WE often pay attention to all the ailments of our major organs — our heart, liver, kidneys and lungs. However, we often overlook one very important organ — our skin.
Our skin is, in fact, the largest organ that we have. It has several important functions that we often take for granted. Firstly, it protects internal organs from pollution, microorganisms and toxins, acting like an outer covering. Our skin’s outer layer plays the role of an intermediary between the internal part of our body and the external environment that surrounds us. It is a key organ that has sensing capability due to its vast network of nerves. Hence, it helps to maintain healthy tissues, promotes wound healing, regulates blood pressure and our immunity. It is also an organ of elimination via perspiration and evaporation.
Once upon a time, ancient medical physicians would look at the health and appearance of the skin to deduce internal health problems and deficiencies. Till today, healthy-looking skin is equated with good health and vitality.
Like all of our other major organs, the skin is not immune to health problems.
Common problems of the skin include dryness, eczema, dermatitis, dandruff, allergic reactions and acne. Because the skin is our body’s outer covering, environmental factors such as sun exposure, contamination and harsh chemicals all slowly damage skin over time, causing wrinkling and discolouration. This can cause us to look older before our time.
A lot of your dietary choices can help our skin look and feel its best. Here is what you can do:
EAT MORE WHOLE FOODS
In your everyday busy lifestyle, you may find yourself eating a lot of packaged, canned and processed foods and drinks because they are convenient. One young executive client of mine constantly lived off instant noodles, packaged snacks, fried foods and sweetened canned drinks during her typical workday. She also often had fast food delivered because it didn’t require much “decision-making” (in her own words!) and she knew what to expect taste-wise. Little did she know that her diet and hectic lifestyle was a vicious cycle that wore down her vitality and finally showed in her skin.
Very shortly after she embarked on making better food choices that included more whole grains, vegetables, fruit and lean proteins, her health improved and her skin got back its radiant glow. Let’s just say you have nothing to lose, but so much to gain by eating better. I highly encourage you to see a dietitian who can help you get started in planning a better overall diet.
GO FOR HEALTHY FATS
There are underlying causes that cause skin to get chronically dry, such as winter weather, harsh chemicals in soaps and detergent and too much exposure to the sun. Skin ailments such as eczema can also make your skin irritably dry. It’s important that your doctor helps you solve the underlying reason first, but your diet can help to complement treatment.
Dry skin is related to low hydration levels in skin cells, which cause them to contract. This is where the types of healthy fats you consume can play a very important role to help your cells retain the much needed moisture to combat skin dryness.
As far back as the 1930s, scientist observed that lab rats ended up with scaly, dry skin when they were deprived of omega-3 and omega-6 fats from their diet. These fats are also called essential fats because our bodies cannot make them, so we must get it from the foods we eat. Foods that are good sources of essential fats include nuts, seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds, mustard seeds), cold water fish (salmon, trout, tuna,), vegetable oils, eggs, avocado, soya beans and spinach.
BOOST YOUR COLLAGEN
Collagen is a type of protein that is in connective tissues in our body. Hence, maintaining good collagen levels will be your best defense to naturally slow down the signs of skin wrinkling. Vitamin C plays an important role in the formation of collagen and the regeneration of skin cells. So be sure to include plenty of vegetables and fruit into your daily meals to get your dose of Vitamin C. Apart from Vitamin C, research shows that skin wrinkling and dryness can benefit greatly from a diet that contains protein, phosphorus, potassium and Vitamin A. All these nutrients are abundant in fish, lean meat, vegetables, fruit and dairy.
Herbs and spices are also another source of important antioxidants and nutrients for the skin. Research on turmeric shows potential in curcumin (which is the active compound in turmeric) to aid in wound healing and collagen. So do use herbs and spices liberally to boost the flavour and nutrition of your foods.
CUT OUT SUGARY FOODS
We all know reasons to cut out sugary foods from our diet — for weight, heart health and diabetes. But here’s another reason why you should give sugary foods and drinks a skip. Consuming too much can cause your insulin levels to spike. This, in turn, may over-stimulate sebum production in your skin, which can clog pores and aggravate acne.
Do remember that even certain foods that are deemed health foods, such as breakfast cereals, smoothies, tea drinks and cereal bars, can contain high amounts of added sugar. So be sure to read the product labels to get a clear sense of how much added sugar is in it.
HAIR & NAILS
The epidermis, the outer most layer of skin, contributes to the making of keratin which makes up our hair and nails.
The foods we eat play a part in the nourishment that keeps our hair and nails healthy. The cause of it is not directly clear, but there is a relation between hair loss and brittle nails to anaemia (iron deficiency), fungal infections and deficiency in key protein compounds.
People who experience extreme weight loss in a short period of time or have undergone bariatric surgery have also reported hair loss and brittle nails. Include iron-rich foods such as lean red meat, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
Apart from iron, you can strengthen your brittle nails by ensuring you eat foods that are high in biotin, a type of B vitamin. Foods that are good sources of biotin include egg yolk, lean meats, nuts, seeds, dairy products, salmon and trout and yeast.
* Indra Balaratnam is a consultant dietitian who believes in simple, practical ways to eating well and living healthy. She can be reached at [email protected]