Being the largest organ in our body, shielding us from all sorts of environmental onslaughts, our skin has always been an object of obsession. In teenage years we are plagued by acne and spots, while later on we struggle with hormonal outbreaks and hangover pimples. Once we are in our thirties, every tiny line and infantile wrinkle requires constant examination and a generous helping of anti-ageing lotions. These magical potions are certainly not in short supply and they are flying off the shelves like hot cross buns at Easter.
Luckily, the notion that true skin beauty comes from within is getting more and more popular and an ever growing anti-ageing supplement section in your health store is testament of this shift.But before we discuss skin foods and plumping pills, there is a far more serious issue to address: skin cancer.
Skin cancer, like most other cancers, is on the rise; reported cases have almost quadrupled since the 1970s. When we refer to cancer of the skin we usually mean malignant melanoma. This is the most dangerous and deadly form of tumour with over 12,000 people being diagnosed each year since 2010. This cancer starts in the melanocyts, the cells that produce melanin (the pigment responsible for your golden holiday glow). Melanin protects the deeper layers of the skin from radiation.
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) are far more common types of skin cancer with almost 100,000 new cases a year but they are relatively easy to treat and seldomly result in death. They are also the only skin cancers directly related to sun exposure. Yes, you’ve heard right, malignant melanoma might not be caused by sun radiation alone after all. Paradoxically, we have been using sun cream by the bucket load, smothering our children in SPF 80 and all we have achieved is an increased incidence of rickets and a vitamin D deficiency epidemic!
According to the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, sun exposure and particularly UVB radiation can actually protect from skin cancer. Conveniently, UVB rays also fuel your vitamin D factory and by saying no to sunshine, you are saying no to vitamin D and its cancer protective action. But this vitamin is not the only substance tickled into life by the sun’s rays. In response to some warming summer brightness, we also produce nitric oxide in our outer most layer. Nitric oxide causes arteries to widen, enabling better blood flow and lowering blood pressure.
The bottom line is, by avoiding the sun you are denying yourself vital vitamin D and putting yourself at increased risk of melanoma and other diseases, not just skin cancer. Deficiency in this vitamin has been linked to all kinds of cancers in the past and breast cancer has even been described as ‘vitamin D deficiency syndrome’.
Supplementing with a good quality vitamin D supplement of at least 3000IU per day is a good idea but it does not completely replace the health giving properties of sunshine on our skin. Now put on your shorts and sandals and soak up some of those nourishing rays, but never burn! Red, sun damaged skin is a breeding ground for wrinkles, age spots and cancer. Limit your time in the sun to five minutes at the time to avoid a not-so-flattering ‘lobster look’ and keep some pure aloe vera gel ready to use as after sun lotion.
There is another group of nutrients that goes hand in hand with healthy, glowing and age resistant skin: antioxidants, and a very specific kind! Carotenoids such as lutein, lycopene astaxanthin and zeaxanthin are not only your best weapon against skin cancer but they also protect you from environmental damage such as sunburn. Stack your plate high with bright red and orange coloured foods such as squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, red peppers and watermelon. Blue green algae such as chlorella and spirulina might not be an obvious choice but they contain the most powerful antioxidant known to man: astaxanthin. It turns flamingos and salmon pink and graces our skin with a protective shield against disease and aging.
Besides including these foods in your diet, it is well worth investing in a good quality mixed carotenoid supplement, especially before you go on holiday, to minimise sun damage.
But let’s not forget that all these skin saints are fat soluble substances. This means that they need to be digested and absorbed in much the same way as a generous helping of oil or butter. Fat digestion is notoriously difficult for our body. Just think about the heavy feeling in your stomach after a fatty meal! To help this process and to make sure all carotenoids will reach the outer layers of your skin, take a digestive enzyme containing lipase with your meals and supplements.
With vitamin D, a mixture of carotenoids, some nourishing spirulina and chlorella and a plate full of orange glowing foods, you are armed to your teeth for the holiday season. Add in some highly anti-inflammatory and skin nourishing oils from fish, avocado and olive and you have a good chance of never having to face the dreaded diagnosis of malignant melanoma.