Healthy Eating: Care for your skin from within

You are what you eat, both on the inside and out. So find out which foods reduce wrinkles, ward off acne, and can even help prevent skin cancer.

Tanning 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tanning 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Skin is truly an amazing organ. It shields the body from bacteria, regulates our temperature and protects internal organs from bruising and pressure, as well as transmits nerve signals throughout the body. Unfortunately, most of us neglect our skin and fail to take proper care of it, leaving it looking dull, wrinkled and even prone to diseases.
While it is common knowledge that a healthy and balanced diet shields our insides from all sorts of health problems, eating the right foods also protects our outside.
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So whether it’s for beauty or for health, here are the best foods to “feed” the skin:
A Not So Sunny Outlook
The number one villain when it comes to our skin is none other than our very own sun. Yes it’s true that sun is the best source of Vitamin D, and sure it releases endorphins in the bodies, which make us happy; but, while it’s good to be exposed to the sun (and who doesn’t love to be a little bronzed in the summer) when it comes to skin, the sun and its UV rays, are just pure evil. 
So what are UV rays exactly? UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. Made up of wavelengths that are shorter than visible light, these rays are completely invisible to the naked eye; but just because we cannot see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. While most of the UVC rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, both UVB and UVA pass through the atmosphere, and are the number one cause of many skin related conditions from premature aging to skin cancer. UVB rays, the main cause of sunburn, only affects the outer layers of skin and plays a primary role in the development of skin cancer. UVA rays, on the other hand, penetrate our skin more deeply, damaging the elastin fibers within the skin. As these elastins begin to break down, our skin loses its ability to bounce back after being stretched – as a result our skin begins to lose its youthful elasticity, sag and even wrinkle. Until recently scientists did not believe that UVA rays damaged the outer layers of the skin (referred to as the epidermis); however, recent research has proven that while these rays penetrate deep within the skin, they also cause significant harm to keratinocytes, the skin cells within the basal layer of the epidermis, and where most skin cancer occurs. It is these UVA rays which also cause us to tan. A tan, sadly, whether you get it at the beach or in a salon, results from injury to the skin’s DNA. In an imperfect attempt to prevent further damage to the DNA, our skin darkens, and it is this mutation which can also lead to skin cancer. While lathering on sunscreen lotion is of course the ultimate protection against the sun, no matter how much you smother yourself with it you can never be 100% protected. So, lend your body a helping hand by consuming foods that help prevent irreversible sun damage as well as reduce its harmful, and sometimes even deadly, effects.
Kicking off the list of the ultimate skin foods, are none other than tomatoes. Lycopene, the phytochemical that give tomatoes their fire engine color, has been shown to protect skin cells from the damaging UV rays.  The anti-oxidant settles into our skin’s outer layer, where it helps repair cells that have been damaged by the sun. Don't worry if fresh tomatoes aren't your favorite, any tomato product from fresh to cooked, to tomato sauce to even ketchup is packed with this UV protector. In fact unlike other fruits and vegetables, where nutritional content is diminished when heated, cooking tomatoes actually boosts the lycopene content. So before hitting the beach this coming spring break, make sure to load up on some tomato paste (which has nearly four times the amount of lycopene found in fresh tomatoes).
However, lycopene isn’t the only compound that fights UV ray damage. Vitamin A, which is also an anti-oxidant has been show to have a similar affect as lycopene while Vitamin E, found abundantly in almonds and dairy product, repairs sun-damage and even prevents new damage by mopping up cancer-causing free radicals.  Another food, though slightly odd, that helps decrease the risk of skin cancer, is lemon zest. D-limonene, a particular compound found in the lemon peels as well as that of other citrus fruits, has been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer (particularly squamous cell carcinomas) by almost 30% as it keeps the cancerous cells from growing and multiplying. While it may be hard to imaging eating the skin of citrus fruits, all that is needeed is one tablespoon a week so try mixing it in baked goods or salad dressings.
Moisturize from the Inside
While roasting in the summer sun is by far the worst for our precious skin, arctic winter temperatures are no picnic in the park either.  Constantly hopping from freezing cold temperatures and harsh winds to overheated rooms can deplete our skin of its natural lipid layer, leaving it feeling dry, scaly and itchy. While moisturizers will provide some relief, the best way to keep this outer layer lubricated is to increase our intake of healthy fats.
Salmon sushi
Salmon sushi
Consumption of Omega-3 fatty acid has been linked with decreasing the risk of coronary diseases as well as improving cognitive abilities, and now it has been shown to moisturize the skin from deep within. Cell membranes, include those of epidermal cells, are made up of this essential fatty acid. The stronger the member, the better the cells hold and lock in moisture; so when we do not have enough of this fat, our skin begins to dry out. Wild salmon and other cold water fishes, such as cod, sardines, herring, rainbow trout and tuna, are among the best sources for Omega-3. Certain seeds and nuts, such as flax seeds, walnuts and pecans, are also abundant sources.
Moving on to the other, though slightly less famous polyunsaturated fat, omega-6 fatty acids found in safflower oil,  has proven to be the ultimate cure for dry skin. This fatty acid keeps cell walls flexible, allowing water to better penetrate the epidermis, leaving the skin feeling silky smooth. Some studies have even shown that safflower oil may provide some relief for people who suffer from eczema.
Clean and Clear and Under Control
And then we come to acne. Typically thought of as strictly an adolescent problem, many grownups suffer from the occasional zit attack. While pimples are caused by a build up of dirt, oil, dead cells and bacteria, many acne problems are related to vitamin deficiencies and can even be prevented by consuming the right ones.
Fearing a zit attack? Start munching down on Bugs Bunny's signature food – a carrot stick. The Vitamin A in carrots helps to reduce the production of sebum – a natural body oil that, while keeping our skin shiny and moist, can also lead to clogged pores and eventually acne. Aside from carrots, massive amounts of Vitamin A can be found in any orange vegetable, such as sweet potatoes and pumpkins, as well as milk products.
Moving down the vitamin list, the Vitamin B complex is also useful when it comes to fighting nasty outbreaks. Vitamin B5, also referred to as Pantothenic acid, helps our bodies deal with stress and anxiety, which very often result in acne; while Vitamin B1, commonly known as Thiamine, helps eliminate pimple causing toxins, Vitamin B3 (niacin) increases the circulation to the skin, also helping to rid our system of toxins, thus preventing acne.  While different foods contain different members of this Vitamin complex, the best source for the complete Vitamin B package are whole grain products. 
Of course when it comes to cleansing toxins from our bodies, nothing does the trick better than good old H20. While it is common knowledge that the average person should drink eight 8oz glasses of water per day, the sad truth is that most of us are walking around dehydrated. This is not only harmful to, every single organ, but it also means that toxins begin to build up. When there is adequate amount of water in our system, our body can easily break down and flush out these unwanted toxins and waste; however, when we are dehydrated our body is unable to properly dissolve these waste products, leaving them to build up in the colon and kidneys. Our body must therefore turn to another channel to rid itself of these unwanted toxins – unfortunately that turns out to be the skin, and can result in an acne breakout.
Botox "au Naturel"
While acne may be a more youthful problem, as we age we have another skin predicament to deal with – wrinkles! Long-term exposure to the sun, pollution and stress and just the mere fact of aging leaves our skin looking older and damaged. While anti-aging creams and proper skin care can help reduce the appearance of unwanted fine (and even no-so-fine lines) a diet rich in certain micro-nutrients plays a key role in decreasing and even eliminating wrinkles.
But before we jump into wrinkle prevention, it is important to understand about collagen – what it is and what it does. Collagen is a fibrous protein found throughout the body. It supports and connects organs to bones and while there are many different types of collagen in our body, almost 70% of it is located in the second layer of our skin, called the dermis.  It is this connective protein that is responsible for the elasticity of our skin. However, as we age, our bodies produce less and less of it and once youthful expression lines quickly turn into unwanted wrinkles as the skin losses its flexibility.
Fortunately for us, one micro-nutrient, by the name of Vitamin C, actually boosts the production of collagen. A diet rich in this vitamin has been proven to help keep skin toned, firm and maybe even wrinkle free.  While oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes typically come to mind when most people think of this anti-aging vitamin, kiwi and strawberries actually have more Vitamin C than any member of the citrus fruit family. Certain vegetables such as broccoli, green pepper and cabbage are also high in this skin care vitamin, but should be consumed raw in order to maintain the maximum amount of the nutrient.
However, Vitamin C isn’t the only micro-nutrient that can be used to stave off the signs of aging. The mineral Zinc helps to ward off leathering skin, by promoting cell repair as well as is vital in the production of collagen – in fact without it the enzymes that build collagen do not function properly at all. Oysters and veal liver are packed full with this beauty nutrient; however other more common foods, such as roasted pumpkin/squash seeds, lean meats, nuts, and milk are also high in Zinc.
While, there are many foods that are important to include to help keep lines and wrinkles at bay, there are others that, without any doubt, should be avoided – Sugar. Excess sugar consumption has been linked with many diseases, such as diabetes, and now it has been proven to promote the production of wrinkles. Why is that? When sugar enters the bloodstream it attaches to proteins and is transformed into a new harmful molecule called advanced glycation end products. It is this  new molecule that changes stable long lasting collagen into a more fragile brittle form. Moreover, as more and more of these harmful molecules accumulate in our system, they begin to harm other proteins around them – most notably our collagen, which leads to unwanted wrinkles and sagging skin.

So whether your motives are for beauty, and achieving that perfect glowing completion, or out of fear of a disease, care for your skin – and it will continue to take care of you.