For many years, it was thought that diet did not play a role in skin disease. With the emergence of new technology and research, there have been many new conclusions in this regard. True, certain skin conditions are known to be triggered by food, such as food allergies and dermatitis herpetiformis (due to gluten-sensitive enteropathy or celiac disease), but today I focus on dietary contributors that have not been frequently talked about.
With the increase in the incidence of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, acne has also been on the rise, suggesting that lifestyles are also an important element in acne flares. Not everyone gets acne, and this speaks to its genetic nature. In patients with acne-prone skin, it is now shown that some foods—particularly dairy products and high glycaemic index foods—tend to promote flares. The mechanism is not clear, but it is believed to be three-fold. First, as cow’s milk promotes the growth of calves, it may naturally be high in growth hormones and anabolic steroids. These two components promote acne in in vitro studies (in a laboratory). Next is the carbohydrate content of milk; this causes a spike in insulin and insulin-like hormones, thereby triggering acne, as our oil glands (the place in the skin where acne starts) grow and proliferate under the influence of these substances, leading to clogging and formation of pimples.
Acne is virtually non-existent in certain populations, such as in Papua New Guinea and Paraguay, where fresh foods are the norm. By comparison, western diets are high in refined sugar, white rice and white bread. These foods are rapidly absorbed when eaten, leading to sharp increases in insulin and insulin-like hormones… again, promoting acne. Though eliminating certain foods is important in reducing acne, certain foods should also be added to our diet to improve acne and acne flares. As dairy and western diets are known to produce oxidative stress, antioxidants are needed to reduce the inflammation associated with flares. Fruits and vegetable high in vitamins C and A are well documented as being high in antioxidants.
Additionally, fruits containing resveratrol (such as grapes), polyphenols (as are found in tea), zinc and selenium also reduce such risk. Locally, foods potent in antioxidants include ginger, turmeric, scotch bonnet pepper, sorrel, cherries and citrus fruits. Including them in our diet is thought to prevent flares rather than cure them. These antioxidants also decrease the risk of skin cancer, as they help repair the DNA damage that occurs after intense UV sun exposure.Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that results from a speeding up in the life cycle of skin cells. The cells divide so quickly that the body has little time to shed them, so they pile up on one another. Patients have plaques (areas where the cells have piled up) on certain parts of the body as a result. The consumption of alcohol causes flares, and patients are advised to decrease or omit their intake.
In addition, researchers have found that decreasing the intake of gluten causes improvement. Psoriatic patients suggest multiple diets that can ease their symptoms, such as the Pagano Diet (based on the principle that psoriasis is caused by a toxic build-up or “leaky gut”), the Paleo diet, or the vegan diet. Though these diets are yet to be proven to improve symptoms, they share the common goal of leading to weight loss and improving the metabolic status of the affected person. Weight loss improves the severity of both psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. Do remember that the management of psoriasis still mainly lies in the use of medication prescribed by your doctor, which aims to reduce levels of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF and IL-17.
We often forget the importance of minerals to the function of our hair, skin and nails. Minerals are part of every living cell in the body, and they work together to build and regulate a multitude of bodily functions. They are basically the spark plugs that keep our engines running. Zinc is an important co-factor needed in the steps that lead to healthy growth of hair, skin and nails. Zinc supplementation can help with healthy hair growth, even in conditions not solely caused by zinc deficiency. The amount of zinc required for normal function is around 11 milligrams in men and 8 milligrams in women. The actual numbers for hair and/or skin in a diseased condition or which is weak is not known. Zinc can speed up healing and protect against premature aging of skin and muscles. It helps speed up the rate of skin healing after an injury, and is highly beneficial to all parts of the immune system. Though zinc gluconate tablets are a direct source of replacement, zinc can be found in a variety of foods such as Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts, rice, barley, sunflower seeds, rye, sesame seeds and legumes.
Copper is also an enzyme co-factor, and a lack of copper can lead to a lighter colour of skin and hair, and brittle nails. It’s important in the production of elastin and collagen, which give our skin its strength and elasticity. Dietary sources of copper include sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, pecans, coconut, mushrooms and soybeans. Other minerals worth mentioning are selenium, silica, magnesium, and calcium. A healthy, balanced diet should provide a rich source of these, but sometimes additional supplementation is required. We must remember that we are what we eat. To have healthy skin (and lifestyle), start with a diet that is able to support the growth and function of our skin.