As a dietitian who is less than 6 months away from entering my 30’s, I have a renewed interest in how the nutrients in the foods we eat can positively or negatively affect the health and elasticity of our skin.
Food and Acne:
Let’s start by addressing the ways nutrition can affect the presence and severity of acne.
Research has shown that one of the main dietary causes of acne is a high glycemic diet: meaning a diet high in refined carbohydrate foods that lead to spikes in blood sugar. When we rapidly increase the amount of sugar in our blood, the hormone insulin responds and increases. Increased insulin production is a major culprit in the formation of acne pustules. High levels of insulin have also been shown to elicit a hormonal response that increases sebum production, making acne worse. So, step one in the dietary prevention of acne is to eat a low glycemic diet full of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and limited in processed foods.
One food group that has gotten a bad rap concerning its relationship to acne is dairy. The relationship between the consumption of dairy products and acne has been heavily researched and so far most studies suggest a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship between dairy consumption and the presence of acne. In summary, there is insufficient evidence to recommend milk restriction as a treatment for people with acne. For now.
Moving on to another acne villain, let’s discuss chocolate! While the studies on how chocolate consumption affects the presence and severity of acne are limited, one of the larger studies conducted had participants consume 1,200 kcal of chocolate daily. (Umm, where can I sign up for that study?) The results showed that even after consuming such an enormous amount of chocolate, there was no significant increase in sebum production or acne in the study participants compared to a control group.
Score: chocolate – 1, acne – 0!
Moving on from whole foods, there are some supplements that may be helpful in preventing or treating acne.
Pre and probiotics promote growth of healthy bacteria and thus limit the growth of unhealthy bacteria in our bodies, including the ones that cause acne. Their use is currently being researched as an alternative to antibiotics in acne treatment.
Because acne is inflammatory, certain anti-inflammatory herbs and supplements may be beneficial in its treatment and prevention. Supplements containing the compound berberine have show to improve skin quality by inhibiting the bacteria that causes acne. Oregon grape root and golden seed are a few of the supplements that contain this compound.
Preventing Dull and Dry Skin
Let’s discuss skin hydration and ways to prevent dull, dry skin through food.
Maintaining adequate hydration is key, as even mild dehydration can have a negative effect on the texture and quality of our skin. The rule of thumb when it comes to how much water you should be drinking is to consume one half of your body weight in ounces of water. For a 150lb person, that is 75 ounces of water each day. If you exercise, add to that number 8 ounces for every 20 minutes of moderate exercise.
However, just drinking enough water doesn’t guarantee lush, hydrated skin. We also need to consume the proper types of fats and fatty acids which act to hold the water in our skin. Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA, have been shown to help reduce overall dryness, dullness, and itching of the skin. Salmon, walnuts, and chia and flax seeds all contain Omega-3 fatty acids.
Preventing Skin Aging and Wrinkling
There are several foods that have been found to be protective against the skin damage that leads to wrinkles. A 2001 study followed 450 subjects of various ethnicities living in different parts of the world to determine the connection between diet and sun damage. It was found that people with a diet high in vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish had a lower risk of sun damage. Foods that increased wrinkling from the sun’s rays included butter, margarine, milk products, meat, carbohydrates, and sugar.
When it comes to skin aging and diet, the strongest correlation is found between vitamin C intake and wrinkled skin. This is due, in part, to the antioxidant effects of vitamin C. Vitamin C is important for collagen formation and skin regeneration and may also help protect our skin from damage by the sun. Oral supplementation of vitamin C as well as another antioxidant, Vitamin E may help prevent wrinkles and sun damage.
Another study looking at supplementation and wrinkle prevention found that taking oral collagen supplements may help maintain skin elasticity. Other studies have shown collagen supplementation as beneficial not only for your skin, but also for your hair and nails.
We’ve talked about how the nutrients we ingest affect our skin, but what about the topical application of specific nutrients?
Vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant, is found in foods such as vegetable oils, seeds, and meat. The form of vitamin E used in terms of aging and wrinkle prevention is called A-tocopherol. Studies have shown that when tocopherol creams are applied directly to the skin, an improvement in sun-related aging has occurred.
Vitamin C, as I mentioned earlier, may help fight wrinkles due to its role in collagen formation. When applied topically, it has been shown to boost collagen production. And when applied topically in combination, vitamins E and C may create a synergistic effect increasing the protection of the skin from sun damage.
One important note: to date the majority of research done on topical antioxidants has been done on animals. While there are human studies, they are very limited in number, so even though there is a lot of promising research regarding the role of topical nutrients, I’d like to see more research in this area.
As one could imagine, many manufacturers have jumped at the opportunity to blend all of the advantages of topical nutrients into one cream, lotion, or serum. However, consumers must consider whether manufacturers are using the appropriate derivatives of these vitamins for maximum effectiveness and healthful benefit. Research products thoroughly and look for studies to support a product’s claims. Often times, the forms of vitamins found in cosmetic products do not aid the skin in the intended manner. For example, research has indicated that most of the vitamin C purchased in stores in premixed creams is actually inactive. Similarly, the concentration of vitamin E in skin care products is often too low for its anti-oxidative properties to be effective.
Proper nutrition and even supplementation can have a significant impact on overall appearance, affecting things like acne and wrinkles from the inside out. I think the use of topical nutrients to aid in skin repair is probably beneficial but needs more research and I am excited to see how the connection between skincare and nutrition continues to evolve as more research is conducted.
-Maggie McDaris, RD