Contrary to what many conventional doctors and dermatologists may believe, nutrition plays a critical role in the health of your skin. Acne, rosacea, psoriasis, dry skin, and wrinkles are all affected by your diet, and eating the right types of foods is a great strategy for reducing and even eliminating these skin conditions.
The first article in this series on nutrition and skin health explained how vitamin A, zinc, and vitamin C can all help improve the appearance and health of your skin. In this second article, I will address three more important nutrients that can maximize skin health: omega-3 fatty acids, biotin, and sulfur.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are known to be anti-inflammatory, and the relative intake of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may be a crucial dietary factor in the regulation of systemic inflammation. Our modern diets tend to be very unbalanced in essential fatty acid intake; the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in Western diets is commonly at least 10 to 1, compared with ratios of 4 to 1 in Japan and 2 to 1 in hunter-gatherer populations. (1) This high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our modern diet likely plays a role in the prevalence of inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and rosacea.
High levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease inflammation, and may reduce the risk of acne and other skin problems by decreasing insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and preventing hyperkeratinization of sebaceous follicles. (2) Conditions such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis have been shown to be positively affected by supplementation with omega-3s from fish oil, likely due to competitive inhibition of arachidonic acid leading to a reduction in the inflammatory process. (3) Clinical results from omega-3 supplementation include an improvement in overall skin condition as well as a reduction in pruritis, scaling, and erythema. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been demonstrated to inhibit inflammation in the skin caused by UV radiation, and may even reduce the risk of skin cancer. (4)
Consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may lead to smoother, younger-looking skin with a visible reduction in inflammatory skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. These fats are especially abundant in cold water fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies, and black cod, among many others. (5) There are many reasons I recommend eating fish rather than taking fish oil to get these omega-3s, as there are many other nutrients in fish that are highly beneficial to skin health such as vitamin D and selenium.
Avoiding industrial seed oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids can also help reduce inflammatory skin conditions; however, I have found in my clinical practice that limiting intake of omega-6 from whole foods like avocados, poultry, pork and nuts is usually not necessary. Following these recommendations and consuming adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids can greatly improve many inflammatory skin conditions and may help eliminate stubborn acne.
Biotin is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as an essential cofactor for enzymes that regulate fatty acid metabolism. Proper fat production is critical for the health of the skin, since skin cells are rapidly replaced and are constantly in contact with the external environment, and fatty acids in the skin protect the cells against damage and water loss. When biotin intake is insufficient, fat production is altered, and the skin cells are the first to develop symptoms.
A nutrient deficiency of biotin causes hair loss and a characteristic scaly, erythematous (red and inflamed) dermatitis around the mouth and other areas of the face and scalp. (6) In infants, biotin deficiency manifests as “cradle cap”, or scaly dermatitis of the scalp. This condition appears as crusty yellow or white patches on the scalp, behind the ears, and around the face. In adults, this condition is called seborrheic dermatitis and can occur in many different areas of the skin. Biotin deficiency can also be a cause of dandruff for some people.
Biotin deficiency in the diet is usually only seen in individuals who are consuming raw egg whites, due to the protein avidin which binds with biotin and prevents its absorption in the gut. (7) Therefore, it’s not a good idea to eat raw egg whites, and if biotin deficiency is a concern, be sure to consume adequate amounts of biotin rich foods. The best sources of biotin are egg yolks and liver, and other good sources include swiss chard, romaine lettuce, almonds, and walnuts. Including these foods in your diet will prevent biotin deficiency and may help improve the production of fatty acids in the skin, returning moisture to dry skin.
Sulfur, the third most abundant mineral in the human body, is an extremely important dietary compound for both skin health and overall wellness. Yet we rarely hear about sulfur in mainstream nutrition, and many people do not even know which foods provide it. In fact, a large proportion of our population is likely eating a diet deficient in sulfur, which could be causing the initiation and progression of many inflammatory and degenerative diseases. (8) While the benefits of a diet rich in sulfur are numerous, I will focus on the effect consuming adequate sulfur can have on the health of the skin.
Animals fed a sulfur deficient diet produce less collagen than normal, demonstrating how a diet with inadequate sulfur can contribute to a reduction in collagen and subsequently cause an increase in skin wrinkling. (9) Getting enough sulfur in your diet can help maintain collagen production and keep your skin looking firm.
Sulfur is also required for the synthesis of glutathione, one of the most important antioxidants in the body. High levels of glutathione in the body can prevent damage caused by free radicals, which are thought to be the major cause of cellular aging. (10) The free radical theory of aging suggests that aging results from accumulation of cellular damage from excess reactive oxygen species that are generated as a consequence of oxidative metabolism. High levels of glutathione in the body can reduce the damage caused by these reactive oxygen species, helping to slow down the visible signs of aging. Glutathione also regulates the production of prostaglandins, reducing inflammation and possibly affecting symptoms of inflammatory skin conditions. (11) The level of glutathione in the body is greatly impacted by having adequate sulfur, specifically sulfur-containing amino acids, in the diet. (12, 13)
These amino acids are most abundant and bioavailable in animal foods such as egg yolks, meat, poultry, and fish. (14) Sulfur is also found in plant foods; good sources include garlic, onions, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and kale. Fermentation may make this sulfur more bioavailable, so foods like sauerkraut and other fermented crucifers are excellent sources of sulfur and an important component of a diet for healthy, youthful skin.
Next week, I will discuss another set of essential nutrients that can be beneficial in improving and maintaining the health and beauty of your skin.