Protecting your skin from the inside out

Henrietta Norton BSc, Dip NT, MBANT, AFMCP Co-founder of Wild Nutrition and Nutritional Therapist.

Oxidation, also called free-radical damage, accounts for the majority of damage to skin. Our environment and natural bodily processes create a manageable degree of ‘collateral damage’ – oxidation damage -to our skin. However, when this damage is accelerated by sun damage, regular exposure to pollutants, smoking, excess alcohol and high sugar diets, the issue becomes less manageable.


The science


Exposure of the skin to UV-light can generate an immune response, resulting in sunburn. This immune response activates immune cells to primarily protect the sun however they also produce inflammatory by products which, over long term exposure, can be even more damaging to the key skin proteins elastin and collagen (two of our skins key proteins), and trigger a process called ‘cross-linking’, which can lead to toughened and leathery skin.


Consuming antioxidants (which can be found in colourful fruits and vegetables) can reduce this ‘cross-linking’ of proteins. I have seen a lot of benefit from a natural botanical called pycnogenol or pine bark extract. It's antioxidant properties exert an anti-inflammatory effect and studies have shown it to be capable of reducing the damaging side effects of this immune response.


The ageing effect


The health of your skin and the body’s ability to protect itself against free radical damage can also be affected by our life stage.


As women go through the menopausal stages of life the production of the hormone oestrogen changes and this can affect the elasticity of skin. In combination with oxidation from sun exposure this can increase the ‘cross-linking’ of proteins that toughen-up skin, making it leathery and producing a wrinkled appearance. Nourishing your skin from within via foods and supplements works because it reaches the basal cell layer from which skin grows. You can only reach these growth layers to a very limited degree with superficially applied products and treatments. This makes nutrition the first line of action when looking to support skin protection and improve condition.


Tips to reduce free radical damage


1. Increasing the amount of antioxidants you consume


Perhaps the most obvious way of doing this is by upping your intake of fruit and vegetables to a minimum of five portions a day. Eating a colourful array of green, red, yellow and purple fruits and vegetables gives us the widest antioxidant protection as it is these very colours in plant-based foods that are antioxidant rich. Skin supporting nutrients include beta-carotene, vitamin E, selenium and zinc.


2. Consuming a good supply of minerals 


Skin, hair and nails need a good supply of minerals in the diet. Mineral rich foods include lean meats, fish, eggs, grains, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds. Iron and zinc in particular are needed for normal growth of skin, hair and nails. Iron supplies oxygen in the blood to nourish and fuel growth and zinc is needed for proteins to be used for growth. Since hair, skin and nails are growing and replacing themselves all the time they need good amounts of these minerals. Silica is another important mineral needed for the connective tissue in nails and skin. This can be found in beer, whole-grains, oats and the herb horsetail.


3. Eating the right sorts of fat


Skin and hair quality are dependant on sufficient healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. These fatty acids are incorporated in the to cell structure to improve flexibility. They also have a protective mechanism against oxidative damage. Dull, lifeless hair and skin are a sure sign that you need to eat more fatty acids from fresh nuts, seeds, and oily fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines and mackerel or supplement them into your diet. Good oils to dress salads with are cold pressed walnut oil, flax oil or olive oil. These oils can also be rubbed directly into dry spots on the skin. Evening primrose and starflower oils are the best sources of Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA) a fatty acid needed for skin and hair follicle health and can moisturise the skin from the inside. GLA is important for the formation of healthy skin cell membranes and helps to reduce itching and dryness in those with essential fatty acid deficiency.


4. Time, to adjust your nutrition and lifestyle habits 


Time is a great healer, particularly for skin. Skin replaces itself every 6 weeks so by making changes to your diet and supplement regime, you can make a profound difference to how well it is both protected against sun damage and supported for life’s natural ageing process. This summer, I'll be increasing my consumption of light protein sources and water rich vegetables, and I'll also be taking my Wild Nutrition Skin, Hair and Nails as a way to counteract the damage caused by oxidation.


For more on how to prepare your body for summer, see '10 habits for a happy + healthy holiday' and Henrietta's 'Festival survival guide'

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