By Dr. Mercola
When it comes to your skin, beauty is more than skin-deep. What you eat has a lot to do with the appearance of your complexion, and a number of skin problems, such as acne, can be cleared up simply by altering your diet.
As a general rule, a diet high in fresh vegetables, which are rich in bioflavanoids, and plenty of omega-3 fat will lay the necessary groundwork for a healthy, youthful complexion.1,2,3,4 Certain nutrients also have protective benefits, helping you ward off the damage caused by exposure to the elements.
Do remember, however, that loading up on certain skin-clearing foods while still eating some of the most damaging will likely not make a significant impact.
For example, insulin and leptin resistance are major accelerants of the aging processes, which affect both your inside and outside, so it’s important to keep your insulin and leptin levels low if you want to maintain a youthful look — not to mention optimal health.
The most effective way to do this is by reducing or eliminating processed foods, as they’re high in refined sugar, processed fructose, trans fats, processed salt, and other detrimental ingredients.
Drugs and alcohol are also clearly enemies of a glowing complexion, and pasteurized dairy products are sometimes to blame for skin ailments.
Healthy Fats Promote Beautiful Skin
One of the first strategies you can use to improve your skin health is to make sure you are getting enough high quality omega-3 fats. This is such a reliable indicator that I can usually tell someone's omega-3 needs just by shaking their hand.
If their hand is not smooth as a baby's behind, it's usually a strong indication of omega-3 deficiency. Fish has always been the No. 1 source of animal-based omega-3, but due to heavy pollution, caution is advisable these days. You want to make sure you’re getting the cleanest fish possible.
Fish high in omega-3 while being low in toxins like mercury include wild-caught Alaskan salmon (not Atlantic salmon, which is typically farmed), and small fatty fish like sardines and anchovies. Another option is to take a high quality animal-based omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil or wild Alaskan salmon oil.
Both of these have the added advantage of naturally occurring astaxanthin, which helps protect your skin against UV radiation damage. Other healthy fats include coconut oil, avocado, olives and olive oil, and raw nuts. Macadamia and pecans contain the most healthy fat while being low in carbs and protein.
Brazil nuts are another good choice. Besides being on the higher end in terms of healthy fat, and lower in terms of carbs and protein, they’re also a good source of selenium, which can help protect against sun damage and age spots.
As little as 3 to 4 Brazil nuts can provide you with nearly 4 times the recommended daily amount of selenium.5
For Radiant Skin, Boost Your Vegetable Intake
Fresh vegetables are also essential for creating healthy, beautiful skin (ideally organic, to avoid toxic pesticides). Vegetables are high in both water and nutrients (including essential minerals), and promote optimal functioning of your natural detoxification systems.
For example, healthy liver function is supported by dark green leafy veggies such as kale, spinach, dandelion greens, and broccoli. Aim for a wide variety of veggies in different colors for the widest variety of nutrients and antioxidants.
Orange-red vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and red peppers are particularly rich in beta-carotene. Your body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, which prevents cell damage and premature aging. Spinach and other leafy greens provide lots of vitamin A, too.
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard also provide lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants are perhaps most well-known for their eye benefits, but they also benefit your skin.
Similar to astaxanthin, research6 has shown lutein and zeaxanthin can provide a four-fold increase in protection against skin damage caused by UV radiation.
For a listing of lutein-rich foods, please see my previous article, “Eat Right to Protect Your Eyesight.” A simple way to ensure you’re getting enough fresh vegetables in your diet is to juice them.
Vitamin C Promotes Tighter, Clearer Skin
Vitamin C aids in your body's production of collagen, which is the protein that forms the basic scaffolding of your skin. Collagen breakdown can leave your skin saggy, and vitamin C can help tighten it back up. It also helps with skin healing, if you’re struggling with any kind of skin problems.
Evidence7 also suggests that, in addition to 'mopping up' free radicals, vitamin C can help remove the DNA damage they form if they get past a cell's defenses.
Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, papaya, kiwi, strawberries, red bell peppers, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts. Citrus fruits also contain limonene which, according to Reader’s Digest, is associated with a 34 percent lower risk of skin cancer.8
Other Vitamins That Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer
Besides vitamin C, vitamins D and B3 have also been shown to provide valuable protection against skin damage and skin cancer. Vitamin D, which is metabolized when UV rays strike your skin, has actually been shown to reduce your risk of melanoma — the deadliest form or skin cancer.
Unfortunately, most dermatologists will tell you to stay out of the sun to avoid skin damage. But once you shun the sun, you prevent your body from working as nature designed it, and sun exposure is actually part and parcel of what helps keep skin cancer at bay.
Vitamin D is formed in your skin, and once activated in the liver and kidneys it influences the genes in your skin and helps prevent the type of abnormalities that ultraviolet light causes. As a result, sun avoidance becomes the factor that paradoxically can trigger skin cancer.9
“The volunteers took either two 500 mg vitamin B3 pills a day for a year, or a placebo. After a year, those who took the B3 were 23 percent less likely to have another cancer diagnosed ... The pills also reduced the numbers of pre-cancerous lesions called actinic keratosis. These thick, scaly patches of skin were reduced by 20 percent among the volunteers who took nicotinamide after nine months of treatment.”
Those who took vitamin B3 started seeing results in about three months. However, the protection vaporized once they stopped taking the vitamin, so to reap the rewards, you’d have to continue taking it indefinitely. It’s thought that B3 works by helping repair DNA damage caused by excessive UV exposure, and by bolstering your immune system.
Preventing Sunburn and Skin Damage With Nature-Made Sunscreens
Lycopene and astaxanthin are two other nutrients that can offer protection against UV radiation damage by acting as internal sunscreens. Tomatoes are a prime source of the former, and according to Prevention Magazine:14
“People who ate 5 tablespoons of tomato paste daily, along with almost a tablespoon of olive oil for 12 weeks, had 33 percent more protection from sunburn compared to a control group that ate just olive oil, according to a 2008 UK study. The antioxidant lycopene (levels of which are higher in cooked, processed tomatoes) improves skin’s natural SPF.”
Astaxanthin can offer even more potent sun protection. In terms of antioxidant capacity, it’s 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more powerful than beta-carotene, and 14 times more powerful than vitamin E. It exhibits VERY STRONG free radical scavenging activity and protects your cells, organs and body tissues from oxidative damage.
Astaxanthin is produced by the microalgae Haematoccous pluvialis when its water supply dries up, forcing it to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation. It is essentially the algae’s survival mechanism, protecting the algae from intense sunlight. It is this “radiation shield” that explains how astaxanthin can protect you from similar radiation, thereby helping prevent skin photo-aging and wrinkles.15,16
There are only two main sources of astaxanthin — the microalgae that produce it, and the sea creatures that consume the algae, such as salmon, shellfish, and krill. Many athletes report astaxanthin allows them to stay in the sun for longer periods of time without feeling ill and without burning. Less burning also means lower skin cancer risk.
Cyanotech Corporation funded a study17 through an independent consumer research laboratory to measure the skin’s resistance to both UVA and UVB light, before and after astaxanthin supplementation. After taking 4 mg of astaxanthin per day for two weeks, subjects showed a significant increase in the amount of time necessary for UV radiation to redden their skin.
Animal studies18 lend further evidence to astaxanthin’s effects as an internal sunscreen. For example, in a 1998 rat study,19 astaxanthin was found to be 100 times stronger than beta-carotene and 1,000 times stronger than lutein in preventing UVA light-induced oxidative stress.
Green Tea and Dark Chocolate Also Boost Skin Health
Besides staying well-hydrated by drinking plenty of pure, filtered water, adding some green tea to your daily routine may give your skin a healthy boost. An excellent source of antioxidants and alkaloids, green tea is packed with vitamins A, D, E, C, B, B5, H, and K, manganese and other beneficial minerals such as chromium, zinc, and selenium — the latter two of which are particularly important for healthy skin.
Green tea also contains high amounts of the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is anywhere from 25 to 100 times more potent than vitamins C and E. EGCG has also been shown to prevent genetic damage in skin cells exposed to UV radiation.20 To boost the benefits of green tea even further, add a squirt of lemon juice to your cup.
Research has demonstrated that vitamin C significantly increases the amount of catechins available for your body to absorb. In fact, citrus juice increased available catechin levels by more than five times, causing 80 percent of tea's catechins to remain bioavailable.21
Dark chocolate is another source of valuable antioxidants. Cocoa flavanols in particular have been shown to boost skin hydration and improve blood circulation. In one study,22 women who drank a flavanol-rich cocoa powder drink daily for 12 weeks saw improvements in skin roughness and scaliness compared to the control group.
For maximum health benefits, I recommend raw cacao nibs, which are actually bitter, not sweet. If too bitter, opt for the darkest chocolate you can tolerate, ideally 70 percent cacao or higher. Milk chocolate is worthless, as the sugar content is far too high and outweighs any benefits from the little polyphenols present in it..
Nourish Your Gut For Clearer Skin
Another group of foods worth mentioning are fermented (or cultured) foods. Fermented foods help promote the growth of friendly intestinal bacteria and aid healthy digestion. They also support healthy immune function, and increase B vitamins, omega-3, digestive enzymes, lactase and lactic acid, and other immune chemicals that fight off harmful bacteria.
Your skin can actually offer a rather clear picture of your gut health. Emotional stress is proven to exacerbate acne,23 and your gut bacteria are proven to impact your emotions. Your gut microflora may also influence your skin more directly, as signals from gut microorganisms are sent throughout your body and interact with organisms in your skin and gut mucosa.
Researchers are looking into how these interactions can help with skin conditions like dryness, improve collagen, or stabilize the microflora on your skin to help with irritations, and there are a handful of functional probiotic products for the skin on the market already.
I've long stated that poor diet is a major factor in the cause of acne, and this also ties in with the gut connection. When you eat non-vegetables carbs and sugar, it causes a surge of insulin and an insulin-like growth factor called IGF-1 in your body.24
This can lead to an excess of male hormones, which cause your pores to secrete sebum, a greasy substance that attracts acne-promoting bacteria. Additionally, IGF-1 causes skin cells known as keratinocytes to multiply, a process that is also associated with acne.
Additionally, these very same foods — refined carbs, such as fructose, sugar and grains — will also increase inflammation in your body, which may trigger acne, and at the same time they will also wreak havoc on the makeup of your intestinal bacteria.
In fact, avoiding sugar, including fructose, and processed foods (which virtually all contain added sugar and fructose) is one of my top recommendations to optimize your gut bacteria, as the sugars serve as fuel for the growth of pathogenic anaerobic bacteria, fungi and yeast, and competitively inhibit your good bacteria, tending to crowd them out of their appropriate niche.
So this is yet another way that your gut bacteria, through your diet, can influence your skin. When you eat a healthy diet like my comprehensive nutrition plan, which is low in sugars and processed foods, it automatically helps enable the beneficial bacteria in your gut to flourish.
Healthy Skin Is Created From the Inside Out
By keeping your insides healthy and clean, your skin will have no choice but follow suit and mirror your internal state. To accomplish this, you need to pay careful attention to what you put into your body. Avoid known skin- and health-wreckers like processed foods, sugary drinks, and alcohol, and load up on fresh veggies, fruits, and berries (ideally organic and locally grown). Juicing is an excellent way to pack more vegetables into your diet.
Also remember that your skin needs healthy fats — especially animal-based omega-3 — to stay firm, supple, and wrinkle free. I recommend sticking to low-mercury fish that are high in omega-3, such as wild Alaskan salmon, or take a high quality supplement like krill or salmon oil. Both of these also contain a small amount of astaxanthin, which acts as an internal sunscreen.
Carotenoids found in fruits, vegetables, and astaxanthin can also improve your skin color. Research25 has actually shown that people prefer the red and yellow skin tones created by a high carotenoid diet. Traditionally fermented foods and/or a high quality probiotic can also be very helpful for optimizing your skin health. As can high-antioxidant treats like raw cacao nibs, and green tea.