In this series, we’ve covered a wide range of vitamins and minerals that are important for skin health. Part 1 discussed how vitamin A improves the rate of skin turnover, zinc aids in wound healing, and vitamin C promotes collagen growth. Part 2 explained how omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, biotin improves skin moisture, and sulfur has anti-aging qualities.
These vitamins and minerals are crucial for the proper formation and function of skin cells, and are beneficial in treating conditions such as acne, psoriasis, rosacea, and may even prevent sun damage and wrinkles. Many of my patients have experienced significant improvements in their skin health when addressing the nutrient quality of their daily diet.
This week I’ll be addressing three more nutrients that are beneficial for skin health: vitamin E, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), and selenium. These nutrients are particularly important for antioxidant defense of the skin, which is crucial in slowing the aging process as well as protecting the skin from sun damage, pollutants, and other environmental toxins. They are also beneficial for treating acne, which is characterized by sebum overproduction, follicular hyperkeratinization, oxidative stress and inflammation. (1) By consuming foods rich in these vitamins and minerals, your skin will look clearer, brighter, and more youthful than ever before.
Vitamin E is the most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant found in the skin. It is secreted on the skin surface through the sebum, an oily substance that coats the outer layer of the skin. (2) This secretion happens roughly 7 days after consumption of vitamin E-rich foods, and is an important protective factor on the skin’s surface. Our bodies store vitamin E in our fat cells, and we depend on adequate dietary intake to keep these levels optimum.
Vitamin E is a potent anti-inflammatory agent, defending the skin against free radicals and reactive oxygen species that would otherwise cause damage. (3) Vitamin E may also play a synergistic role with selenium in improving glutathione levels in the body, further increasing antioxidant activity. (4) Adequate levels of this vitamin in the skin may prevent inflammatory damage from sun exposure, helping to reduce the aging and skin cancer risk from excessive UV radiation.
Vitamin E is also involved in immune function and cell signaling, regulation of gene expression, and other metabolic processes. (5) It even suppresses the formation of arachidonic acid, which could help improve inflammatory skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. (6, 7)
Good sources of vitamin E that are Paleo-friendly can sometimes be difficult to find; most Americans get the majority of their vitamin E from polyunsaturated vegetable oils like soybean, canola, corn, and other vegetable oils. (8) Whole food sources of vitamin E include spinach, turnip greens, chard, sunflower seeds, almonds, bell peppers, asparagus, collards, kale, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. Olive oil contains a moderate amount of vitamin E as well. It is important to eat these foods with plenty of fat to boost the absorption of vitamin E, which is a fat-soluble vitamin. While grass-fed meat may be higher in vitamin E than conventional meat, animal foods are generally a poor source of this antioxidant, so be sure to consume plenty of leafy greens as part of your healthy skin diet. (9)
I do not recommend supplementing with vitamin E in most cases. Studies have shown that long-term supplementation with alpha-tocopherol, the form of vitamin E found in most multivitamins, may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. (10) This should serve as a reminder that supplementing with isolated, synthetic nutrients affects the body differently than obtaining the same nutrients from whole-food sources.
Pantothenic acid (B5)
Pantothenic acid, also called vitamin B5, is a water-soluble vitamin named after the Greek word pantos, meaning “everywhere.” This is due to the vitamin’s presence in virtually all types of food, and its requirement by nearly every type of organism for proper growth and metabolic function. Pantothenic acid plays a role in a wide variety of biological activities, including energy production and protein and fat synthesis, and is needed by many different types of skin cells for proper regeneration and growth.
Pantothenic acid has been shown to support wound healing, especially when applied topically, by improving the regrowth of those cells that are responsible for generating connective tissue after injury. (11) This vitamin may also promote the growth and differentiation of keratinocytes, which are essential for maintaining a healthy barrier function in the skin. (12) Keratosis pilaris, or “chicken skin”, is a common skin condition caused by impaired keratinocyte growth, which may benefit from increased pantothenic acid consumption.
Pantothenic acid also significantly increases levels of glutathione in the cells, which acts as a potent antioxidant in the skin. (13, 14) As I mentioned in the second article of this series, increased levels of glutathione in the skin protects against oxidative damage of cell membranes, reducing the effects of sun damage, pollutants, and other stressors. This can help reduce the signs of aging, prevent wrinkles, and even defend against skin cancer.
Pantothenic acid is available in a variety of foods, but the richest sources are liver and kidney, egg yolk, and broccoli. Fish, shellfish, chicken, dairy products, mushrooms, avocado, and sweet potatoes are also good sources. Most healthy people have no problem meeting their pantothenic acid requirements, but factors such as stress, pregnancy, and a diet high in processed foods can increase one’s needs for this vitamin. (15) High heat, canning, and other processing methods may reduce the amount of pantothenic acid in food by up to 75%, so it’s important to consider cooking and preparation of these foods when trying to maximize your intake of pantothenic acid. (16)
Selenium is an incredibly important trace mineral with numerous health benefits, yet many people may be at risk for deficiencies of this important element. (17) Poor levels of selenium in the soil, inadequate intake, and intestinal disorders that affect absorption can all lead to minor deficiencies, and this can have consequences for general health as well as the health of the skin. (18, 19)
One of the most important functions of selenium is as a component of glutathione peroxidase, an enzyme necessary for the antioxidant function of glutathione. As I’ve mentioned before, glutathione is one of the major antioxidants in the body that protects against cellular damage from the free radicals that cause inflammation, aging, and promote skin cancer. In fact, many scientists support the theory that selenium in the diet is protective against skin cancer: epidemiological evidence suggests that death rates from cancer are significantly lower in areas of the world where selenium levels in the soil are high, and some clinical trials have shown benefits of dietary selenium in cancer prevention. (20, 21)
Selenium-dependent glutathione peroxidase and its effects on glutathione activity may also have a significant role in acne severity. Patients with acne have been shown to have low levels of blood selenium, as well as low levels of selenium-dependent glutathione activity. (22, 23) Clinical research has shown that selenium supplementation, along with vitamin E, improves the appearance of acne while simultaneously increasing glutathione activity in those patients with lower levels. (24) In addition, selenium and vitamin E likely play complementary roles in increasing glutathione activity and reducing overall oxidative stress in the body. Therefore, a diet high in selenium is likely to improve acne, specifically in those with low levels of glutathione.
It’s best to get your selenium from food, and the richest sources of this trace element are organ meats and seafood, followed by muscle meats. Fish such as cod, tuna, halibut, sardines, and salmon are excellent sources, along with liver and meats like beef, turkey, and lamb. Brazil nuts are also a rich in selenium, and just two brazil nuts a day will give you the 200 micrograms necessary for an adequate intake. The selenium content of food depends heavily on soil conditions, so eating a range of selenium-rich foods on a regular basis will ensure that you’re getting enough – no need to worry about eating too much. (25)
That said, while the above study indicates that there may be no upper limit for selenium in the diet, other studies have shown that selenium is potentially toxic in high doses. 400 mcg per day and/or blood levels of 1,000 ng/mL are currently recognized as the safe upper limit. (26) Therefore, if you are eating selenium-rich foods I do not recommend taking more than 200 mcg/d in supplemental form.
In the coming weeks, I’ll publish my fourth and final article in this series on nutrition for skin health, so stay tuned!