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Achieving Healthy Skin from Within

Fruit_skinWith all the get-togethers, parties, and family dinners, the holiday season can be tough on our waistlines. But, beyond the belt, the food we consume can affect us in other ways, too. What once was a quick and easy trip to the grocery store has now for some become much more of an event. How much fat should I be eating? What’s good fat vs. bad fat? What are antioxidants and how many of them do I need?

My colleague recently addressed some of the effects food and bacteria in the gut can have on cardiovascular disease. But as it turns out, food also affects our largest organ – the skin, says Ruth Johnson, MS, LMA, medical esthetician in the department of Plastic Surgery, who recently gave a talk on the topic. There was a lot to digest, so I’ve boiled it down to give you some helpful insights to get 2015 off to a glowing start.

Antioxidants. Most people know them as anti-aging must-haves. But, at their core, antioxidants are substances that can prevent or delay cell damage and neutralize free radicals -- molecules found everywhere (in the air in our bodies) with unstable electrons that can cause damage to surrounding molecules. Antioxidant rich foods, such as berries, beans, grapefruit, tomatoes, nuts, and dark chocolate, delay premature aging, act as an anti-inflammatory, assist in reducing redness, and helps those with acne-prone skin.

When doing your holiday cooking, you might want to consider making salmon your main dish, or adding walnuts to a salad or stuffing. These foods and others, like tuna, black cod, flax seeds, and canola oil, are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammatory response, and decrease IGF-1, a hormone which regulates the effects of growth hormones in your body.. Omega 3s also help with the hyperkeratinization of sebaceous follicles. Hyperkeratinization is a disorder of cells lining our hair follicles. Cells generally sough off from the lining over time. However, in hyperkeratinization, the dead skin cells do not leave the follicle due to an excess of keratin.

Eating salmon, tuna and walnuts will likely provide additional benefits as well, as these foods are rich in protein. When protein is eaten, your digestive system breaks it down into amino acids, which pass into the blood and are carried throughout the body. There are 22 amino acids, eight of which are essential and need to be consumed because the body doesn’t make them naturally. Protein rich foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk, are also necessary for tissue repair and replacing dead cells. In addition to other health issues, dermatologists say that a lack of protein may cause thinning hair, puffiness around eyes, brittle thin nails, and loss of collagen, that lovely stuff that strengthens our skin, teeth, blood vessels and comprises 30 percent of the body’s total protein. As any supermodel will tell you, a loss of collagen leads to saggy skin and an increase in wrinkles.

Many of us who grew up on Wonderbread might now be switching to whole grain, nine grain, or multi-grain breads. But what are whole grains, and why are they important? Whole grains are low on the glycemic index (a measurement carried out on carbohydrate-containing foods and their impact on our blood sugar), which means they are digested slowly so they do not cause spikes in blood sugar. Whole grain foods like pastas, brown rice, quinoa, barley, are rich in Vitamin B, fiber, zinc, all of which encourage the growth of skin cells. Unfortunately, for those suffering from gluten allergies, consumption of whole grains can cause side effects such as cystic acne, skin rashes, eczema, and psoriasis.

Here’s a new one. Phytoestrogen are plant-derived compounds found in foods like soy beans, brussel sprouts, spinach, yams, and wheat germ.  The four classes of phytoestrogen, which act as estrogen in the body, have been shown to benefit menopausal women by working to repair thinness and decreased collagen production due to a lack of estrogen, and may also help lessen hot flashes.

While some research has suggested that taking vitamins may not be all it’s cracked up to be, it is generally accepted amongst dermatologists that poor intake of important vitamins like B2 and B6, which are important in maintaining oil producing glands, can cause dry or flaky skin. These vitamins, found in whole grains, meat, fish, and eggs, keep skin smooth and moist.

Vitamin A is also essential for healthy, glowing skin. Vitamin A derivatives are also known as retinoids such as Retin-A , retinol, and tretinoi, which in skin care products are used as fine lines and wrinkle reducers, and aid in fighting brown spots, acne, and overall aging. Found in abundance in carrots, vitamin A is essential for maintaining epithelial tissue, and as luck would have it, skin is the largest epithelial tissue we have. A lack of vitamin A can cause dry rough scaly skin.

Now that we know about foods that are beneficial for healthy skin, let’s look at what types of foods can be harmful.

Excess salt causes us to retain additional fluid in the body, which can cause the skin to become swollen or “puffy.” Foods high in sodium, such as table salt, cured meats, cheese, pickles, and potato chips, tend to cause this puffiness especially under the eyes where the skin is very thin.

Sugar is broken down from carbohydrates to form glucose, which causes a spike in insulin levels and leads to inflammation and breaks down collagen and elastin. Over time, indulging in foods like ice cream, candy, honey, maple syrup, and sodas can permanently cause sagging and wrinkling. Glycation also occurs when too much sugar is in the body and protein molecules cross link with sugar molecules. The human body doesn’t recognize these new proteins and reacts by inflaming. In skin care, glycation can exacerbate skin conditions like acne or rosacea that are particularly sensitive to any sort of inflammation.

We’ve come to my favorite category: dairy. And for all those who believe in the “power of cheese,” I’m sorry to say that an overabundance of foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt can result in breakouts and inflamed skin. Milk contains over 60 different hormones including androgens which can produce oil. Because your skin acts as an excretory system to get rid of things our body doesn’t agree with, it can take on the form of cystic blemishes, especially along the jaw/chin area. In excess, the skin again can become inflamed and worsen. According to researchers, whole milk and even 2 percent have higher levels of estrogen that can also offset other hormones. However, for all those who drink skim for the non-fat benefits (like yours truly), because of the way skim milk is processed, it can make hormones more available and therefore have a stronger effect on sensitive skin.

Here’s a big one for anyone who can’t get through their morning commute without a cup of joe. There’s been an on-going debate about the effects of coffee on skin and other parts of the body. Some say coffee, which is rich in antioxidants, can temporarily reduce cellulite and dark eye circles. Recently, coffee beans have become popular as natural organic exfoliates, which are also found in tons of eye creams to reduce that infamous puffiness under eyes. However, the anti-coffee camp says that because the beverage is high in tannins (a chemical found in caffeinated beverages), it can cause blocked pores, dehydration and liver spots. Commercially, tannin is used in processing leather to make it soft and shiny.

Interestingly enough, there have been many studies that state how coffee is good for your liver, especially if you drink alcohol. For some, the progression of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (or NAFLD) and cirrhosis has slowed in some cases by 15-20 percent for those who drank at least one cup of coffee/day.

There is still somewhat of a debate over coffee consumption. Although we know there are some temporary short-term positives of that morning cup, long term benefits and harmful effects and are still unknown.

Like everything else we ingest, it’s important not to overdo it. Hopefully you treated yourself to some indulgences this holiday season, but with these tips in mind you’re ready for a fresh start on the road to glowing skin in 2015.

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This blog is written and produced by Penn Medicine's Department of Communications. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive an e-mail notification when new content goes live!

Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the related Department(s), University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

Health information is provided for educational purposes and should not be used as a source of personal medical advice.

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