Nutrition for Healthy Skin: Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Biotin, and Sulfur

Nutrition for Healthy Skin: Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Biotin, and Sulfur

by Chris Kresser

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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.

Increasing dietary omega-3 fats is an important step towards healing the skin.

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

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.

While true biotin deficiency is rare, consuming adequate amounts of biotin can help prevent problems with dry skin and seborrheic dermatitis.

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

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.

Sulfur is necessary for collagen synthesis, which gives the skin its structure and strength. The breakdown of collagen or insufficient production of collagen as we age is one of the major contributors to the development of wrinkles, and dietary sulfur significantly affects the production of collagen in our 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. (1213)

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.

  1. Biggest problem I find is most people don’t try Omega 3 supplements for long enough to really see the difference with hair, nails and skin. Ideally you need to be taking at least 2000mg + EPA/DHA combination every day for at least 30 days.

    Ideally you also want to have that potency from as few a capsules as possible.

  2. As a side note another medically proven cause of Biotin deficiency is long term anti epileptic / anti convulsant therapy or genetic disorder. This is important to note since Biotin deficiency is fairly rare so if you are on these types of medications it is important to note.

  3. I agree. Diet is important. I have maintained a Ray Peat Food choices calendar and see what I can take in and what I cannot take in for my Ichtchyosis Vulgaris.

    I can only say ‘Try and see for yourself” because I have tried strictly implementing the diet as part of my treatment process. I teamed it up with SR Lotion – a good moisturizer. I would surely recommend Ray Peat + SR Lotion. I can vouch for the product’s amazing effect. A

    side from the fact that it has dealt with my dry fish-skin, it has also repaired it by replacing it with a new skin, making it better and smoother. If you go to srlotiodotcom, you will see that it is not only managing one skin disorder, but a lot more.

    • Ray Peat? Are you serious? Mr. “Cherry-Picker” when it comes to studies backing up his ridiculous hypotheses? The guy who believes essential fatty acids aren’t essential, yet aspirin and Mexican Coke are?

      sigh…

  4. A well balanced diet packed with omega-3 foods and as little omega-6 foods as possible is essential for a healthy live.

    It’s not that hard to get plenty omega-3 fatty acids in your diet! Treasure your health 😉

  5. My hair lasted a lifetime to grow, it was dry and it was breaking so much, I was frustrated with it but a friend of mine told me to use omega 3 for it as it increases hair elasticity, prevents hair loss, can help re-start hair growth and so many things besides other health benefits. We basically need this and I started reading and reading articles on the internet and I was a little skeptical about the fish oil because these fishes usually are exposed to toxic elements in the ocean. I tried using Visage’s omega 3 and I can say is fantastic with no risk at all, made of a natural medicinal plant and combined with the good taste and smell makes an outstanding product and my hair is completely awesome now, strong and shiny. It is not even falling! Everybody should definitely try this product.
    Omega 3 Visage Clary Sage Oil: http://goo.gl/FhguzH

  6. Just a word of advice for anyone experiencing skin problems while eating Paleo: the right omega 6’s are NOT the enemy.

    I started eating a clean, nutrient dense diet about three years ago and experienced a dramatic improvement in my overall health. Cutting out refined flour/most geneticallly enginered grains, sugar and processed dairy is essential to functioning at your best.
    That said, I did start to experience a decline in the appearance of my skin over time. Redness, keratosis pilarsis, moderate rosacea, dryness and a dull overall appearance started becoming the norm. In full blown paleo mode, I did my own research on sites like Chris Kresser’s and came to the obvious conclusion preached by most paleo bloggers that some sort of inflammation must be the root cause of my ailments. Namely the omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio. So I eliminated omega 6’s, upped the saturated fat content of my diet from grass-fed butter and coconut to ensure adequate vitamin A and D absorption, upped the omega 3’s from fish and made sure to be eating all the nutrients outlined in this very blog post: sulfur, silica, etc- supplementing when needed.
    Result: skin problems worse than I’ve ever had. Dry, inflamed, dull skin.

    Chris Kresser continues to drill this notion of omega 6’s in your diet being an automatic ticket to ill health because Americans “tend to get enough from their diet” as it is. What does he mean exactly? That we get enough of these essential fats from hydrogented oils used in frying? There is a difference between the garbage circulating in 90% of the seed oils used commercially and the beautifying, healthy Omega 6 and 9 fats found in raw seeds/nuts and their oils.
    After doing some research of my condition, I tried out a raw 3-6-9 Udo’s oil blend from whole foods. I took two teaspoons a day with meals. Results: after one week: DRASTIC improvement in my skin, hair and nails. The redness and vascular nature continues to improve, while it is definitely more supple and moist.

    For anyone having difficulties improving their skin while eating Paleo, I suggest you look into a similar raw oil blend or incorporate more healthy omega 6’s into your diet and take a second thought to how much saturated fat/butter you’re consuming. While still eating clean, I’ve upped the pure omega 6 and 9s from raw and sprouted nuts/seeds/oils and avocado, cut way back on the saturated fats, started eating more fruits and veggies and have never looked or felt better.

  7. Hi!
    Some words about omega 3 and 6. How important they are you can find yourselves but how you measure their balance?

  8. I have Restless Leg syndrome. I currently take mirapex twice a day. I am looking for a alternative to this medication that could help ,me?

  9. Is there a multi-vitamin you would suggest with all the vitamins and minerals you have suggested for dry skin?
    Thanks, B Bertrend

  10. Hi Dr. Kresser,

    Are you aware of any science indicating that increasing saturated fatty acids in the diet can lead to an increased resilience to ionizing radiation, or to oxidative stress in general? There is a lot of anecdotal evidence within the paleo community that saturated fat leads to skin that doesn’t burn as much, but I can’t find any research on that particular topic.

    Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated! Comments from anybody encouraged.

    Graham

  11. Over the years, the Omega 3 intake has somehow been overplayed. The Study of Omega 3 was initially on the Inuit Eskimo high intake during the Summer and then low intake during the Winter. We DO NOT FIND any Olive Tree, or Palm Tree and Coconut Tree growing in the Arctic Region.

    In fact, we found COLD Fishes being consumed by the Inuit Eskimo. Due to Cold weather, Omega 3 intake will be able to take good care of their (Eskimo) skin. This also explain how Inuit Eskimo handle SAD (seasonal affective disorder) during Winter.

    However, for Skin found in Subtropic and Tropical countries, we found the diet rich in Omega 9 (such such Olive Oil in Mediterrean countries) and Saturated Fat (such as Coconut in Asian countries) become necessary due the weather condition is hotter than Cold weather in the Arctic.

    So one need to understand Climate weather (Sunlight or without much Sunlight) in order to unerstand Body Fats and Oil Consumption intake for our body.

    If not, it will take another 10 to 20 years for Nutritionists to realise HOW FATS (from plants and meats) in Different Climate condition affect Different people in their Lands of Residence?

  12. Hello,
    I suffer from seborrheic eczema for more than 10 years and I also get more and more hairs on my head which look absolutely sick and twisted! They almost look like pubic hair, no joke! The texture and everything is totally different than the rest of the hair. I don’t know what causes this. I asked 2 dermatologists and they couldn’t tell me what causes this. Any ideas what can cause the hair to become twisted and like pubic hair? I also can’t comb these hairs. They are not combable.

  13. good article however there is very little omega 3 in your skin- my problem with fish oils is they are PUFA’s long chain fatty acids with 5 or 6 double bonds which are unstable in the body they oxidize at our body our temp is 98.6 so they are beneficial short term and most studies on fish oils are short. LOOK AT THE MITOCHONDRIA – has a double membrane that is loaded with cardiolipin(omega 6), phospholipids and saturated fats i dont see omega 3 (fish oils) in the membrane. ALSO PUFA’s inhibit
    the enzyme pyruvate dehyrogenase from working efficiently SATURATED FATS make it work efficiently

    • So what do I do if every time I try to increase my saturated fats I become incredibly uncomfortable? I develop restless legs within two-three hours, which lasts all night, and sometimes into the day.

      I know the politically correct fad out there is that saturated fats don’t clog arteries, but how else to explain my situation?

    • Saturated fat in the cell (50%) protects them from oxidizing; sort of like a blanket. Ever wonder why lard, and coconut oil are such a good cooking oil? Stop reading nonsense from brian peskin. Also, when speaking of oxidation it would be good to learn the purpose of antioxidants.

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