We all know and understand the importance of eating a wide variety of foods to stay healthy. But have you ever thought about food for skin health? Sure, modifying our diet may help us lose weight, look better, and feel better, but the nutrients we consume are so important to how our skin functions and ultimately how it looks. We are going to learn about five nutrients you need to be consuming to achieve healthy skin.
First, we will describe the macronutrients of the body which are carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. These are the major building blocks of the body. If we think about these macronutrients as if we were building a house, they are the foundation or bones of the building, without them there is no structure to live inside. Then next we will discuss micronutrients such as vitamins. These micronutrients are critical for the macronutrients to function. Imaging our house with the concrete poured and walls standing, it is not yet livable. We need still need the micronutrients as they represent the lights and plumbing and electricity.
Please recognize that these nutrients are each essential and important on their own and that balance and variety in diet is the best way to achieve a healthy body and ultimately healthy skin. But let’s discover why each plays an important role in that process.
#1. Carbohydrates. Everyone loves carbs, so much so that every diet seems to tell you not to eat them. Why? Because they are the perfectly packaged energy bomb that can be quickly broken down into its building blocks to create energy. If that energy is not used it’s stored as fat (broadly known as lipids). But, if that energy after eating a carbohydrate is required it is broken down into its active component in the form of glucose. Glucose allows for a skin cell’s internal system to create the energy required for the cell to function. Lack of glucose means lack of cellular function.
#2. Lipids. Ok so you ate too many carbs in the form of pasta last night, didn’t need all the energy and your body thought great I’ll store this as energy for later as fat (aka lipids). Lipids are crucial to bodily functions. They can be found in a skin cell’s outer membranes, which allows for stabilized surface. This prevents evaporation and loss of water on a micro level from the cell’s internal ecosystem and on a macro level from the skin as a as whole. Lipids are additionally produced by oil and sweat glands in the deep layer of the skin for hydration, lubrication and excretion of toxins.
#3. Proteins. Are the workhorse molecules in the body. They come in many different forms and functions. Some proteins are structural and form large critical molecules in the skin like collagen and elastin fibers. These fibers are found in the deeper layers of skin that provide strength and elasticity to the skin. Proteins are also the building blocks of enzymes, which are active in the formation and breakdown of all types of molecular structures in our body. We see other examples such as proteins that alter melanin production protecting against damaging ultraviolet (UV) sunlight or acting as an antimicrobial in the skin, by damaging infective bacteria and induce wound healing.
#4. Vitamins. It is fair to say we all know we should be taking our vitamins. We’ve been taught that since childhood, but what is a vitamin and why should we be taking them? Vitamins are vital “micronutrients” which are needed for “macronutrients” (which are categorized as carbs, fats and proteins) to be able to function. Three of the vitamins most notably important for skin health are vitamin A, C and E.
Vitamin A is also known as a retinoid. The effect of retinoids on the skin can be seen as improvement in acne as well as photoaging and sun damaged skin. When taken for acne, retinoids decrease sebum and oil production and reduce inflammatory cells that lead to pimple formation and acne flares. For aged skin, retinoids improve the appearance of fine wrinkles, soften thickened and sun damaged skin by increasing skin cell turnover and increase dermal collagen production.
Vitamin C acts within the skin as a potent antioxidant and is a vital cofactor in collagen formation (or synthesis). As an antioxidant Vitamin C assists in reducing sun damage caused by UV light. In collagen synthesis it acts as a vital component in the structure of collagen fibers contributing to the skin’s inherent strength and flexibility.
Vitamin E consists of a group of molecules that act within the skin as antioxidants. In its simplest form the term antioxidant refers to a substance that reduces and eliminates free radicals. Free radicals are free ranging molecules in the body that can cause damage to the macronutrients already discussed. A free radical can occur when UV light hits the skin and creates a chain reaction resulting in a new free radical. Left to its own devices free radicals cause damage to skin cells. Vitamin E acts as an anti-free radical (or antioxidant) and by this mechanism it reduces the negative effects of photodamage by UV light, such as hyperpigmentation and inflammation that free radicals create.
#5. Flavonoids. This is a massive and diverse grouping of plant derived dietary compounds. They are found in fruits and vegetables as well as herbs and flowers. Some common skin related examples are green tea and pomegranate extract, curcumin (found in turmeric root) and resveratrol (found in grape skins and wine). This large group of compounds can be generally and most simplistically seen helping skin through antioxidants effects.
With all that information you may be asking, ok so which new tropical berry or ancient grain should I eat to discover flawless skin? Which gets directly to the point. There will never be a miracle pill or herb to be healthy. The interactions and structure to your skin is infinitely complex and to keep the system working and running smoothly the key is balance. The nutrients above are building blocks of healthy skin and by eating a balanced diet you can lay the foundation and start the journey to achieving healthy skin.