Elle Fox, from the College of Naturopathic Medicine, advises on the best ways to look after your skin.
The largest organ in the body, with a surface of over 22m2 and weight of over 2.7kg, our skin is more than just a ‘covering’. Its functions include heat regulation, protection, absorption, excretion, circulation, vitamin D production, immunity and sensory (touch, pressure, pain and temperature). It has an intimate relationship with the intestines and the lungs (it is regarded as the third lung), protects us from and interfaces with the world around us.
The body can push toxins onto the skin via the blood circulation, sweating and sebaceous secretions. It can produce callosities (to protect itself from repeated friction or trauma), blisters, rashes, swellings, cracks and fissures and a whole host of other symptoms.
On the mental, emotional and spiritual level, skin represents our connection with the world, our relationship with intimacy, closeness and comfort and issues with incarnation. Expressions like “I jumped out of my skin”, “I’m not comfortable in my skin”, “he brings me out in a rash”, offer an insight into how we feel about and deal with life and survival.
In traditional medicine, skin conditions are considered manifestations of internal imbalance and treated ‘holistically’. The practitioner will evaluate the individual’s history, diet, lifestyle, mental and emotional state and stressors to offer a tailor-made management regime. But each of us can do a lot to help address most skin problems. The happy ‘side-effect’ of these personal strategies is that our whole health can respond and improve, not just the skin, which is a reflection of our overall health and wellbeing.
There are many individual skin complaints, such as eczema, psoriasis, acne (vulgaris, rosacea, cystic), hives, rashes, dryness, swellings, pigmentation problems and ageing… Rather than attempting to tackle individual conditions, we will look at those agents affecting our skin and their effective general management strategies.
The Car Principle
We can go a long way if we treat our body like a car. Any car model only needs five things to function well:
Oil Water ● Appropriate fuel ● Regular service ● A conscious driver
Obviously, road and traffic conditions and other drivers come into play, but let’s stay with our car principle for a moment, and see how we can apply it for best results…
Oil: Skin needs fats
Skin thrives on a good fats diet. Fats keep skin elastic and dewy and reduce moisture loss. Essential Fats (EFAs) in foods are connected with anti-inflammatory action, brain and cell membrane health. We can only get these through diet. Omega-6s are inflammatory, omega-3s are not. We need both, and it’s best to maximise omega-3s and minimise omega-6s. Best plant sources of omega-3s: seaweed/algae, hempseed, chia seed, flaxseed, walnuts, edamame and kidney beans.
Water: Hydration is key
The average person in a temperate climate can use up 8-10 cups of water/day through metabolic processes. We use more in warmer weather and increased activity. Dehydration signs/symptoms include: Dry or Inflamed skin Headaches Fatigue High / Low blood pressure Dry mouth Dizziness.
How to rehydrate
Boost water intake by 500-750ml/week to reach an optimum of 1.5-2 litres daily. Increase fruit, vegetables, and herbal teas. Reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol. Signs of good hydration: urine is clear/straw colour and odourless; you empty your bladder every 3 hours or so; your symptoms ameliorate, then you are hydrated.
Appropriate fuel: Would you put petrol in a diesel engine?
Essential fats and water aside, appropriate nutrition is hugely important in managing skin problems. Poor diet can compromise skin health. Let’s see what else we need:
Hugely important, protein is made of amino acids, the building blocks for body growth and maintenance. We must replenish protein/amino acids from diet every day.
Sources: spelt, teff, tofu, beans/legumes, nuts, seeds, amaranth, quinoa, oats, sprouted breads, spirulina and high protein vegetables like broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts.
Other skin nutrients
Vitamin A is found in high concentrations in the skin. Deficiency leads to dry, scaly skin. Vegans should include rich sources of carotenoids in their diets: yellow/orange fruit and veg – sweet potato, carrots, butternut squash, corn, mango, apricots, pumpkins. Spirulina and kale are also good sources.
Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are important in supporting the production of collagen and scavenging free radicals that damage the skin. They are antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant. Sources include citrus, green tea, berries, legumes, parsley, blackcurrants, coloured fruit and vegetables, buckwheat, guava, parsley, green peppers, watercress, Brussels sprouts, kale, potatoes, tomatoes, alfalfa seeds and fermented vegetables.
Zinc, needed for the synthesis of DNA, helps regulate oil glands/hormone balance and is effective in acne treatment – you may need long-term use (over 3 months). It also helps wound healing, stretch marks and eczema. Sources: nuts, lentils, wholegrains, seeds, ginger.
Vitamin E supports resistance to UV exposure and decreases with age. An antioxidant which strengthens membranes, improves capillary integrity and helps prevent scarring, its deficiency leads to collagen shrinkage and increased membrane fragility (wrinkles). Sources: wheatgerm oil, nuts and seeds, avocados and spinach.
Vitamin D inhibits uncontrolled growth of skin cells, supports psoriasis and resistance to UV rays. Sources: sunshine – 90 per cent of vitamin D comes from adequate, sensible exposure to sunlight. Mushrooms and tofu are food sources as well as fortified foods.
Silica is a small but vital part of all connective tissue, bones, blood vessels and cartilage; it strengthens skin, hair and nails. Deficiency can lead to weakened or rough skin tissue. Sources: leeks, green beans, celery, cucumber, chickpeas, root vegetables, brown rice, oats and green leafy vegetables.
Sulphur is a trace mineral important for overall skin health, detoxification and anti-inflammatory protection. Sources: cabbage, dried peaches, pulses, peas, garlic, leek, dried beans/lentils/chickpeas, chives and broccoli.
Our skin should be looked after with great care. The biggest threats to skin health can be seen as external and internal.
External threats include smoking, pollution, cleaning products, toxic skincare preparations, over-exposure to sunlight, infections, trauma, ageing and topical medications.
Internal factors include genetics, immunity, medications, unsuitable diet, food sensitivities and allergies, impaired digestion and elimination and diseases of the lungs and gut.
Identifying and reducing or eliminating the above factors goes a long way towards better skin health. In this area we can include: Good Digestion Assimilation and Elimination Environmental Protection.
Digestion, assimilation, elimination
Avoid eating on the hoof or when stressed. Chew well, sip a little water with meals, but don’t drink large amounts; have a cup of hot water with fresh lemon in the morning. Avoid eating fruit after a meal. Banish sugar! It causes cross-linking of collagen that promotes ageing and wrinkles and sets up inflammation in body.
Foods to help with elimination
Liver: beetroot, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, onions, garlic, turmeric, artichoke, dandelion tea or coffee, green tea.
Supplements: milk thistle, methionine/ choline (lipotropic factors), liver support complex, dandelion.
Bowels: oats, pears, apples, oat bran, lentils, prunes, figs, pulses, flaxseeds, blackcurrants, apricots and water.
Supplements: psyllium husks, apple pectin, vitamin C, magnesium and probiotics.
Environmental protection – reducing those factors you can control can go a long way towards supporting lasting skin health.
A conscious driver
Stress management is very important in skin health. Anger, envy, anxiety and depression, worry – they leave tell-tale marks on the skin. Take time to identify your stressors and work towards reducing them. Mindfulness, grounding (simply walking barefoot on grass or natural surfaces), downtime to relax, love, cuddle (releases that wonderful love hormone oxytocin), a good belly laugh: they all help smooth wrinkles, relax muscles and
Remember that some external environmental factors can cause or increase stress: noise and road pollution, exposure to toxins such as household cleaning and washing chemicals, moulds, fire retardants, electromagnetic radiation from WiFi, LED and fluorescent lighting, metals (jewellery) and chemicals in cosmetics. Identification of these can help you understand what’s ‘getting under your skin’. A qualified naturopath is trained to help you navigate these issues and create the best skin-health strategy, just for you.