) high cholesterol is not a problem (it’s oxidised high cholesterol that’s the problem, and this is not the place to discuss that further since it’s a rather large topic itself) and d) without a significant amount of fat you will not thrive, in fact your health will suffer, even if only in subtle ways.
Your skin is partly made of fat, including saturated fat. It stands to reason that eating fat will therefore help keep out skin cells healthy and plump. Low-fat dieters often have dry skin and hair, age prematurely, and are more prone to sun damage, even whilst using a sunscreen. Omega-3 fats (from fish and flax) are especially anti-inflammatory, so help calm conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, acne, and speed up healing from sunburn and other irritations.
Nutritious foods that provide fat include:
Full fat dairy products
To start at the beginning, free radicals (oxidised atoms) are unstable atoms that have an electron missing from its outer shell, and this makes it highly reactive, causing chaos all over the body from wrinkles to cancer to Alzheimer’s. As odd as it sounds this is actually a very normal body process, and the body does equally well at producing the antioxidants needed to correct it. The problem arises when the antioxidants produced cannot keep up with the toxins, free radicals and oxidising processes that are imposed on it, such is the case in our modern, pollution and chemical filled world. The good news is that antioxidants are easily found in food.
When we think of antioxidants we think of what we get told in magazine articles – blueberries, green tea and brightly coloured vegetables. Whilst these examples are good sources of antioxidants, there are many different types of antioxidant.
Vitamins A, C and E, minerals such as trace elements zinc, selenium, carotenoids like lutein and lycopene, Phytochemicals (chocolate, tea, berries), Polyphenols, and Catechins (casein in dairy lowers the absorption of these, so unfortunately putting milk in tea and coffee lowers the antioxidant benefits of these). Antioxidants are often found in coloured part (the pigment) of fruit and vegetables – the richer, darker and brighter the colour, the more antioxidants, which is why we are often told to ‘eat a rainbow’.
The following foods are high in antioxidants:
Certain foods and drinks are nutrient powerhouses – they are dense with powerful nutrients and are the opposite of what are termed ‘empty calories’; ‘junk’ foods that contribute to calorie intake yet deliver very little in the way of nutritional benefits. Some of these are termed ‘superfoods’ though since there is no scientific definition of what a ‘superfood’ is, the word is widely abused and overused. But read it that certain foods are extremely dense in beneficial nutrients per gram, so you don’t have to eat a lot of them. This is especially important if you need to restrict calories perhaps because your body doesn’t have high calorie needs, and is the problem with just reducing the quantity of food eaten – you also reduce the vital nutrients consumed. By including nutrient dense foods you get ‘more bang for your buck’ per calorie and you’ll still get everything you need even when restricting calories, though everyone’s health will benefit by including these amazing foods in their diet.
Water – not exactly a nutrient powerhouse but I can’t state the importance of drinking loads highly enough. Your body and skin, in fact every cell in your body, relies on it to function properly. It’s extremely difficult to drink too much. If in doubt, drink more.
Green Tea – Green tea’s benefits come from the large quantities of polyphenols, a sort of bioflavonoid which are antioxidants as well as enhancing vitamin C’s benefits, improving circulation, and being used to treat inflammatory conditions, allergies and viruses. Most of the polyphenols are EGCG, a catechin; an antioxidant which has shown anti-inflammatory and anti-cancerous agents, in particular skin cancer. Interestingly, decaffeinated green tea does not show as profound benefits, since the decaffeination process removes many of these beneficial antioxidants. EGCG has also been shown to increase cell regeneration and to reactivate dying cells, reducing scar tissue formation.
Aloe Vera – The ‘medicine plant’ can be both drunk or applied topically, and has been used for thousands of years to heal both inside and out. Most famous for its soothing effect on burns (including sunburn and as an aftersun), it is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, speeds up wound (including acne) healing, improves the appearance of scars and stretchmarks, soothes and heals all sorts of skin complaints including eczema, psoriasis, herpes, dandruff, canker sores, skin ulcers, cysts, minor infections and others, and is intensely hydrating and moisturising without being greasy. Aloe Vera also contains 75 different nutrients, and aids digestion and immunity which have a knockon effect on skin health.
Seaweed – one of the richest plant sources in the world of minerals, as well as containing many vitamins, antioxidants, amino acids and fibres, which are all highly absorbable due to being virtually identical in composition to human plasma. It has been used for centuries to improve blood and lymphatic circulation, eczema and psoriasis, arthritis and muscular aches and pains, healing burns and wounds, aiding detoxification and removal of heavy metals, and it helps prevent the breakdown of hyaluronic acid which lubricates skin and joints.
Cocoa – pure cocoa (as opposed to being mixed with sugar and cheap fats) is a true superfood – richer in polyphenol and flavonoid antioxidants than red wine, green tea or berries, and these protect the body from everything from heart conditions to cancer. These antioxidants protect against the free radicals which wreak havoc on your skin, leading to premature ageing, dry and sensitive skin and even skin cancer. It is also very rich in minerals such as magnesium, selenium, iron and zinc, Vitamin C to boost collagen production, enzymes to promote cell rejuvenation and healing, and fatty acids to prevent drying. It also boosts serotonin in the brain which helps reduce stress, another enemy of skin health.
Garlic – Allicin, sulphur and selenium in garlic are just three of the compounds that help keep skin in good condition. It is anti-fungal, antiviral and antibiotic, so can be used to treat acne spots when applied directly to the skin. It contains antioxidants and reduces inflammation, so benefits the whole body and can help prevent inflammatory skin conditions like eczema. Also taken to prevent the common cold, odourless garlic supplements are available if you don’t like the taste, but if you do like it it’s the simplest healthy way to make plain food instantly delicious.
Ginger – ginger is most known for its warming properties, so it’s no surprise that it is fantastic for circulation and therefore boosting blood flow, carrying with it a myriad of nutrients and oxygen to nourish and heal the skin. It is antiseptic so good for acne, but is also packed with antioxidants to heal and fight ageing. The circulation stimulating effects aren’t limited to the skin either, as boosted blood flow to the scalp encourages healthy hair growth. Incidentally the warming and anti-inflammatory properties also make this a fantastic food for arthritis sufferers.
Chilli – chillies are very rich in antioxidants, and we know by now how good these are for skin health, especially when it comes to ageing. They are also rich in vitamins A and C, and are anti-inflammatory. The warming properties boost circulation to the skin, distributing nutrients and oxygen. It is also antimicrobial so fights infections which may arise in acne sufferers.
Goji berries – these contain 18 amino acids including all 8 ‘essential’ ones, which we know are integral to building and rebuilding every cell in our body, including skin. Gram for gram compared to many other foods they contain high doses of vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, E, C and iron.
Acai berries – most famous for their extremely high antioxidant content (which slows down ageing from damaging free radicals) – more than double that of blueberries – acai berries are one of the highest ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) foods known – the measure of how effective a food’s antioxidants are at neutralising free radicals. They contain vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and E as well as being a great source of Vitamin C for collagen production and also provide the minerals calcium, magnesium, zinc and copper, amino acids (protein), and essential fatty acids to nourish the skin and body.
Honey – honey can be used both topically (applied to skin) or eaten to absorb it’s nutrients, just bear in mind that it is high in (natural) sugars so should not be consumed liberally, and excess sugar actually slows down healing and can worsen skin conditions. The most practical use for skin is mixing it into a facemask or under wound dressings. Its humectant (holds water) properties make it an excellent moisturiser, as well as being a natural antioxidant. It has even been touted as a natural sunscreen, though you should never use honey alone in place of sunscreen (plus you’d get very sticky!). Honey is most famous for aiding in burn and wound healing due to its antimicrobial properties, making it very healing and soothing for acne sufferers too.
A day of healthy skin meals might include….
Omelette with tomatoes, and a slice of melon
Salmon with spinach, watercress, and cucumber dressed in lemon juice and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds
Strawberries dipped in dark chocolate
Grass-fed beef steak with roast pumpkin and beetroot
3-4 Brazil nuts
What about supplements?
Here’s the thing about nutrient supplements; there’s something called bioavailability, which is how easily a nutrient is absorbed into the body; the more bioavailable the better. Food in its natural state is generally extremely bioavailable – the body recognises it as fit for consumption, and happily absorbs much of the goodness in it. Supplements, especially man-made synthetic ones (including most of the ones that are easily available in shops) are not recognised by the body, and it will not absorb much of it. Just because the tub says 1000mg of whatever, doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll be ingesting. Food is always so much better. However if you can get some decent quality, natural extracts, that have not been heat treated and highly processed, the following are skin hero’s:
- Silica is a trace mineral that strengthens the body’s connective tissues – muscles, tendons, hair, ligaments, nails, cartilage, bone, and skin. Deficiency results in reduced skin elasticity and poor wound healing. Food sources include leeks, green beans, chickpeas, strawberries, cucumber, mango, celery, asparagus and rhubarb.
- Zinc is important for everyone’s skin but especially acne sufferers, as it controls oil production and may help balance the hormone issues that contribute to acne, and acne is sometimes even a sign of zinc deficiency. Foods rich in zinc include oysters and other shellfish, nut and seeds, ginger, oats, and eggs.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are responsible for skin repair, moisture content, and overall flexibility, but because the body cannot produce its own EFAs, they must be obtained through the diet. Most people eat too much omega-6 (in baked goods and grains) but not enough omega-3s from oily fish, nuts and seeds. Good sources of omega-3 oils include chia seeds, flax seeds and oily fish.
- Selenium is an antioxidant mineral responsible for skin elasticity as well as preventing damage from free radicals such as UV rays and those produced naturally in the body. Food sources include seafood garlic, brazil nuts, eggs, and brown rice.
- Vitamin A can be found in many topical treatments for acne, scars and other skin ailments, even in medical grade potencies, as it promotes skin repair for many conditions. It can be toxic if ingested in large amounts so is best got from natural sources (food) such as liver, chilli peppers, dandelion, carrots, apricots, collard greens, kale, sweet potatoes, yellow peppers, spinach, and cantaloupe melon. Another option is Beta Carotene (which is found in orange/yellow fruits and vegetables such as carrots and mangos), which is a precursor to vitamin A and has none of the overdose concerns of vitamin A.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that counteracts free radical damage caused by UV ray exposure, pollution, and toxins we are exposed to every day, as well as the free radicals that are produced by our own body as a totally natural process such as when we exercise. Vitamin C stabilises collagen and elastin, the main structural substances in the skin, and especially effective when combined with vitamin E. The ‘full spectrum’ of vitamin C types, as found in nature, is always preferable to synthetic ascorbic acid, so look for a supplement that is made from food (fruit and veg) extracts as opposed to a cheap synthetic one.
Vitamin D Sunlight on the skin is the body’s primary way of making vitamin D, which is needed for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus and therefore to maintain bone density. It also contributes to cell growth, repair and metabolism, optimises the skin’s immunity and destroys free radicals. Our ability to produce Vitamin D decreases as we age (another reason osteoporosis is more common in later life). Conversely sun protection (SPF) is necessary to protect against UV damage, which, coupled with short days and little time spent outdoors, can leave many people deficient. Vitamin D is sometimes used topically but some is absorbed through food we eat too, such as from eggs, dairy products, and fish.
- Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant commonly found in ‘fatty’ foods such as wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, almonds, and avocados as well as fruit and vegetables including spinach, peaches, tomatoes and asparagus. As a ‘fat soluble vitamin’ it requires fat to be absorbed, another reason to boycott a low fat diet. There are actually different types of vitamin E (four tocopherols and four tocotrienols) and you need different amounts of all of them, but don’t get bogged down in the details – a varied diet and/or any decent supplement using natural (rather than synthetic) sources will usually suffice. Vitamin E not only neutralises ‘oxidants’ i.e. free radicals but is intensely moisturising due to its oily consistency both when eaten and applied topically. A mix of vitamins E, C and A make a powerful formula for all types of skin health.
Anything I should avoid?
I abhor ‘diets’ that say you categorically cannot eat certain things – nothing will make you gain weight overnight (the metabolism is more complicated than that), no one food/meal/binge is going to take you back to where you started, and the occasional unhealthy food is not going to hurt. That said, there are some people for whom certain foods trigger allergies which present themselves through the skin such as eczema & psoriasis, acne rosacea and hives (as well as other reactions like IBS, headaches & migraines, lack of energy and asthma). Triggers vary from person to person but common culprits include:
Chilli peppers and spicy food
Fish (especially shellfish)
The only way to find out if one of these is a problem for you is to eliminate a suspect item from your diet for at least 2 weeks and see if symptoms improve – but only one item at a time or you won’t know which one is causing symptoms!
N.B. In case dealing with allergies wasn’t complicated enough, reactions to food are not always the food directly. It may be something called a ‘leaky gut’, caused by inflammation that makes small food particles get through the gut walls not fully digested, only to be perceived by the body as an ‘invader’, and an allergic reaction ensues. The answer here is to restore gut health, usually done by eliminating common allergy and inflammatory foods from your diet then reintroducing them very slowly, however this is best done under the supervision of a registered dietician.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type=”1_3″][et_pb_sidebar admin_label=”Sidebar” orientation=”left” area=”sidebar-1″ background_layout=”light” /][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]