Dry, Flaky Legs: What's the Solution?
August 10, 2013
By Dr. Mercola
Dry skin can feel tight, itchy and generally uncomfortable, but for many the symptoms they despise the most are the aesthetic ones.
Flaking, scaling, peeling, redness, roughness and even the appearance of fine lines and cracks can make dry skin rather unsightly, especially during the summer months when you probably want to bare more skin than usual.
If you have problem skin such as dry skin or eczema, you’ll likely find that the best solutions tackle the problem from the inside out.
Dry Skin Is Often a Sign That You Need More Omega-3 Fats
You can often determine a person’s omega-3 needs just by touching their hands. Are they smooth and soft… like a baby’s behind? If not, or if other areas of your skin are dry, flaking or cracked, there is a good chance they are not getting enough beneficial omega-3 fats.
Omega-3 fats help to normalize your skin fats and prevent dehydration in your cells. This keeps your skin cells strong and full of moisture, which can help to decrease the appearance of fine lines.
Fatty-acid deficiency can manifest in a variety of ways, but skin problems such as eczema, thick patches of skin, and cracked heels are common. Plus, omega-3 fats may have an anti-inflammatory effect that can help to calm irritated skin, giving you a clearer, smoother complexion.
Omega-3 fat deficiency is actually quite common in the US (it’s been called the sixth biggest killer of Americans). Fish has always been the best source for the animal-based omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, but as levels of pollution have increased, this treasure of a food has become less and less viable as a primary source of these healthful fats.
I’ve previously shared tips on the best and worst types of fish to consume in terms of omega-3 fats and environmental toxins, but a general guideline is that the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated. This includes:
That said, if you’re suffering from dry skin, an omega-3 fat supplement, such as krill oil, may be highly beneficial.
Eczema Is More Than Skin Deep
If your skin is frequently itchy with thick red, scaly patches or small bumps that may leak fluid and crust over when scratched, it’s likely eczema, not just dry skin. Atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema, is more than just a skin problem, as it is an indication that there is a problem with your immune system and also has inflammatory and allergenic components. For instance, it’s been found that in people with eczema:
- The skin barrier is altered so that water escapes while environmental allergens are allowed to enter, resulting in itchy, dry patches1
- The skin lacks normal amounts of cathelicidin, a natural antimicrobial that helps protect skin from infections as virulent as MRSA
- A protein called claudin-1 is weakened, allowing the skin cells to become leaky and permeable to environmental allergens and infectious agents2
Natural Options for Tackling Eczema
Steroids are often recommended for treating the inflammation that may underlie eczema flare-ups, but omega-3 fats, as mentioned above, can be effective in this regard without side effects. Further, the latest research suggests that limiting sugar and supplementing with fermented foods or beneficial probiotic bacteria can cut the risk of developing eczema in half.3
The beneficial bacteria in your gut has actually been found to help prevent allergies by helping your immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens and respond appropriately – and this may be one reason why they also appear so beneficial for eczema.
Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of applying unnatural moisturizers that likely contain chemical ingredients that will further irritate your skin. Pure emu oil, coconut oil or our organic body butter are alternatives that can provide moisture without chemical additives. Other simple tips for helping to minimize eczema flare-ups include:
- Minimize stress in your life, which can further promote inflammation and eczema
- Shower shortly after heavy sweating, as sweat can trigger eczema outbreaks
- Check for unrecognized food allergies, which can sometimes manifest as eczema
- Avoid exposure to irritating detergents, soaps and other substances, which can cause contact eczema
Two Top Food Groups That Prematurely Age Your Skin
When talking about skin appearance, factors like excessive sun exposure, smog and cigarette smoking are often blamed, but what you eat plays a major role as well. The following foods are among the worst for your skin, and avoiding them may help you minimize wrinkles and promote youthful-looking skin.
- Sugar, Fructose and Grains
This is probably the single most important step you can take to improve your skin health. If you eliminate all sugars, fructose and grains from your diet for a few weeks there is a major likelihood you will notice rapid improvement in your complexion. This is largely because sugar feeds pathogenic bacteria, fungi and yeast and will disrupt your optimal gut flora, which is one of the primary keys to healthy skin.
Fructose in particular is an extremely potent pro-inflammatory agent that creates advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are a complex group of compounds formed when sugar reacts with amino acids. It's a fitting acronym because – along with oxidation – it's one of the major molecular mechanisms whereby damage accrues in your body, which leads to disease, aging, and eventually, death. Sugar/fructose also increases your insulin and leptin levels and decreases receptor sensitivity for both of these vital hormones, and this is another major factor of premature aging body-wide, including of your skin.
Fried, Grilled and Broiled Foods
When food is cooked at high temperatures—including when it is pasteurized or sterilized—it increases the formation of AGEs in your food. AGEs build up in your body over time leading to oxidative stress, inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. Eating your food raw, lightly cooked or using cooking methods that involve lots of water, such as steaming or poaching, can help reduce the AGE-creation process.
The Natural Plan to Healthier, Moisturized Skin
Eating a healthy diet as described in my nutrition plan, which focuses on whole, bioavailable organic foods, is your number one strategy for helping your body detox naturally while supplying the necessary nutrients your skin needs to thrive. That said, as mentioned some foods are particularly effective at promoting beautiful, clear, healthy skin, including:
- Animal-based omega-3 fats
- Vegetables: Ideally fresh, organic and locally grown. Fresh vegetable juice is also wonderful for your skin, as are carotenoids, which give red, orange and yellow fruits their color, and also occur in green vegetables. Studies have shown that eating foods with these deeply colored pigments can make your face actually look healthier than being tanned.
- Fermented vegetables are even better as they can start with the same vegetables but are converted by bacteria to superfoods, which help promote the growth of friendly intestinal bacteria and aid in immune balance and digestion.
- Astaxanthin—a potent antioxidant—has been found to offer effective protection against sun damage when taken as a daily supplement. Some sunscreens are also starting to use astaxanthin as an ingredient to protect your skin from damage.
Why You Should Avoid Mineral Oil for Your Skin
When you need some extra moisture from the outside, keep in mind that most of the personal care products in supermarkets and even high-end department stores contain toxic ingredients that can harm your health. For instance, one study found that commonly used moisturizing creams containing mineral oil are tumorigenic when applied topically to mice.4 What this means is that these creams and lotions can increase the rate at which skin tumors form. The study tested four common skin lotions:
- Eucerin Original Moisturizing Cream
Mineral oil has actually been linked to no less than 23 different diseases and health problems, including autoimmune diseases and a number of different cancers,5 and it has countless different names (including baby oil). So one of the easiest ways to ensure that you're not being exposed to potentially hazardous agents is to simply make your own personal care products, using simple all-natural ingredients that many of you may already have in your home.
Two great all-natural moisturizers are pure emu oil and pure coconut oil. Both can be used for facial and body moisturizers and lotions. Coconut oil has been used to moisturize skin for ages, and is also a potent source of the beneficial fat lauric acid.
A 4-Step Shower Routine for Tackling Dry Skin
Once you’ve addressed the dietary changes above, you may find that your dry skin clears up. If not, you might want to have your thyroid checked out, or you may just need a bit of extra help. The following routine can help you to remove excess flakes to reveal the glowing skin underneath:
- Use a body brush to get rid of flakes (do this on your dry skin, before getting wet)
- Avoid using soap or use the least amount possible, especially in the winter or in dry climates, as that will tend to worsen your dry skin
- Instead, apply a natural body scrub to exfoliate your skin (also apply this to your skin before getting wet, and choose one that also contains oil to moisturize)
- After your shower, apply a heavy natural body butter or natural moisturizing oil (not mineral oil or baby oil) to help seal in moisture