Nutrition for naturally healthy skin
Your face says a lot about you: who you are, where you’ve been, your softness, your strength, your diet, how many hours sleep you’ve had, if you’ve replaced water with wine… In fact, your face says more than you might think, I believe that your skin reflects how you treat yourself. So if you want youthful skin that ages gracefully with you, here are some key nutrition tips so you can glow from the inside out.
How does your diet affect your skin?
Did you know that the average adult loses roughly 300 billion cells every day? Your body is constantly renewing itself, using the fuel provided from your diet. So when people say you are what you eat: you actually are what you eat. While food can be a celebration, a taste sensation, a unifying tradition, at the end of the day food is fuel. Food provides sustenance, macronutrients, micronutrients, minerals and vitamins that all play a specific and integral role in the human body in a number of complex biochemical processes.
For example, when you eat blueberries, you are not just consuming food. You are providing your cells with energy, your gut with fiber to regulate digestion, boosting your immunity with a surge of phytonutrients and antioxidants, decreasing inflammation in the body to reduce pain and prevent infection and offering your body a range of other nutrients to improve the skin, support the nervous system and regulate the hormones, amongst others.
Your skin is your largest organ, making up 16 percent of your entire body. It provides an essential barrier between the outside world and the intensely regulated internal systems in the body. Skin has three layers: the subcutis (hypodermis), dermis and epidermis. The integrity and functionality of these three layers - like all other organs in the body - depends on internal and external stressors and nutrient availability.
External stressors may include sun damage, the use of products, exposure to pollutants and chemicals, irritants, weather and humidity, amongst others. Internal stressors may include stress, disease or infections, but most considerably - your diet. So what should you eat for glowing healthy skin?
Nutrition for naturally healthy skin
If you consume healthy, organic, whole foods, you are intaking polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, polyphenols, prebiotics, probiotics, collagen, amino acids and many more key nutrients that will hydrate, strengthen, reduce inflammation and heal blemishes and infections, resulting in healthy, glowing, youthful skin. So let’s get into it, here are the best nutrients for your skin, and the best food sources for each.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. 20 amino acids exist that are necessary for your body to function properly, with the majority being made in your body (non-essential) and nine being essential, meaning they can not be made in the body and must come from the diet.
Unsurprisingly, the best sources of amino acids are protein sources, specifically animal protein like meat, fish, eggs and dairy. These are considered ‘complete’ proteins because they provide all nine essential amino acids. Vegetarian protein sources like tofu, lentils and chickpeas also offer some essential amino acids but are ‘incomplete’ protein sources because they do not offer a full spectrum.
Amino acids are integral to healthy skin. Firstly, amino acids are crucial in creating collagen, fibrinogen and elastin, which are required to uphold the integrity, structure and quality of the skin. Naturally as we age, collagen production decreases, causing the skin to lose the plump appearance and start to sag. Amino acids also help to heal skin damage, maintain a health pH, reduce inflammation and protect the skin barrier from external stressors.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition last year gave a group of female participants an amino acid supplement for six weeks and examined changes in their skin. The researchers found that skin texture, quality and moisture dramatically improved compared to the placebo.
The best sources of amino acids for skin health are high in lysine, an amino acid that has been shown in research to reduce acne and boost collagen. These include grass fed and finished red meat, chicken, wild caught salmon, sardines, organic grass fed cottage cheese and wheat germ.
As mentioned in the section on amino acids, collagen is the protein responsible for skin elasticity and plumpness. Research shows that as we age, we naturally produce less collagen in our skin, which is arguably the main reason why we get wrinkles, sagging and loose skin as we move later in life. But there is something we can do about it! Consuming foods that naturally increase collagen production is one of the most effective ways to improve skin health, so we figured it needed its own section.
A study published in the Journal of Medical Nutrition and Nutraceuticals gave female participants a collagen supplement and found that by the end of the clinical trial, the women were able to significantly reduce the depth of facial wrinkles and increase skin elasticity and hydration. These female participants were post-menopausal with aging skin, which highlights the benefit of consuming collagen on a daily basis!
Combining the amino acids lysine, proline and glycine is the most bioavailable way to increase collagen production. The amino acids are combined in foods like:
Grass fed bone broth
Grass fed chicken
Fiber is one of the most important nutrients for your body and skin. Fiber is found only in plant foods and helps to support healthy digestion to promote regular bowel movements. You may have heard people refer to the gut as the second brain, and for good reason. Research shows that gut health is arguably the main contributor to skin quality: if your gut is working properly, your digestion is good, blood sugar is regulated, nutrients are being absorbed and utilized, the immune system is working optimally, inflammation is managed and the colon is clear.
If you don’t consume sufficient fiber (approximately 30g per day), your body is unable to excrete toxins and bile through your feces and so creates inflammation. Inflammation is the number one cause of skin complaints like acne, clogged pores, blackheads and skin conditions like eczema. Fiber rich foods that you should include in your daily diet are:
Legumes, nuts and seeds
Prebiotics are types of indigestible fiber found in food that act as roughage to bulk out stools and provide fuel for the bacteria in your gut to increase and function properly. As mentioned, gut health affects skin quality. A study found that prebiotic consumption in the form of oats was associated with hydrated and supple skin. Prebiotic foods include:
Under ripe bananas
Not to be confused with prebiotics, probiotics are live bacteria organisms that help to populate the gut with healthy bacteria. Probiotic consumption has been shown in research to support healthy skin and reduce skin conditions like eczema, atopic dermatitis, acne and psoriasis by decreasing levels of inflammation in the body. These include:
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha
High quality yogurt
Antioxidants are compounds that fight free radical damage, oxidative stress and inflammation, things that all cause skin damage and premature aging. Free radicals are created from external stressors like pollution, sun exposure or smoking, and are dangerous for the skin because they damage our skin’s DNA, causing accelerated aging. When our cells are damaged by free radicals, skin starts to sag, have poor texture and more wrinkles and discoloration appear on the skin. Antioxidants fight free radical damage, the most important for skin health are vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E.
Vitamin A can be found in a range of foods in the form of beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A in the body. Foods containing beta-carotene can be characterized by their bright color like carrots, sweet potato, red pepper, cantaloupe and squash. Beta-carotene has serious antioxidant properties to fight inflammation and free radicals.
Another powerful benefit of vitamin A is providing retinol. Retinol is a common skincare ingredient as it helps to improve skin texture, pigmentation, dryness and fine lines. This has been supported in research, including a 2006 analysis that concludes vitamin A rich foods slow down aging due to the retinoid activity. Cod liver oil, beef liver and black-eyed peas are all a great source of vitamin A.
Vitamin C is the holy grail ingredient for skincare products for good reason: it promotes skin brightness, reduces blemishes and redness and makes skin glow. But the best way to get vitamin C is not through your skincare products, that only alter your skin at a surface level. The most effective, long lasting benefit of vitamin C comes when it is regularly consumed in dietary form. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and an integral component of collagen synthesis; without vitamin C, collagen can not be created and thus skin quality is seriously compromised. Foods high in vitamin C include:
Yellow bell peppers
Dark leafy green vegetables
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that stops the chain reaction of free radical damage, particularly when fat is oxidized for energy and reactive oxygen species are produced as a result. Vitamin E stops this damage and as a result helps to delay the natural process of age-associated cell damage. Due to this, studies have shown that vitamin E can be powerfully effective at reducing UV damage to skin. Foods high in vitamin E include:
Wheat germ oil
When vitamin E is combined with vitamin C, the antioxidant capacity of these nutrients is boosted working together to slow down aging by fighting free radical damage and inflammation, while promoting the growth of healthy new skin cells.
Selenium is an essential mineral that plays a big role in skin health. Like many of the other nutrients on this list, selenium can not be produced in the body so must be obtained from the diet. One of the main roles of selenium is metabolic regulation however research has shown it to be a key contributor to skin health for its antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties. Minerals in the skin absorb UVA and UVB rays and so play a role in protecting skin against skin damage and related cancers. As an antioxidant enzyme, selenium also fights free radical damage. Studies show that selenium deficiencies are associated with an increased cancer risk, particularly of the skin, as well as skin discoloration, altered hair follicle cycling and epidermal atrophy (the degeneration and thinning of the skin). A study on selenium found that participants who had higher levels of selenium experienced less sun damage after exposure than a group with lower selenium levels. Sun damage is the quickest way to prematurely age and damage the skin!
Another antioxidant, turmeric has powerful medicinal properties to reduce inflammation and free radical damage. A systematic review of the research on turmeric for skin health concluded that it is hugely beneficial to delay skin-related aging and all types of inflammatory skin conditions.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that support brain and heart health. The three most important types are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Your body can not make omega-3 fatty acids and thus must be sourced from the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly anti-inflammatory and thus help to protect against infection and disease, as well as inflammatory outbreaks in the skin like rosacea, acne and conditions like eczema.
DHA is a structural component of the skin that is responsible for the functionality of cell membranes. When cell membranes are healthy and functioning optimally, the skin is soft, hydrated and supple. EPA contributes to skin health by managing oil production and hydration and reducing the risk of acne. A study that examined the relationship of diet and acne also found that EPA prevents collagen break down, which counteracts age-related collagen loss.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
Cod liver oil
What foods to avoid?
Avoid foods that spike inflammation in the body like refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol and chemicals. Any food that causes blood sugar and insulin levels to spike causes an inflammatory response in the body which breaks down collagen and elastin production. Over time this causes wrinkles, sagging and premature aging. Alcohol produces acetaldehyde as a byproduct of alcohol metabolism which is toxic to the body, resulting in dehydration and tissue toxicity.
So now you know what to eat: antioxidant rich foods, healthy fats and foods that support gut health. These foods help to decrease inflammation in the body which is the main contributor to skin aging and inflammatory skin conditions that alter skin quality, texture and functionality. For a skin glow, start from within. Forget the $300 creams and fancy facials if you’re not focusing on what goes from fork to mouth. Your diet is the most effective treatment for your skin, so if you want to age gracefully, glow beautifully and feel young forever, start there.