Our skin is our largest organ. If you were to take the skin of the average adult person and lay it out flat, it would cover anywhere between 18 and 22 square feet. Our skin protects us from the outside world, cushions and protects the tissues that are deeper within our body, excretes waste (it is one of the body's main detoxification organs!) and helps regulate our body's temperature. We also have sensory receptors in our skin which provide the sensations of touch, pressure, temperature and pain. One might say that the skin is a pretty big deal. A big deal that communicates with us daily and whose messages often go ignored.
Our skin is also a story teller. When something goes wrong with our skin it is immediately noticeable, telling us that something isn't right. Our skin mirrors the general health of other systems within the body. I, along with other holistic practitioners use the appearance of the skin (and even the hair and nails) to detect signs of deeper issues going on within the body. Unfortunately, many mainstream practitioners either miss the signals the skin is sending or simply treat them with a prescription medication to make the symptom go away without dealing with the root cause.
When it comes to premature aging, we all know the damaging effects that sun exposure can have on our skin. Putting the risk of skin cancer aside, ultraviolet radiation causes collagen to break down at a higher rate. Sunlight damages collagen fibers and causes the accumulation of abnormal elastin which, eventually, leads to wrinkles. Excess UV radiation also depletes antioxidants from the skin, including Vitamin C and Vitamin E.
But there is more to premature aging of the skin than spending too much time in the sun.
Sugar and Wrinkles
It's no secret that excess sugar in the diet can lead to a laundry list of health problems. Diabetes and increased inflammation throughout the body are the two conditions that people often think of first. What most don't realize, however, is the impact on a high sugar diet on our skin.
When there is too much sugar in the body, protein molecules can connect with sugar molecules and create advanced glycation end products ("AGEs"). These AGEsare a problem because the body doesn't recognize them as normal. The result is that the immune system triggers an inflammatory response in the skin. Once AGEs are formed, they have a tendency to gravitate towards the dermal layer of the skin (the second layer of the skin which houses connective tissue, sweat glands, hair follicles, oil glands and which gives our skin strength and suppleness). Once AGEs take up residence in the skin, they destroy collagen and elastin which results in wrinkling, loss of elasticity, stiffness and accelerated aging. The formation of AGEs is also linked to the development of Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney disease.
How Stress Ages Us
For years I was warned not to frown too much because it would give me a big "frown line" wrinkle on my forehead between my eyebrows. As I worked my way through the years between 2004 and 2014, I lived through what seemed like endless cycles of intense stress. I often caught myself furrowing my brow (like all day long!) and then immediately relaxing my frown and giving my forehead a little rub in the hope that doing so would help me avoid that dreaded deep crevice. What I didn't know at the time was that it wasn't the stress induced frowning that was causing the fine lines, sagging and lackluster appearance of my skin. It was the fact that collagen loss in the skin is ten times greater than in any other tissue during chronic stress.
Studies show that chronic stress is one of the biggest culprits of dull, thin and sagging skin. It's important to remember that when we experience stress, no matter what the cause, our body goes into a state of "fight or flight", a primitive survival mode response that we are hardwired for and which protects us from whatever threat we are under at the time. This is an awesome protective mechanism for the body. But the problem is that when our body is in this state of survival mode, certain functions within the body are deemed "unnecessary for survival". Preserving healthy, wrinkle-free and radiant skin is most certainly not a priority. When stress becomes long-term and chronic, as it is for most of us living in the modern world these days, our skin is often one of the first to show the effects.
Other Common Skin Conditions Associated With Stress
Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis)
Eczema is a common skin condition that affects approximately 7% of the population. It is characterized by dry skin, with patches that are red and intensely itchy. These patches may ooze, become scaly, crusted or hardened, and are commonly found on the body's flexors (bends of arms, backs of knees).
There are many contributing factors to eczema, including genetics, food sensitivities, environmental exposures and immunological insufficiencies. Chronic stress also plays a contributing role as it often shuts down our immune functioning which, in turn, reduces the body's ability to heal, reduce inflammation and fight infection. This all contributes to chronic skin inflammation, including eczema and...
Psoriasis is a chronic recurring skin condition which is characterized by raised, inflamed, scaly, itchy, lesions covered with a silvery-white scale. While the cause is unknown, it is believed to be an autoimmune disease and, as with most autoimmune conditions, appears to have both genetic and environmental triggering factors, Observational studies have shown that:
Acne is the most common of all skin problems, affecting the hair follicles and oil-secreting glands of the skin (sebaceous glands). Acne manifests itself as blackheads, whiteheads and inflammation, often causing a significant amount of stress and emotional upset to those who suffer.
There are a number of contributing factors to acne, including a diet high in refined sugars, and hormonal imbalances which are especially pronounced in our teen years, but can also become problematic even into our 30's, 40's and beyond. Food allergies and sensitivities, especially to dairy, can also be a major contributing factor to acne.
What many don't realize is the effect that stress plays in the onset of acne, especially during our adult years. I often have clients come to me saying that they are once again having "teenage breakouts" after years of having clear skin. Many studies show that negative emotional states such as anxiety, depression and chronic stress can alter our normal intestinal bacteria and increase intestinal permeability (aka "leaky gut") which all contributes to systemic inflammation and increased oil production in the skin. Chronic stress also results in reduced acid production within the stomach which leads to maldigestion and malabsorption of nutrients, including those needed for healthy skin. In addition, when we are stressed we are prone to weight gain, especially around the midsection, which is due to excess cortisol production. With excess abdominal fat comes excess production of the most potent form of estrogen, "estradiol". Those who suffer from acne have been shown to have much higher levels of this form of estrogen compared to those without.
Optimal Nutrition and Lifestyle Habits for Glowing Mature Skin
Of course, genetics can play a role in the overall health and appearance of our skin, but as the saying goes, "genetics will load the gun but environment is what pulls the trigger". Poor lifestyle choices and the environment in which you live and work can significantly accelerate the aging process. Skin aging and damage most often is the result of oxidative damage caused by free radicals which are unstable molecules that create inflammation throughout the body.
When it comes to radiant skin at any age, a diet full of colourful, antioxidant-rich plant foods is essential. Antioxidants are mostly found in plant foods and work to protect our body's cells, including those of our skin, against damage caused by oxidative stress and free radicals. The more antioxidant-rich foods we consume, the happier and healthier our skin!
So what are these antioxidants and where can you get them? Let's take a look:
Vitamin C - A key player in the formation of collagen. It protects our cells from free radical damage, boosts the immune system (important during times of stress) and helps reduce inflammation. Excellent sources include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bell peppers, mangoes, kiwi, goji berries, oranges, pineapple and papaya.
Vitamin E - Helps protect the skin from the sun's UV radiation. Good sources include avocados, sunflower seeds, asparagus, almonds, and spinach.
Vitamin A (beta carotene) - This vitamin is essential for healthy skin and plays a key role in the growth and repair of the body's tissues (especially important when looking to heal eczema or psoriasis). Want to increase itamin A in the diet? Think ORANGE and GREEN. Sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, squash, spinach and collard greens are your best bets.
Selenium - Like vitamin E, selenium protects the skin from sun damage. It also is critical for the production of a specific set of enzymes that play a key role in detoxification and protection against oxidative stress and free radical damage. There's an extra little bit of magic with selenium in that it helps recycle vitamin C, making for more powerful antioxidant protection. The best sources of selenium are Brazil nuts, mushrooms sardines, chicken and eggs.
On top of these powerful antioxidant-rich foods, it is important to ensure that the body gets adequate Omega-3 fatty acids which have a significant role in protecting and maintaining healthy skin. Omega-3's help protect the cell membranes, allowing water and nutrients into the cells while keeping toxins out. They are also essential for reducing inflammation within the body which is more often than not a contributing factor in most chronic diseases. Excellent sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds and their oil, walnuts, sardines, salmon (wild caught), pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and anchovies.
We also must not forget the importance of looking after our gut. Stress, a diet high in processed foods, excessive alcohol intake, and prescription medications can take their toll on our healthy gut bacteria, leaving us vulnerable to an excess of bad bacteria and leaky gut. Eating foods rich in good probiotic bacteria can go a long way to promoting healthy and radiant skin by contributing to a healthy gut. Adding foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, horseradish, miso and other naturally fermented foods into the diet every day is a great idea. Alternatively, a high quality probiotic supplement can help if fermented foods aren't your cup of tea or you have limited access to them.
Finally, water intake is essential. Ensuring you get 2L of fresh, filtered water is a must for not only our skin but every single cell in our body.
Want to incorporate more skin-loving foods into your diet but aren't sure where to start? Download my Quick 'n' Easy Meal Plan which will not only make for happy and healthy skin, but will also kick start your metabolism, balance blood sugar and provide a nutrient-dense energy boost!
Looking Beyond Food
The means by which we nourish, or fail to nourish, our body is certainly the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to how well or unwell our skin looks and behaves. But there is more to it than just what we put on our plate every day.
As I tell my private clients and those who attend my public speaking events, there is not one chronic health condition that is not impacted by stress. From heart disease all the way to skin problems, stress negatively affects every single body system. It is critical that we take time every day to hit the pause button and incorporate stress management and relaxation strategies into our schedule. Whether it's taking a walk in nature, reading a book, meditating, rock climbing or doing yoga, find what strategies work best for you and make a point of scheduling them into your day as a non-negotiable. We can eat all the healthy foods and take all the supplements we want, but if we're not getting handle on our daily stressors, we're not going to see the progress that we desire for our skin or any other health concern.
Sleep is essential to glowing skin. "I must get my beauty sleep" isn't just a corny saying we drop when we want to get out of doing something or going somewhere we don't want to in the evening. Getting at least 7 hours of uninterrupted restorative sleep is needed for all cells of the body to detoxify and regenerate, including the cells of our skin.
Finally, when it comes to the health of our skin, it is important to consider the products that we use on a daily basis. Research has shown that the products that come into contact within our skin end up in our blood stream in less than 15 minutes which not only puts an enormous burden on our liver and other detoxification pathways, it can trigger allergic and inflammatory reactions that play out on our skin. Everything from those fancy smelling lotions and potions, to cleaning products, to detergents and fabric softeners we use to do our laundry gets onto and into our skin. Mass produced big-name-brands that are found in big chain grocery, drug and department stores are loaded with all sorts of nasty petroleum-based and synthetic chemical solutions and toxic fragrances that are not only irritating to the skin, but also wreak havoc on our hormones, our immune system and our detoxification systems.
The more you can switch to natural products for both your body and your home, the more your skin and other organ systems will thank you. For a list of some of my favourite natural skin-care lines, check out my December 2016 blog, Tips for Glowing Winter Skin. I also recommend hitting up the Environmental Working Group's website where you can check out their Skin Deep and Healthy Living Home Guide pages to learn more about the most offensive ingredients, and see how the most popular brands (both natural and conventional) rate in terms of toxin exposure and environmental impact.
Growing older is inevitable and those little fine lines and wrinkles will manage to make their way onto our faces eventually. They are nothing to fear and are simply the signs that we have lived a rich and colourful life. That said, no one really wants to look older than they actually are. By nourishing both our body and mind we can slow the aging process and maintain glowing, radiant skin for years to come.
If you would like to explore how working with a holistic nutritionist can help you achieve your best and most vibrant health, please feel free contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 519.404.9919 to schedule your FREE 30 minute discovery session.
Jill Taylor is a Certified Holistic Nutritionist based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the mom of two pretty awesome teenagers, s very dramatic dog, a hedgehog and a snake (yikes!). Jill assists her clients in achieving true wellness through thoughtful and compassionate dietary and lifestyle coaching. Feel free to visit the "Contact" page to get in touch. Jill would love to hear from you!