Eating for Healthy Skin

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“Skincare” isn’t just about what you smear on your face (although that matters too!). It’s also about what you put in your mouth. From dry skin to aging to acne, a surprising number of skin problems have at least something to do with your food. And even if there’s nothing specifically wrong, a healthy diet can still help you get that beautiful glow that no amount of makeup can really fake.

This isn’t to say that all skin problems are caused by diet – they aren’t. For example, acne also has a powerful genetic component that has nothing to do with what you eat. But a huge number of people do notice dramatic skin improvements when they go Paleo, so it’s worth trying to figure out why that might be, and what might be worth trying if you’re not seeing the magic for yourself.

The Problem: Acne/Greasy Skin

The idea that diet affects acne is controversial to begin with, and some doctors still maintain that there isn’t a relationship at all. But clearer skin is such a common side effect of going Paleo that acne has a whole article of its own. To quickly summarize:

  • Gut health and skin health are connected. If your gut flora aren’t happy, your skin probably won’t be happy either. So if you have any acne trouble, your first stop should be healing your gut: think probiotic foods, bone broth, and potentially a consultation with a medical professional to talk about issues like SIBO or FODMAPs intolerance.
  • Dairy is a commonly cited acne trigger; it’s worth a 30-day elimination trial to see if it helps.
  • Eating a lot of simple carbs may trigger hormone fluctuations that cause acne. This doesn’t mean “go off the deep end and eliminate everything but meat,” but you might have some luck eating smaller servings of starchy foods as an experiment.
  • This study found that acne patients had lower serum levels of Vitamins A, E, and zinc than controls, suggesting that deficiencies might possibly have something to do with it.

Some research also suggests that overdose of Vitamins B6 and B12 could cause breakouts. This isn’t an issue for most people, but if you tend to eat a lot of liver, it might be worth cutting down to see if it helps.

It’s possible that different people might have specific individual acne triggers as well; chocolate in particular is a food that gets a huge variety of anecdotal reports each way.

It’s also important to remember that acne can sometimes be the symptom, not the problem. Sometimes, it has hormonal causes that go well beyond your skin – problems like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) or thyroid issues. In that case, a good diet can help treat the underlying problem causing the hormonal changes, but the wisest thing is to see a doctor, not try to treat yourself with elimination diets.

The Problem: Premature Aging/Wrinkles

Let’s get this one out of the way to start with: wrinkles are a normal part of growing older, and there’s no magic serum or special diet that will make you look 25 at 80. Aging is not a disease; it’s a normal condition of healthy humans, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

On the other hand, if you look 45 at 25, something might be up, or at least not optimal. And it turns out that there are quite a few diet-related leads.olive oil

First off is fat. Getting enough of the good fats seems to help keep skin looking younger longer. In this study of Japanese women, intake of saturated and monounsaturated fat (but not PUFA!) was associated with greater skin elasticity and fewer wrinkles. Of course, the usual caveats apply (association is not causation, not even when we want it to be), but it’s food for thought. This study also found that monounsaturated fat from olive oil in particular was associated with good skin health. On the other hand, this study of American women found that more dietary fat was associated with an increase in wrinkles – possibly this comes down to the difference in dietary fat sources between Japan (fish) and America (fish sticks).

Moving on from fat, there’s also some evidence (here’s another study) that dietary collagen – that’s the good stuff in bone broth – helps reduce wrinkles.

And then, of course, there are carbs. Aging skin and diabetic skin show many of the same characteristics, which suggests that there might be a connection between blood sugar and skin health. This seems to have something to do with advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), which form when a blood sugar spike meets Omega-6 overload (think a milkshake and fast-food fries, or pizza with a can of Coke). This gets better with improved glycemic control, suggesting blood sugar control as a good strategy for maintaining healthy, younger-looking skin.

This study (in mice, but still interesting) also found that the skin of diabetic mice was more sensitive to sun damage than the skin of non-diabetic mice. Since sun damage and aging can look so similar, this also suggests that controlling blood sugar might help avoid premature aging.

This doesn’t mean that you need to eliminate carbs altogether for healthy-looking skin! The problem is not the carbs; it’s an unhealthy metabolic response to the carbs (at a very simplified level, that’s what diabetes is). In metabolically healthy people, there’s no reason to be afraid of safe starches. A better plan is to find the carb level that works best for your body as a whole (including energy, workout recovery, fertility, and other health questions) instead of going to extremes.

The “Problem:” Cellulite

Cellulite is a normal feature of healthy skin. It has nothing to do with how much body fat you have (even very thin people have it), how old you are (even young people have it), what you eat (even isolated hunter-gatherer tribes have it) or how much muscle mass you have. It’s not something you need to “control” or get rid of. Sometimes weight loss or changing your diet affects it; sometimes it doesn’t; either is fine.

We only think it’s a “problem” because the skincare industry can make a lot of money by convincing us that we need to buy stuff to treat it. There’s nothing you can do to “fix” cellulite, and absolutely no reason to try because it doesn’t represent anything wrong. Just like not all women are meant to be a size 0, not all women are meant to have perfectly smooth skin everywhere on their bodies, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

The Problem: Dull skin/lack of “glow”

It’s hard to describe, but there’s a level of skin health above simply not having any acne or obvious problems. It’s that healthy, vibrant, beautiful-from-the-inside-out look. You might find that it just appears overnight after switching to Paleo, but if the magic doesn’t happen immediately, here are some tips:

  • Getting plenty of Omega-3 fats from whole foods (e.g. fish and seafood) can help reduce inflammation – there’s never been a study on this, but it’s reasonable to suggest that it might help with puffy eyes or other inflammatory skin issues.
  • Drink plenty of water – it’s a classic tip for a reason.
  • Double-check for any nutrient deficiencies. Dull skin and hair is often just a sign of general poor health; many people find that when their diet cleans up, their skin follows.
  • Sleep! Sleep deprivation makes it harder for your skin to recover from stressors.

The Big League: Eczema, Psoriasis, etc.

All the above problems are potentially irritating and embarrassing, but very often, they’re not much worse than that (the exception being very severe acne). But then you have a whole set of diagnosed skin diseases: rosacea, psoriasis, eczema, and all the rest.

Often, these problems represent an autoimmune issue. They may also be related to metabolic syndrome and diabetes. In any case, they’re issues to get checked out by a doctor, not to treat yourself on the internet! There are Paleo ways of approaching autoimmunity and metabolic disorders, but before you look into diet, go talk to a doctor.

Summing it Up

Diet isn’t the last word when it comes to skincare, but it does help. Finding the right amount of carbs for you (hint: this number probably is not 0, although for a few people it might be), eating plenty of the good fats, and double-checking to make sure you’re getting all your nutrients in is a good basic plan for everyone – not just for treating anything that might be going on right now, but for preventing problems in the future.

If there’s anything more serious going on, though (cystic acne, psoriasis, rosacea…), go talk to a dermatologist before you go crazy trying to eliminate things: diet is powerful, but there’s more to skin health than just your food.

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