Our skin is the face we present to the outside world. For many, a big driver to eat healthier can be to do with what we look like, with our skin as no exception - beauty is only skin deep, but anyone who has suffered from skin issues (me!) will know it can certainly affect our confidence and how we feel.
Our skin needs nutrients to firstly function, then look its best, so we can't except to eat a diet devoid of nutrients and have amazing skin (unless we've won some kind of genetic lottery). As an organ, our skin is a great communicator and representation of what’s going on internally - any imbalances, whether acne, pimples, rashes, premature ageing or dry skin, can serve as messages from our body that something's not quite right and it's needing extra support and love.
While there can be tendency to isolate the treatment of skin issues to the skins surface alone (e.g. with products or cosmetic treatments), it really works in synergy with a whole host of factors, whether our stress levels, sleep patterns, immunity, the environment we live in, our diet and water intake, and is heavily intertwined with our other organs, such as the gut, liver, reproductive system and kidneys - it's certainly no lone-wolf! While this can make it difficult to narrow down the exact cause of skin issues, by looking after ourselves (through what we eat, how we think and how we move), we’re not only looking after our health, but ultimately our skin too.
What exactly does our skin do?
It's an organ (our largest!) and is a part of the integumentary system, which has a primary role of protecting us against damage, essentially serving as a guard and first-line of defence, between us and the outside world. This is also not just through the physicality of it, but a host of other mechanisms, which on the larger scale of life, help us to survive - it helps communicate to our body we're in pain, we're too hot/cold, we're injured, and what something is by the sensation of touch, which can then help our body adjust accordingly to our environment. It also produces vitamin D, eliminates toxins through its surface, and like magic, can repair itself when damaged. Our skin lives and, in a sense, breathes (our outermost cells of our skin uptake oxygen for themselves!), and so it certainly makes sense why ample nutrients are needed for it to thrive and do its thing.
Top nutrients for healthy skin
Our skin is highly responsive to an overall good diet and many will find that upon improving the quality of what they're eating skin issues will minimise, or even completely disappear. By quality this means eating more foods in their natural state, or as natural as possible, and as often as possible. Here they're packed full of vitamins, minerals and all sorts of wonderful nutrients that support our skin, as well as our overall health.
There's certain nutrients our skin particularly loves, and through eating a whole food balanced diet we will generally receive a substantial intake of each. This is individual-dependant though - if someone is suffering from a particular skin issue in the clinic I might bump up their intake of particular nutrients known to have therapeutic benefits to that condition. It's important to keep in mind that our skins life cycle, from production to replacement, takes around 28 days - so if you're making dietary changes don't expect things to happen overnight. Like an aged wine or cheese, good things take time. Stick with it, be persistant, and you'll find it improves. Good health and skin is built by what we do most of the time, not some of the time. Here's a brief overview of top foods/nutrients to eat/not to eat for healthy skin:
1. Up the healthy fats
For gorgeous skin eat whole food fats - these are foods such as creamy avocados, oils like coconut and olive, nuts, seeds, and oily fish, like salmon and mackerel. They help aid in reducing inflammation within the body, and are crucial players in the structure of the skin, in a sense acting like internal moisturisers, and having a vital role in the production of the skins natural oil barrier.
Essential fatty acids/EFA's are particularly important, being deemed essential for a reason - the body can't produce them, so we MUST get through diet. A balanced intake in favour of EFA omega-3 (e.g. oily fish, walnuts) to EFA omega-6 (e.g. vegetable oils) will have an anti-inflammatory and protective effect on the body, which can be useful against inflammatory skin disorders(1) (2). The best sources are whole foods, always - enjoy oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, egg yolks and flaxseed oil.
2. Eat antioxidant-rich foods
Our skin serves as a barrier between us and the outside world - between internal factors (e.g. certain foods, stress, inflammation) and external factors (e.g. sun exposure, pollution, smoking), we have the creation of damaging free-radicals happening pretty much 24/7, which can impact collagen and elastin, the key proteins used as the structural support of skin. With free-radical damage can come premature aging, wrinkles, poor skin tone, and a lackluster appearance - basically they'll age us well before we need too. Antioxidants in our diet are brilliant because they help 'balance' free-radicals, reducing the damage associated with them.
Great sources of antioxidants in our diet are fruits and veggies, as they're rich in the champion antioxidant nutrients, vitamin C (e.g. citrus fruit, capsicum), vitamin E (e.g. avocado, spinach) and vitamin A (e.g. carrots, kumara/sweet potato). In particular, vitamin C has been shown to be especially beneficial at decreasing the likelihood and severity of wrinkles (3). To get a good intake of antioxidants, aim to hit your 5++ servings of fruit and veggies everyday, making sure to include a varied intake.
3. Stay hydrated
Water is essential to life - without it, we wouldn't last very long. It helps flush toxins from the body through our excretory system, aids blood circulation, helps with delivery of nutrients to our cells, and keeps our bowels moving along nicely, which is important for waste removal and reducing constipation (waste build-up in the body=toxic build up, which is a no-no for skin health).
When our skin is dehydrated, wrinkles appear more prominent, and skin drier and duller - this makes sense, given a huge percentage of us (around 60%) is actually water. For healthy skin, make sure to hit your 8+ glasses of water a day - plain is best, but herbal teas can count too. Also remember many fruits and veggies often contain a high percentage of water, and can help count towards our overall hydration levels too.
4. Reduce sugar
I don't like demonising foods, but it's important to keep in mind moderation when it comes to sugar intake. When we eat a big load of sugary foods, particularly items like sweets which are broken down rapidly, our body is usually like "hey, that's WAY more energy then I need right now!", and so it releases the hormone insulin to help deal with the excess sugar. Large spikes of insulin are inflammatory in nature, which isn't good for skin heath, with too much sugar negatively affecting the structure of our skin's collagen and elastin fibers (4), contributing to premature aging, as well as the exacerbation of inflammatory skin conditions, like acne and rosacea.
To support not only skin health, but overall health too, treat sugar like the treat it is. This includes less processed, more natural sources, like maple syrup and coconut sugar, too.
5. Bump up your zinc intake
Zinc is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in skin health. It's particularly beneficial in wound healing, reducing inflammation and helping our cells to regenerate - if our skin is injured in any way, zinc quickly gets to work!
Zinc is hugely beneficial at minimising the prevalence of acne, with low zinc levels correlated to an increased occurrence (5). Zinc helps to decreases the severity/occurrence of the condition through balancing our skins oil production and working to increase the vitamin A levels in our blood, another vital superstar skin nutrient not only needed for acne-free skin, but healthy skin in general too (6).
Best food sources of zinc includes seafood, especially oysters, beef and lamb, chicken, pumpkin seeds, peanuts and chickpeas.