A lot of people probably take their skin for granted; likely because they see it everyday and don’t give it much attention except when there’s a problem.
The skin is the body’s largest organ and like anything body part, it needs the best nutrition it can get to be at its best both functionally and from an appearance point of view.
Many think that worrying about skin and skin care is woman’s ‘thing’ [although tell that to my dad who had 2 bouts of skin cancer] but it really is a health thing. People will gladly accept the idea of eating a healthy diet and exercise to love their heart or reduce their risk for dementia but a healthy lifestyle also applies to the skin health as well.
When the skin is healthy it not only looks good but is doing what it’s supposed to do: it’s primary role is to be a physical barrier to the outside world; protecting us from microbes, bacteria, and more. To learn more, click here.
Skin has three layers – all in need of nutritional support:
- The epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone.
- The dermis, beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, hair follicles, and sweat glands.
- The deeper subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis) is made of fat and connective tissue.
Skin conditions & nutrition
Skin conditions like pimples & acne are not just for kids. People of all ages can be affected by them, as well as, other skin conditions like rosacea, dry skin, wrinkles, ezcema, psoriasis, vitiligo, dermatitis herpetiformis and more. As you can imagine, this can be very upsetting for those with such skin conditions especially if they haven’t found a solution.
Conventional medical wisdom dictates that there is no connection between skin health, including appearance, and nutrition but there is solid research to the contrary; nutrition, the food we eat, and it’s impact on blood sugar regulation and hormones has a profound impact on our skin.
There are several well-known important nutrients needed for both the repair and maintenance of all 3 layers of the skin, as well as, tempering the immune response which helps to lower inflammation, reddening and outbreaks. Undiagnosed food allergies, sensitivities, gluten intolerance or celiac disease can wreak havoc on the skin; in fact 80-90% of those with celiac disease are undiagnosed and dermatitis herpetiformis is a tell tale sign of the disease.
Nutrients of interest
Eating a diet based on nutrient-dense, whole foods, that are rich in vitamins, minerals and other compounds is the foundation to healthy skin. In no particular order….
- Role: probably the best known vitamin for skin health; promotes healthy skin cell turnover, new skin cell replication, and controlling oil glands activity . Insufficient vitamin A leads to dry and/or keratinzied & scaly skin. Raised bumps on the back of the arms [hyperkeratosis pillaris] can be due to functional vitamin A deficiency .
- Sources: preformed vitamin A [retinol, retinal] is not the same as beta carotene; the body can convert a very small amount of beta carotene to vitamin A but it’s best to get the real stuff from food: liver, pate,cod liver oil, cream, butter, egg yolks, fish,
- Role: without enough of this vitamin, you’ll make substandard collagen, one of the supporting proteins abundant in skin. Vitamin C is anti-inflammatory, is associated with less wrinkles, likely due to it’s anti-oxidant properties and is needed for wound healing. Functional & overt vitamin C deficiencies contribute to hyperkeratosis pillaris due to collage-starved damaged follicles.
- Sources: good food sources include all fruits & vegetables especially whole citrus, dark green vegetables, bell peppers, guava, broccoli, kiwi, & strawberries. Supplements are a great way to help maintain higher blood levels which benefits the whole body. A diet with 7-10 daily servings of fruits and vegetables will give about 250-350 mg of vitamin C but higher intakes, > 700 mg per day and more, have been to reduce cardiovascular disease  while improving skin quality and appearance [4, 5].
- Role: a new vitamin for most, vitamin K2 used to be easily found in our diets when livestock were feed on pasture. It would show up in foods like milk, butter, cheese, eggs and organ meats. Due to modern farming practices this important vitamin is largely missing in our diets. Its job is to keep calcium out of soft tissue, like our arteries, and out of our skin and in bones and teeth where calcium belongs . Bone diseases track with vitamin K2 deficiencies and bone diseases, like osteoporosis is associated with wrinkles; almost proportionately so ; calcium in the skin damages the supporting proteins.
- Sources: fermented cod liver oil, aged cheeses like Brie, Camembert, Gouda, goose liver pate, butter from 100% grass fed and finished cows, or the Japanese favourite, natto. Supplements work as well too.
Omega-3 fats [from fish and seafood]
- Role: in a nutshell, these fats are rock stars when it comes to reducing inflammation and may reduce the risk for acne by reducing insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) [as does a low glycemic load diet]; omega 3 fats have been shown to reduce hyperkeratinization of the skin [follicles] . Omega-3 supplements have been shown to improve eczema and psoriasis too .
- Sources: fish and seafood, omega-3 fortified eggs, & supplements (fish, calamari/squid & algae).
- Role: selenium is well known for it’s anti-cancer properties including skin cancer. It acts as an antioxidant and helps cells ‘talk’ to each other more efficiently reducing the risk for miscommunication that can lead to replication problems [i.e. cancer]. Studies have shown that people with acne and other skin conditions have lower levels of selenium and the antioxidant glutathione peroxidase; selenium is the needed mineral for this vital compound [7, 8]. Studies have found that selenium & vitamin E supplementation can improve the appearance of acne and increase levels of glutathione peroxidase .
- Sources: Brazil nuts, oysters, tuna, sunflower seeds, pork, beef, lamb, turkey, chicken and crimini mushrooms
- Role: a very versatile mineral that helps with protein synthesis including the supportive proteins of the skin [collagen & elastin], it helps with wound healing, is anti-inflammatory, and is needed for a healthy and balanced immune system . A balanced immune system helps to reduce rashes, redness and inflammation of the skin. Zinc has been shown to help treat acne  and appears to work with vitamin A to improve skin health .
- Sources: beef, dark meat poultry, lamb, oysters, pork, clams, mussels, scallops, and other seafood, liver, pumpkin seeds, lentils, and tempeh. Zinc can be part of a comprehensive supplement protocol in addition to good food sources.
Low glycemic load diet
Rapid rises in blood sugar is a known driver of inflammation. It also causes swings and disregulation in the release of insulin & can lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity in the long run [this can be further compounded if a diet is low in nutrients known to improve glucose/blood sugar/insulin metabolism such as vitamin D, chromium, & magnesium to name a few]. Diets that are lower in both total carbohydrate and includes more carbohydrate-containing foods that are digested slowly, a.k.a. low glycemic load, have been shown to improve acne and other skin conditions [12,13,14].
Gut inflammation & leaky gut
Yhe health of the gut has a huge impact on overall health including the skin. A healthy gut is free from inflammation of its lining, adequately keeps food proteins, viruses, bacteria, yeasts, and toxins from entering the blood stream and a healthy gut means a strong immune system since about 80% of the immune system is found in the intestines. A healthy gut with an immune system that is not over-active ensures a healthy balance of hormones which translates to healthy skin.
There are any number of potential contributors is an unhappy gut and, in turn, unhappy skin: undiagnosed food sensitivities, allergies, inflammation, dysbiosis (or imbalance gut bacteria), maldigestion of common fibers and sugars in food [FODMAPs], or the over growth of bacteria in the small intestine which, are normally found in the large intestine, a.k.a. small intestine bacterial overgrowth or SIBO. Those with acne rosacea are 10x more likely to be suffering from SIBO . Those with Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease all have skin problems which resolve when the disease is treated and the gut is healed . Those with celiac disease also suffer more alopecia and vitiligo [17, 18]. Leaky gut is also strongly linked with acne .
Love your skin by feeding it what it needs. Getting the support of a nutrition professional who understands the role of nutrition on skin health, as well as understanding the potential underlying causes of skin problems, will go a long way in getting the skin that you’ve always wanted. Simply being told by doctors and dermatologists that diet has no impact on skin health helps no one; consider changing what you eat before automatically reaching for another prescription of antibiotics, or topical steroid cream.