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, as an organ, has function to its structure, which requires adequate, but ideally ample, nutrition - so, eating a diet devoid of nutritious food and expecting amazing skin may be more reserved for those who have won the genetic lottery. Fortunately, our skin is a great communicator - common skin issues like acne, pimples, rashes, premature ageing or dry skin, can serve as messages from our body that something's not quite right internally and it may be needing extra support and love.
While there can be tendency to approach isolate the treatment of skin issues to the skins surface alone (e.g. with products or cosmetic treatments), there’s an array of factors that impact skin health and are always worth reviewing, whether our stress levels, sleep patterns, immunity, the environment we live in, and our diet or water intake. It’s also important to keep in mind our skin 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.
Diet and skin health
Our skin can be highly responsive to an overall nutritious diet, and many will find that upon improving the quality of what they're eating will positively impact skin issues. 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, antioxidants, and all sorts of wonderful nutrients that support our skin, as well as our overall health.
But, we don’t need to take this too far either. Focusing on eating well most of the time, with occasional treats, instead of depriving or restricting ourselves of foods we may enjoy (but have read or been told to fear!), will always prove more sustainable in the long-run - and for long-term changes, an overall consistency with diet is key.
So, what is the basis of a diet that support skin health?
An ideal approach is a diet that reduces both inflammation (as this is linked to many skin issues), as well as free radical damage. There’s certain nutrients that will particularly support skin health here, and through eating a whole food balanced diet we’ll generally receive a substantial intake of each. This can be individual-dependant though - if someone visit the nutrition clinic suffering from a particular skin issue, I may prescribe a supplement known for having evidence-based therapeutic benefits to that condition. However, for most of us it’s always best to get nutrients from whole foods, than supplements.
Here's a brief overview of top foods/nutrients to eat/what to minimise for healthier skin:
1. Up the healthy fats
To encourage gorgeous skin eat dietary fats form whole food sources. These include foods like creamy avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds; and oily fish, like salmon, herring and mackerel. They help aid in reducing inflammation within the body, can provide valuable antioxidants, 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 this nutrient 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 e.g. ample fruits and veggies!
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. This contribute to premature aging, wrinkles, poor skin tone, and a lackluster appearance - basically they'll help age us well before we need to!
Antioxidants from our diets are brilliant because they help protect against free-radicals, reducing their potential damage. Great sources within foods include fruits and veggies, as they're rich in champion antioxidant nutrients like 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 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 isn’t conducive for optimal 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 water. For healthy skin, aim to hit your 8+ glasses of water a day - plain and herbal teas are best. Many fruits and veggies often contain a high percentage of water too, and can help count towards our overall hydration levels.
4. Reduce sugar
We don’t need to demonise foods, but it's important to keep in mind moderation when it comes to sugar intake - not just to support skin health, but overall health too. Sugar can be a contributor to inflammation, negatively affecting the structure of our skin's collagen and elastin fibers (4), leading to premature aging, wrinkles, and changes in skin texture and elasticity. It can also exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions, like acne and rosacea.
To support skin, 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.
One last thing…
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 to support your skin 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.