An indulgent Christmas period can leave the skin puffy and with a dull complexion for the New Year. Coupled with the drying cold weather, skin could certainly do with a boost of nourishment at this time of year. The typical ‘January detox’ and sudden hit of exercise can also, perhaps surprisingly, negatively affect skin health.
Flawless, glowing skin is something we all strive to achieve, as a perfect, glowing complexion certainly makes us look younger and healthier. Skin condition is a visible representation of how our ‘insides’ are coping. It reflects our state of health in many ways, including our digestive and hormone health. If you have symptoms such as dry skin, or acne, this may be a reflection of your nutritional status and other processes in the body which may not be functioning optimally.
Of course, there is always a chance that you are prone to a specific skin condition such as eczema (perhaps due to a hereditary predisposition), but this does not inevitably mean suffering. Managing symptoms such as dry skin and breakouts are all possible with the help of correct nutrition. Nourishing your skin from the inside out is the most effective way of feeding your skin everything it needs to function optimally.
To fully understand how nutrition can support your skin, it is important to identify your skin type. You may have dry skin, oily skin, or combination. This may be partly genetic, but your diet will have a huge effect on the condition of your skin. If you imagine your skin reflecting the quality of every cell in your body, this is effectively how your skin appears.
Oily skin may appear shiny, and may result in blocked pores and spots. Diet can contribute considerably to this; for example, if you eat a diet very high in saturated fats from animal sources, these types of fats can cause overproduction of sebum, the type of oil released from pores, particularly on the face, chest and back. If you have spots in these areas, you are most likely to have excess sebum production. Oily skin can also be a result of hormone imbalances. High levels of testosterone (both in males and females) cause higher sebum production and can therefore lead to spots.
Dry skin can present itself in varying degrees of severity, from a taut uncomfortable feeling after showering to dry flaky skin which may cause itching. Eczema is a severe form of dry skin, often associated with allergies. Dry skin is associated with low dietary intake of fats in general, but particularly the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in foods such as fish, nuts and seeds.
Support natural exfoliation of the skin
If your skin is well hydrated, your cells will be nicely plumped up, allowing for dead skin cells to be removed without having to scrub too hard. Exfoliation is essentially a way in which your dead skin cells can be removed, revealing fresh newer cells underneath. The renewal of skin cells, i.e. growth and cell division, also requires good levels of the micronutrient zinc. Zinc is therefore required to promote a healthy glowing complexion, and to speed up the healing process if your skin is damaged. Zinc is found in foods such as sea food, red meat, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
A build-up of dead skin cells can result in thick looking aged skin, often with increased ageing lines. Keeping skin hydrated and including adequate zinc in your diet are the most efficient ways to encourage renewal of cells and healthy exfoliation. Exfoliating skin lightly every other day is fine if you use natural exfoliating products which do not contain harsh drying agents (such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate) or use a clean, just damp muslin cloth.
Without exfoliation, dead skin cells not only give the skin a dull appearance, they also block pores, which may lead to an accumulation of oil in pores.
Control bacterial infections
Once a pore is blocked with excess oil (sebum), this is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria – moist and warm. If your blocked pores come into contact with unfriendly bacteria (very easily achieved, as we continuously have low levels of pathogenic bacteria on our skin in controllable amounts), this can cause the area to become infected. A blocked pore infected with bacteria results in a pus-filled spot. This infection then causes the immune system to react by causing inflammation, which appears as a red raised area.
To keep pathogenic bacteria away from our skin is almost impossible, however if we can maintain low enough levels, the body can fight them off naturally. Antibiotics may be recommended for severe cases of acne, as this clears away the bacterial infection; unfortunately, however, re-infection is very common, especially after antibiotics have wiped out all the beneficial bacteria too. Providing beneficial bacteria to your body is a great way to protect your skin against infection, as these beneficial bacteria compete with other bacteria for space; if they do their job well, they will prevent any other pathogenic bacteria from settling in and taking over. Taking a probiotic supplement is a great way to increase beneficial bacteria throughout the body. Fermented foods such as kefir or live probiotic yoghurt are also a brilliant way to get lots of live good bacteria into your system to do their protective work.
Prebiotics are the nourishing food for beneficial bacteria which encourage multiplication of these good bacteria. Prebiotic foods are therefore very useful to include in your diet when it comes to encouraging growth of beneficial bacteria and controlling harmful bacteria. Prebiotic-rich foods include chicory, artichoke, asparagus, onions, garlic and bananas. Aim to have at least one of these foods each day, or get into the habit of cooking regularly with onions and garlic.
General hygiene can also help to keep bacterial infections at bay. Simple habits, such as avoiding touching your face throughout the day (unless you have just washed your hands thoroughly) and washing your towels and pillow cases regularly, can really help to keep pathogenic bacteria under control.
Protect the skin from oxidative stress
Oxidative stress is essentially damage to cells. The higher the level of oxidative stress, the faster the skin becomes damaged and, therefore, ages. There is nothing wrong with ageing naturally, it is an inevitable process of living; accelerated ageing due to oxidative stress, however, is not good for us in any way, and will negatively affect other organs too. Keeping oxidative stress to a healthy level can be achieved with a high intake of antioxidants, which are abundant in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. The government recommendation of 5-a-day is nowhere nearly met by the general population in the UK, and this is really the bare minimum we should be consuming. For optimal skin health 8-10 portions of fruit and vegetables per day would be ideal, with particular emphasis on vegetables to keep sugar intake (even from fruit) low.
Good circulation is also important to ensure that these vitamins and minerals are delivered to cells, therefore moderate exercise should certainly help to get the blood pumping round. Excessive exercise, though, has the opposite effect on oxidative stress, and actually increases oxidation. Oxidation is a natural and essential component of life, and we cannot avoid it as oxidation occurs as we breathe, but we can avoid high levels by keeping exercise at a reasonable level. The January boom of determined gym-goers can actually worsen skin conditions in some cases. Avoid running for hours at a time if you want to keep your oxidative stress low, although, conversely, regular yoga classes, weight training and visits to the sauna will do wonders for your skin.
Inflammation and fatty acids
If you suffer from reddening of the skin, whether this is in the form of angry red spots, or itchy red inflamed dry skin, this red reaction is the body’s natural way of trying to fight off an infection or heal the skin, i.e. the process of inflammation.
A reasonable level of inflammation is normal, however if you have chronic inflammation, this causes constant and simultaneous breakdown and rebuilding of cells, which the body cannot keep up with.
Inflammation in the body is determined by hormone-like substances produced from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. An excess of consumption of omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA), and a lack of omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can result in an imbalance, causing excess inflammation in the body.
To control red spots and itchy red skin, keep up your intake of omega-3 rich foods, particularly fish, and limit your intake of omega-6 fatty acids from grain-fed animals and refined vegetable oils such as corn or sunflower oil.
Balancing your omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is important not only for reducing the reddened appearance of acne, but also for supporting dry skin by giving cells the fluid they require for flexible membranes, allowing for nutrients to pass through easily, for toxins to leave easily, and to protect against cold weather by creating a layer of tight plumped up cells.
Sleep is one of the most rejuvenating things we can give our skin, as this is the time when any damage to skin is healed. This is particularly important if you are prone to spots, as sleep will allow your skin time to heal properly. Eight hours a day is usually a good amount of sleep to aim for, but the ideal level is different for everyone, so listen to your body, and try to fit in more luxury sleep time if your skin is suffering.
Detox diets – the cons
Contrary to popular belief, following a strict diet in the hope of ‘detoxing’ can actually result in more problems than you started with, with a common lack of vitamins and minerals (especially zinc), protein and fatty acids. Diet restricting for up to three days is not going to do harm, and it may be a nice way to kick-start new eating habits; however if you follow an extreme and restricting detox diet for more than a few days, your body as a whole is likely to suffer, and your skin especially. If you would like to support your liver in the detoxification process (which it is always doing anyway), aim to support it with good nutrition, rather than taking away what it needs. If you want to give your liver a break, and support its function after a heavy December, perhaps consider reducing alcohol intake, eat organic, and include nourishing brassica vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli.
If you follow all the healthy diet and lifestyle advice given so far, but you are still putting chemical-laden cosmetics on your skin, from shampoos to moisturiser, think again! What you put on your skin on the outside is also going to affect your skin health, so keep products as natural as possible. Jojoba oil as make-up remover, apple cider vinegar as a toner (rinsed off), salt as a disinfectant and rosehip oil as a moisturiser are all used as normal in the healthy world of natural skin care enthusiasts. Give it a try and let the glowing version of you shine through.