Major Nutrients Required to Keep Your Skin Healthy

Dr. Janet Zand

December 27, 2019

You know that eating right is good for your skin. And we talk a lot about putting various vitamins and other nutrients on our skin. But we often miss the connection between getting these nutrients in our diets and improving the health of our skin.

Understanding the links between consuming the right nutrients and having beautiful skin can help us stay motivated to eat right. And the impact it has on your skin can be amazing.

You know that eating the wrong foods can age your skin. Sugar, poor quality dairy, and fried foods can promote inflammation. And that can break down your collagen and trigger redness and irritation. So we know we should stay away from these unhealthy choices.

But it’s easy to focus on the bad ins tead of the good. Eating nutrient-rich foods doesn’t just crowd out the bad. It actually promotes skin health. Let’s talk about some of the most important vitamins and nutrients for your skin. And here are some delicious sources of these skin-boosters.

You probably know that applying vitamin C topically is one of the best things you can do for your skin. In fact, a vitamin C serum is my go-to recommendation for people who are ready to add a step to their routine after washing and moisturizing. But your skin will reap even more benefits if you get a good amount of vitamin C internally too.

Unlike some other vitamins and nutrients, your body can’t produce vitamin C on its own. But it can sure use it. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. And one of its most important jobs in the skin is stabilizing the structure of collagen. When your collagen begins to break down, your skin starts to sag. And that’s one of the quickest ways to start looking old.

You probably know about extreme symptoms of vitamin C deficiency, like scurvy. Major deficiencies can cause your gums to bleed, your body to bruise easily, and your wounds to heal slowly. But many people don’t know that keratosis pilaris (“chicken skin”) and curled “corkscrew” hairs, especially on the upper arms, can be signs that your C levels are running a bit low.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to make a concerted effort to get more vitamin C in your diet. Citrus fruits are what many people think of first. But if you don’t enjoy oranges or citrus isn’t in season, you can also try guavas, chili peppers, and even parsley. Try making a pesto with parsley – you won’t absorb much C if you just treat it like a garnish!

Leafy greens like kale and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are also good sources. Just a cup of these vegetables will give you all the vitamin C you need for the day and then some. Plus, you’ll be getting other nutrients and fiber packaged with them.

Another Topical Superstar Is Vitamin A

You probably recognize it as retinol when it comes to topical application. In your diet, you may be more familiar with the term carotenoids. Carotenoids come from vitamin A. They include antioxidants like beta carotene, astaxanthin, and lycopene (though lycopene doesn’t technically have vitamin A activity, it’s still an antioxidant worth noting).

These antioxidants are common in brightly colored fruits and vegetables. But they can help keep you from turning a bright shade yourself. That’s because they help protect your skin from UV damage.

Several studies have shown that beta carotene and lycopene can help prevent sunburn. However, you have to consume them consistently. You can’t just eat a carrot and then head to the beach!

We all know that a sunburn isn’t a good look for your skin. But the damage is more than skin deep. Fortunately, studies have also shown that beta carotene can help significantly slow the rate at which mutations occur in the mitochondria of dermal fibroblasts after UV exposure. This can help keep your cells healthy for longer.

Red and orange fruits and vegetables are typically good sources of lycopene and beta carotene. You likely know that tomatoes are a good source of lycopene. And if you’re eating guavas for vitamin C, you’re getting a good dose of lycopene as well. Watermelon and grapefruit contain lycopene as well. And you’ll get a good dose of both lycopene and beta carotene from papaya and mangos. You’ll get beta carotene from carrots, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes as well.

We typically turn to produce for our antioxidants. But many of the best sources of the vitamin A derivative astaxanthin are actually from the sea. Microalgae or phytoplankton actually synthesize this antioxidant. Then creatures like salmon, trout, shrimp, and crayfish accumulate astaxanthin through the food chain.

Like beta carotene and lycopene, astaxanthin offers a UV protection. And some studies indicate that skin cells can take in astaxanthin even better than beta carotene. This suggests that this antioxidant could protect skin cells even more effectively. And this protection doesn’t just keep you from turning red. UV damage is a major cause of sagging skin and wrinkles.

As always, I want to remind you that these antioxidants aren’t a substitute for sunscreen. But having plenty of these antioxidants in your diet can help you decrease the effects of any UV radiation that slips through.

What About Vitamin D

Some people argue against sunscreen because they want to get vitamin D from the sun. Getting vitamin D is a great idea. But there are ways to get it that are safer for your skin than unfiltered sun exposure.

It’s true that vitamin D is good for the skin. It supports the immune system and the inflammatory response. It helps protect the skin from damage and cancer from UV rays. It even has antimicrobial effects that can help keep you from getting skin infections.

Vitamin D plays such a vital role in so many of our body’s functions that I often recommend getting a blood test to make sure your levels are in a healthy range. Some people are better able to synthesize vitamin D than others. And some studies have even suggested a link between this ability and skin aging. If you aren’t one of the lucky ones who can easily make plenty of vitamin D, a supplement may be a good idea.

If you are in a good range, you can help keep it that way by eating vitamin D-rich foods like wild salmon and shrimp (also good sources of astaxanthin), canned tuna (eat sparingly to avoid mercury buildup), oysters, egg yolks from pasture-raised hens, and mushrooms. Many other common foods are fortified with vitamin D as well.

One Final Category to Keep in Mind Is Polyphenols

Polyphenols typically constitute our largest category of dietary antioxidants. And that’s a good thing because they help decrease levels of oxidative stress and can even help prevent disease.

Some of the nutrients, like resveratrol and EGCG from green tea, are polyphenols. These antioxidants also help fight damage from UV radiation and inflammation. Some of them can even help our own cells live longer—good news if you’re trying to fight aging! Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables will help you get an equally wide variety of these powerful anti-agers.

One polyphenol that’s gaining popularity is curcumin. You’ll find curcumin in the yellow spice turmeric. It’s particularly good at reducing oxidative stress and minimizing inflammation. Plus, it’s easy to add this spice to a variety of savory dishes. It’s quite common in Indian food. Try adding turmeric to rice or roasted vegetables for a color and polyphenol boost.

Another antioxidant that we often don’t pay enough attention to is coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10 for short. It plays an important role in our cells’ ability to generate energy. In the epidermis, it works with other enzymes to provide a first line of defense against oxidative stress. And no, I’m not about to tell you to eat your fruits and vegetables one more time. Some of the best dietary sources of CoQ10 are salmon and whole grains.

You may have noticed that salmon is a good source of vitamin D and astaxanthin too. And, of course, fruits and vegetables can give you different vitamins and polyphenols. This is why it’s so important to eat a varied, healthy diet. These whole foods contain so many different skin-boosting nutrients. And they all have something different to offer.

Your topical skincare products probably supply many of these vitamins too. If they don’t, you might want to reconsider which products you’re using! But you probably only have a handful of products in your regular rotation.

In contrast, think of how many different foods you can eat in a week. One salad alone could cover the spectrum of nutrients we’ve mentioned here. And then for dinner, you could have a whole different buffet of skin-supporters.

The advice to eat a healthy diet may not be exciting. But when you stop and think about how these healthy foods can improve your skin, you might be re-energized to consider how to feed your skin with all these powerful nutrients.

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