The Scientific Basis for the Anti-Wrinkle Diet
Research in the field of diet and dermatology has exploded within the last decade. While dermatologists have long known about the link between dietary factors and skin changes, we're now starting to understand how these are connected on a molecular level. The scientific research supporting the link between certain foods and better skin is fascinating. Below is an introduction to some of this research.
Certain foods promote wellness, and have also been shown to promote better skin health.
Is this new information?
No. We've actually known for decades that our internal health and our skin health are closely related.
One of the warning signs of diabetes is a darkening of the skin of the neck. This is known as acanthosis nigricans, and it indicates that the body isn't responding to insulin as well as it should (known as insulin resistance). When dermatologists diagnose acanthosis nigricans, we counsel our patients that no skin cream or laser will help. This noticeable skin darkening is due to internal causes, and dietary changes are the key treatment.
It's also well-known that persons with diabetes have impaired wound healing. Their skin doesn't heal as well, due to changes in blood vessels and collagen.
Those same changes can accelerate the skin aging process.
So while the information isn't new, it's being studied much more intensively than ever before. Researchers have made great strides in uncovering some of the molecular mechanisms that link diet and the skin.
Why does our skin age?
Some of the skin aging process has to do with what are known as intrinsic factors, such as the passage of time and our genetic makeup. Much of skin aging, though, is due to external factors. The one that most of us are familiar with is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sun exposure. We've all seen actors on the big screen with this kind of skin aging – leathery, rough, deeply creased skin.
Smoking is another big factor. Think of a smoker you know: smoker's lines are those deep creases around the mouth, and they're notoriously difficult to treat.
Physical forces can also impact our skin-think of smile lines and frown lines. Of course, one of the biggest physical factors affecting our skin is that of gravity. Your skin eventually starts to sag and jowl because the collagen framework of your skin can no longer fight gravity as well.
When I started thinking about these factors, it made me wonder if there was any way to protect against these effects. Were there any foods that could protect against the damaging effects of UV radiation? Was there any way to strengthen the collagen so that it could better withstand the forces of gravity?
It turns out that yes, dietary changes can actually protect you from some of the forces that accelerate aging of the skin.
Diet, it turns out, is an important component of preventive dermatology.
What are the visible signs of aging? (READ MORE)
Are there any foods that can combat these visible signs of skin aging? Yes.
Our dietary choices have a large impact on our overall health and wellness. They have a large impact on our skin health as well.
It's very easy to lose sight of this when the magazine ads promote all sorts of quick fixes for our aging skin. Try this cream. Use this serum. Subject yourself to this injection. Try this laser treatment. While many anti-aging treatments are effective, you do need to recognize that many of them are quick fixes.
We can't just focus on the quick fixes. It's very, very important to think about prevention. We need to focus on preventing further skin damage and skin aging.
That means sun protection, and it ALSO means the right foods. Or, as I like to say, eat your way to better skin.
EAT YOUR WAY TO BETTER SKIN
What are the keys to this approach?
1. Eat power. Specifically, eat more foods that provide power. Certain foods contain the types of powerful nutrients that promote youthful skin. These include nutrients such as dietary antioxidants, power fats, and power carbs.
2. Stop sugar spikes. We know that elevated levels of blood sugar can damage the collagen in our skin, ultimately leading to a loss of elasticity and wrinkling, sagging skin.
3. Stop skin sabotage. Limit added sugars in your diet, and replace processed refined carbohydrates with power carbs such as whole grains, beans, and lentils. Also avoid trans fats as well as deep-fried foods that contain collagen-damaging substances.
What is the basis for these recommendations? In other words, how exactly do foods combat skin aging?
1. EAT POWER
What do I mean by "eat power"? This means eating foods that are rich in powerful nutrients.
These are 6 categories of foods that have been shown to help the skin.
1. Foods that are naturally high in antioxidants: This includes such foods as herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables, and green tea.
2. Power carbs: Food such as whole grains, beans, and lentils that contain carbohydrates wrapped up in a package with antioxidants, fiber, and protein.
3. Power fats: This includes certain MUFAs and PUFAs.
4. Anti-glycation foods: Multiple herbs and spices have been shown to protect our collagen by fighting the process of glycation
5. Probiotic foods: Foods that contain live, active cultures of "good" bacteria
6. Prebiotic foods: Foods that naturally promote the growth of good bacteria in our gut. The fiber found in certain vegetables can be a powerful prebiotic.
HOW DO THESE POWERFUL NUTRIENTS WORK TO HELP THE SKIN?
1. Dietary antioxidants have been shown to combat the cellular damage inflicted by UV radiation.
Certain foods can combat the damage inflicted by UV radiation. This damage is known as photoaging. We know that chronic sun exposure, over years, changes the skin in fundamental ways. The damage inflicted by UV radiation can ultimately lead to fine lines and wrinkles, freckling and sun spots, loss of elasticity, and thinning of the skin.
Research has shown that certain antioxidants that are provided via our diet can actually prevent, on a molecular level, some of the damage inflicted by UV radiation. For example, tomato paste given before exposure to UV radiation actually limited the sunburn response. A sunburn is the outward sign of cellular damage, and in one study, subjects who ate about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste daily for 10 weeks showed less of a sunburn response after being exposed to UV radiation. This isn't the same as sunscreen, of course, but it adds an extra level of protection against the damaging effects of the sun's rays.
Researchers have been very interested to see if the antioxidants present naturally in certain foods can combat the damage from UV radiation. In laboratory studies, animal studies, and even in some human studies, these antioxidants have shown significant promise. They are able to block, or even repair, some of the cellular damage caused by UV radiation. Some antioxidants neutralize reactive oxygen species [which cause skin damage], while some antioxidants can actually increase the body's production of DNA repair enzymes.
What are some of the foods that are high in dietary antioxidants?
Resveratrol in red grapes
Ellagic acid in raspberries
Polyphenols in green tea
Curcumin in turmeric
This is a very limited list. There are probably thousands more antioxidants present in fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, seeds, and nuts.
Why do we emphasize the intake of foods rather than just recommending an antioxidant pill? Because the studies that have tested supplements containing isolated antioxidants have shown that they just don't work the same way as the antioxidants supplied in foods. Researchers aren't sure why this is, but I believe it's that whole foods provide fiber and many other phytonutrients, and that the synergy of these substances promotes their beneficial effects. [Synergy means that substances acting together are more powerful than those substances acting alone, and this has been demonstrated in multiple laboratory studies.]
2. Eating "power" carbs instead of refined carbs helps your skin in several ways.
Why do I consider lentils, beans, and whole grains to be power carbs? It's because these foods are a great source of several powerful nutrients.
Consuming power carbs in place of refined carbs [such as white bread and white rice], can help your skin in several ways.
1. Power carbs are a surprising source of powerful antioxidants. Beans, for example, provide selenium, a mineral that's been shown to help fight oxidation. In laboratory and animal studies, selenium has even helped to reduce the incidence of skin cancer. That's only one nutrient. In fact, there are many other phytonutrients found in beans and lentils, and researchers have only just started to uncover their many benefits.
2. Power carbs provide a hefty dose of fiber. Fiber is considered to be an incredibly important nutrient, even though we don't always hear that message. We hear celebrities talk about eating more protein, and we've all been told to make sure we're getting enough vitamins and minerals. The message of "eat more fiber" isn't as popular, but it's incredibly important for our health and our skin. [and I'm talking real, food-based fiber, like the type you find in beans and vegetables. The fake fiber that's added to protein bars and protein shakes hasn't yet been shown to function in the body in the same way as real fiber, so I'm leery of relying on fake fiber for health benefits.]
Researchers are still discovering the amazing properties of fiber. From a skin standpoint, foods that naturally contain higher levels of fiber help to stabilize blood sugar, which in turn helps protect our collagen.
The fiber found in certain vegetables also acts as a prebiotic. Prebiotics are substances that act to promote the growth of "good bacteria" in our gut, which may help tame certain inflammatory skin conditions.
The carbohydrates in beans, lentils, and certain whole grains come with a hefty dose of fiber and protein. These help stabilize blood sugar, which in turn helps preserve collagen [as described in the next section].
3. Eating "power" fats may help your skin barrier function.
What about the loss of moisture that occurs as we age? It's possible that consuming more monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) can help. These "good" fats also have anti-inflammatory properties, which may also help preserve our skin. In one study, flaxseed oil was given to volunteers with sensitive skin. After 12 weeks of daily consumption, the volunteers showed less irritation after exposure to an irritating substance. They also demonstrated less transepidermal water loss, which means their skin held on to moisture better. Their skin even exhibited less roughness.
What are some examples of power fats? A few examples of foods that supply fats and powerful nutrients include nuts [walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, pecans], seeds [chia seeds, ground flaxseeds], avocados, and fatty fish [such as salmon].
4. Anti-glycation foods: Research suggests that certain foods may actually help protect our collagen.
In the next section, I discuss glycation, a process that alters our youthful collagen. This process occurs in the presence of higher blood sugars. These higher blood sugars result in changes to the collagen and elastin fibers in the skin, which results in the formation of advanced glycation end products. These are [fittingly] referred to as AGEs. Over time, these changes in the collagen and elastin fibers manifest as wrinkling and sagging of the skin, a process I refer to as sugar sag.
While controlling your blood sugar is important step in preventing sugar sag, eating more of certain foods can help also. This is because certain foods have actually been shown to help combat the production of AGEs or help reduce the damage caused by AGEs.
In laboratory studies, several herbs and spices have helped to reduce the production of AGES. These have included cinnamon, cloves, oregano, and allspice. Other dietary compounds that have helped to reduce AGE formation include ginger, garlic, and green tea catechins, among others.
Dietary antioxidants may also help limit the tissue damage caused by AGEs, which is yet another reason to eat more foods that are naturally high in antioxidants.
5. Eating probiotic foods may help the skin.
Research is ongoing as to whether eating probiotic foods is good for the skin. "Probiotics" refers to foods or supplements that contain live active cultures of "good" bacteria. Research has already shown that these may be helpful for some persons with eczema, a skin condition that results in sensitive skin and itchy red patches on the skin. There's even a suggestion that probiotics may be helpful for some persons with acne and rosacea.
6. Prebiotic foods
The fiber found in certain vegetables acts as a prebiotic. That means it helps encourage the growth of "good" bacteria in our gut, which may help with certain inflammatory conditions of the skin. Some studies have found that consuming more synbiotics, which are combinations of probiotics with prebiotics, helps improve the skin of certain patients with eczema.
2. STOP SUGAR SPIKES
Foods that cause sugar spikes can lead to sugar sag, so focus on foods that help to stabilize blood sugar levels.
Foods that cause a spike in the level of sugar in your blood stream can also cause collagen damage. This is due to a process known as glycation. In this process, elevated levels of sugar can attach to proteins in the skin to form harmful molecules. These molecules are called advanced glycation end products, which researchers call (very fittingly) AGEs. The proteins in the skin that are most impacted are collagen and elastin fibers. The process of glycation results in cross-linking of these fibers, which means they become more brittle. Our bodies also lose the ability to repair collagen that's been glycated. This ultimately results in a loss of elasticity, or the ability of skin to bounce back. This in turn accelerates sagging and wrinkling of the skin. In a vicious cycle, this process accelerates as we age. This process is also more common in skin that's exposed to UV radiation.
To protect your youthful collagen, then, it's very important to stop sugar spikes. In fact, studies have shown that strictly controlling blood sugar levels over a four-month period can result in a reduction of glycated collagen formation by 25%.
How can you stop sugar spikes?
1. The main recommendation is to focus on unprocessed foods and foods naturally high in fiber. This acts to slow down harmful sugar spikes, since the fiber in vegetables and whole grains acts to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.
2. Eating carbohydrates in the presence of protein and fiber and fat can also help slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream. That's why power carbs such as whole grains, beans, and lentils are so helpful-they naturally contain fiber and protein that acts to slow down sugar release.
3. Avoiding foods with high added sugars is an obvious way to combat sugar spikes. While most of us know that cakes and cookies are obvious sources of added sugars, it's sometimes surprising to see the sugar content of so-called "healthy" iced teas or "green" juices.
4. Avoiding refined carbohydrates is also important, since refined carbohydrates are digested quickly and promote the quick release of blood sugar into the bloodstream. That means limiting our consumption of foods like white bread, white pasta, and white rice. To produce these foods, manufacturers start with whole foods and then process them to strip away some very powerful nutrients, including fiber and antioxidants and protein. (Why would they REMOVE these nutrients? Doing so makes the food last longer on a shelf. Also, since so many Americans have become used to processed foods like these, manufacturers continue to sell them this way.)
3. STOP SKIN SABOTAGE
AGEs that you eat can age your skin.
I've discussed blood sugar spikes as a trigger of collagen damage, due to the production of AGEs. Interestingly, you can actually consume AGEs in your diet, which also leads to skin damage. Foods that have been deep-fried, or grilled at high temperatures, have been shown to contain preformed AGEs.
Putting it into practice
This introduction to the topic of an anti-wrinkle diet has focused on the molecular mechanisms behind the dietary recommendations.
What about the dietary recommendations?
I don't believe there's one perfect skin food, and I definitely don't believe there's a perfect skin supplement. There is, though, a recommended pattern of eating, and it focuses on minimally or unprocessed foods over the highly processed foods that so many Americans rely upon. This diet is for the long-term, and it relies on a hefty dose of vegetables, along with a variety of foods that provide powerful nutrients.
This is the type of dietary pattern that's supported by the research behind the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet, and it's the same type of diet we recommend to promote skin health. To start with, here's a link to five foods that promote skin health.