Can collagen supplements reduce wrinkles? How does the microbiome affect the skin? Find out what to eat to keep your skin looking its best.
"I recently came across a paper in the International Journal of Molecular Science on nutrients to enhance skin health. I was surprised by how much evidence there seems to be for certain nutritional compounds and their effects on skin. However, as a non-professional, I was a bit lost as to how we might translate these research findings into recommendations for the best foods or supplements. Could you dedicate a podcast episode to it?"
Your wish is my command, Alyssa!
The skin is not only the largest organ of the body, it’s also the most visible. Not surprisingly, many of us think of skin health primarily in cosmetic terms: does my skin make me look older or younger than my years?
But the health of your skin affects far more than your appearance. As with any organ, good nutrition helps your skin function at its best. As a bonus, the right nutrients can help keep your skin looking younger and fresher as well.
Fats for your face
One of your skin’s most important functions is to keep the outside out and the insides in. To that end, it needs to be highly elastic yet extremely durable. It needs to be breathable yet waterproof. It needs to allow nutrients in but keep pathogens out. All of these functions depend on the integrity of the cell membranes and healthy fats keep your cell membranes in good condition. In fact, people on extremely low-fat diets often have a lot of skin problems.
Monounsaturated fats, the type found in olives, almonds, and avocados, also help keep your skin healthy and youthful-looking. As a bonus, they also protect against heart disease and weight gain.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are needed for healthy skin, but too much omega-6 (or too little omega-3) can create inflammation and accelerate aging. Because most of us get plenty of omega-6 already, focus on eating some foods rich in omega-3s each day. Flax, hemp, chia, and, of course, fish are all good sources of omega-3s.
Nutrients for UV protection
The skin also needs to withstand daily doses of UV radiation from the sun, which accelerates aging and can lead to skin cancer. Antioxidants help out on both counts, shielding the skin from damage and helping to repair any damage that does occur. The easiest way to increase your intake of antioxidants is to focus on upping your intake of fruits and vegetables.
The healthy fats I discussed earlier also play a role here, both by protecting the skin from UV damage and also by helping you absorb more protective nutrients from vegetables. So be sure to enjoy some guacamole with those carrot sticks, a few olives on your salad, or some almond butter on your apple slices.
Studies show that people who get more antioxidant nutrients and healthy fats from their diets show less wrinkling, thinning, and drying out of the skin as they age.
Sunscreen and vitamin D
Even if your diet is high in natural photo-protective foods, a topical sunscreen is a good idea if you are out in the sun a lot. But applying sunscreen also blocks your skin’s ability to make vitamin D. Ironically, vitamin D is important for healthy skin as well as bone health. One reasonable strategy is to get a small dose of sunshine without sunscreen to top off your vitamin D stores and then apply sunscreen to protect your skin from damage.
Nutrients for a healthy glow
Diligent use of sunscreen can prevent skin cancer but it will also keep you from getting that sun-kissed glow. Once again: nutrition to the rescue! Eating foods high in carotenoids can actually give your skin a healthier color. Sweet potatoes, carrots, pink grapefruit, tomatoes, red peppers, kale, spinach, and apricots are all good choices. Scottish researchers found that eating 3 additional servings of these foods per day led to rosier, healthier-looking skin after just 6 weeks. Consider it self-tanning from the inside.
Minerals for healthy skin
Virtually all the essential minerals play a role in keeping skin healthy, but zinc and selenium appear to be especially important. Both help prevent and repair damage from ultra-violet radiation. Both are anti-inflammatory and antioxidants as well. Many sunscreens contain zinc oxide but these molecules are too large to be absorbed into the body. Dietary sources are your best bet here.
Shellfish are rich in both zinc and selenium; nuts and legumes are good vegan alternatives. Brazil nuts are a particularly good source of selenium. There’s no need to go overboard, though—and in fact, it is possible to get too much of a good thing, especially from supplements. As long as you are eating a good variety of whole and minimally processed foods, you should be fine.
What about collagen?
The paper that Alyssa forwarded also highlighted collagen as a nutrient that can benefit the appearance of your skin. You can get collagen from foods—notably from simmering animal bones in water. Chefs call this stock, but if you call it bone broth, you can charge a lot more for it.
But most of the buzz around collagen is for supplements and there are a handful of studies showing that supplementation with collagen or collagen peptides produces statistically significant improvements in skin elasticity and hydration. Although differences can be detected with special dermatological equipment, the real question is whether you perceive enough of a benefit to justify the cost. Some of these studies also tested a combination of nutrients or products, so it's not totally clear how much of the benefit was due to the collagen.
Personally, I think the money you could spend on a collagen supplement might be better spent on a really good sunscreen, as UV rays are one of the primary culprits in collagen loss.
How the microbiome affects skin health
The microbiome also plays an important role in the health of the skin (and vice versa). Usually, when we talk about the microbiome, we're referring to the bacteria and other organisms that reside in the human gut. The gut microbiome affects virtually every other system and organ in the body, including the skin. There's preliminary evidence linking disruptions in the gut microbiome to inflammatory conditions of the skin, including psoriasis, rosacea, and allergic dermatitis. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome by including plenty of fiber from a wide range of plants in your diet can improve the health and function of your skin.
But the microbiome is not limited to the gut. It also includes a vast universe of organisms that live on our skin. Just as with the gut microbiome, when the balance of the skin microbiome is disturbed, it can result in disease. Some of the things that disrupt the skin microbiome are overuse of anti-bacterial soaps, harsh cleansers, and chemicals in our skincare products and cosmetics.
Foods to avoid for healthy skin
Of course, what you don’t eat is just as important as what you do eat, especially when it comes to blemishes and acne. Contrary to urban legend, chocolate and pepperoni do not cause breakouts. But research suggests that diets high in sugar and processed foods may. If you struggle with acne, try cutting back on processed and junk foods to see if it helps. Some people also find that limiting their intake of high-fat dairy products can reduce breakouts.