Like many women before me, I used to be pretty complacent about many of my health issues. Joint pain? Bah, I’ll just walk it off! Headache, I’ll just pop a pill! But when my health issues affected my skin and my complexion, and how I looked, the vainest part of me became worried. I was forced out of complacency. After all, being 30-something (almost 40 even!) and having acne in addition to my grey hair seemed to be a cruel way for the universe to let me keep my youthful facade. I’ve written before about how I’ve had life-long issues with eczema, and I’ve come to realize that eating the wrong thing can result in an eczema flare-up or even cystic acne because of my food intolerances. One of the most frustrating revelations in becoming a holistic nutritionist has been learning that what you eat can affect your body in so many ways beyond your digestion. After all Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.”
How to get clear skin?
While what you can eat can affect you negatively, thankfully, the opposite is also true. There are foods that encourage healthy skin by reducing inflammation, helping to repair damage, relieve dryness or irritation, and more. So if you’ve got skin issues, don’t just rely on expensive beauty creams containing “skin-replenishing nutrients” – those will only help the surface of your problem. If you want to get to the root of the matter, you’ll have to start with what you’re feeding your body as what you eat affects you from the inside out.
Make sure you’re getting enough of these nutrients for healthy skin
Water for hydration
You need water for all of your life’s processes, and if you want beautiful, glowing skin, you’ll want to be properly hydrated. Being dehydrated dries out your skin and increases the appearance of wrinkles. So make sure to reach for water as your beverage of choice – not sweetened juices, teas or coffee. Plain old water does your body best for hydration. If you need a little more flavor, squeeze a little lemon or other citrus into it, infuse it with berries or get some other ideas here. Aside from beverages though, eating plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, soups and stews and other foods that have water will help hydrate you too.
Protein to build
Proteins are the body’s building blocks, and every cell, organ and tissue (including your skin) gets built from protein. After all, it’s the most abundant component of your body, after water. The healthiest sources of protein also contain vitamins, minerals and fats that are necessary for life, never mind just healthy skin. Ideally, your protein sources should come from humanely-raised, pastured animals that have plenty of complete amino acid profiles, B12 and vitamin D (nutrients that aren’t found as readily from plant sources of protein). If you choose to get protein from beans or other legumes, make sure to prepare them carefully (e.g. fermentation, soaking and sprouting) to make them more digestible and reduce the anti-nutrients like phytic acid. Gelatin (from grass-fed animals) is a good source of protein too, and it can help build new skin and tighten loose skin as well. (Canadians: If you’re looking for grass-fed gelatin, I recommend getting it here. The shipping charge is reasonable, and if you use the code HMP485, you’ll get $5 off your order; $10 off if you order $40 or more). Another great way to get gelatin naturally through food is by making your own broth from soup bones.
Quality fats to fight inflammation
Fats, especially Omega-3 fatty acids, – are essential components of every cell membrane in your body (that is, the ‘lipid’ part of the phospholipids membranes), and they’re also essential hormone pre-cursors and needed for your nervous system. Fats are also needed to help transport and help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K. There are two types of essential fatty acids (the types of fats that you must eat because your body can’t make them). Omega-3 fatty acids are needed to reduce inflammation in the body, and Omega-6 fatty acids help produce steroid like chemicals that help control inflammation. The problem is that in the standard American diet full of processed foods, corn-fed beef and other meats, the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats is out of whack – most of us are getting too many Omega-6 fatty acids, and not enough Omega-3s, hence why supplementation of Omega-3s is often recommended. Just make sure to stay away from processed “vegetable” oils that are actually not from vegetables, but rather soybeans, grains and seeds like corn oil, canola oil and cottonseed oil. These trans-fats are made when polyunsaturated fatty acids are heated.
Where can you get good fats? Pasture-raised meats, wild-caught cold water fish (like sardines, tuna, mackerel and salmon) are excellent sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Other healthy fats can be found in avocados, nuts and seeds.
Vitamin A to repair damaged skin
This fat-soluble vitamin is stored in the liver and comes in two forms: active, proform vitamin A (or retinol) that is only found in animal sources or beta-carotene which is a water-soluble co-factor found in plant sources. Your body converts 3 IU of beta-carotene to make 1 IU of vitamin A, but to do so, you’ll need a healthy functioning liver. One of the symptoms of vitamin A deficiency is dry, itchy skin, and this vitamin is needed to help repair damaged skin, help retain skin moisture and counter infections.
You can find the retinol form in fish liver oils, and beta-carotene in green and yellow fruit and vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes, garlic, ginger and others.
B-complex vitamins to combat dryness
The water-soluble B-vitamins are usually naturally found together in food, and if you’re supplementing, they work best taken as a B-complex, rather than individually isolated B-vitamins. When it comes to healthy skin, B-vitamins help combat dryness and itchiness. B-vitamin deficiency can lead to skin issues including dermatitis, and more seriously, neurological disorders.
B vitamins are naturally found together in foods such as: organ meat, fish, meat, nuts, sunflower seeds, brewer’s yeast, eggs, leafy greens and more. Keep in mind that B12 is a B-vitamin that is only found in animal foods.
Vitamin C to help allergic skin reactions
Most people know that vitamin C will help stave off a cold and boost your immune system, so it shouldn’t be too big a surprise that vitamin C will also help fight skin infections too. Vitamin C also has anti-histamine effects which can help with allergic skin reactions. Aside from oranges, you can acquire vitamin C in apples, leafy greens, garlic, onions, and sweet peppers.
Vitamin E to protect skin
Lots of expensive creams and beauty products will boast that they have vitamin E in them. After all, this fat-soluble vitamin E is an anti-oxidant that can help protect skin cells and repair damage caused by free radicals and then sun. Some signs of vitamin E deficiency are bad skin, brittle hair and premature aging.
Get vitamin E from foods like eggs, liver, organ meats, as well as leafy greens, broccoli.
Quercetins to reduce skin reactions
Quercitins are flavonoids found in plants that can help stabilize cell membranes and block the allergic response that can result in eczema or hives. You can find quercetins in citrus fruits and green tea.
Zinc to help skin healing
Zinc is a mineral required for tissue and cell formation, and required in the body’s synthesis of retinol (the active form of vitamin A), so a deficiency in zinc can also lead to a vitamin A deficiency. Zinc can help skin healing and is also involved in the metabolism of fatty acids. People with eczema are often zinc deficient. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include skin disorders like acne.
You can get zinc from pumpkin seeds, oysters, liver, eggs, apricots, peaches and cocoa.
How do you get healthier skin? Eat more nutrient-dense foods.
What it comes down to is this – eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods from quality sources, will not only help you achieve beautiful, healthy skin, but also a healthy body all-around. Eating better quality food is certainly an excellent place to start. If you need more in-depth help with your skin beyond better nutrition, I highly recommend The Skintervention Guide – I bought this book before I even had a blog, and it helped me immensely. Liz Wolfe of Real Food Liz outlines how to improve your skin by first addressing nutrition, followed by improving your digestion and finally with natural body and skin care methods. Check it out here.