new_health (2007-12)

Baby, It's Sunny Out There

Protect your skin from the great outdoors

by Wendy C. Smith

Spring is in the air. It's obvious by the vivid blue of the sky, the blooming flowers and our strong desire to get outside. Spring and summer are the times of year when we think about spending a great deal of time in the garden, walking or just enjoying the beautiful sunshine and nature. Our bodies need to be outside--our skin not so much.

Our skin is our largest organ and our first line of protection against the environment. It gets exposed to toxins and other environmental dangers on a daily basis. Our skin is also a marker for age and how well we've taken care of ourselves. As we get older, we don't really think about how much our skin protects us, we think about how many wrinkles we have. While ads tell us that all we have to do to keep our youthful faces is use the right moisturizer, it does require more that that. Healthy skin is dependent on many things, but two of the most important are sun exposure and nutrition.

Many experts and professionals now agree that the sun is responsible for most skin damage. The sun, aside from bombarding us with more ultra-violet rays than we need, is a free radical machine. When sunlight hits our skin, the free radicals begin to do their damage. The abbreviated story is that free radicals damage the collagen molecules that keep our skin soft and resilient. The damaged collagen molecules create defects that reveal themselves as wrinkles, uneven skin tones and loss of elasticity.

So, here we are faced with beautiful weather and the desire to go outside and needing to protect our all-important epidermis and its sub-layers, the dermis and subcutaneous layers. What can we do to protect our skin and improve its overall health at the same time? First and foremost, use sunscreen with a SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. SPFs are based on medium-toned skin, so the fairer the complexion, the higher the SPF needs to be for decent protection. Use at least a teaspoon for your face and don't forget to put it on all the other parts of your body that might get sun such as your neck, hands and feet, and reapply frequently. Although a tan looks healthy, there is skin damage under that bronzed façade.

Nutrition can play another part in limiting the environmental damage to skin from the inside out. Not only can nutrition provide skin-healthy nutrients, but free radical damage can be reduced by antioxidants which kind of "turn off" the molecular aging processes that free radicals "turn on." Two good fat soluble antioxidants are vitamin A and vitamin E. These slightly boost the body's ability to withstand ultraviolet radiation (but are no substitute for sunscreen). Vitamin A has other benefits in that it is useful in calming severe acne, boosting hair and eye health and aiding in calcium absorption and bone health. Vitamin E, especially tocotrienol vitamin E (HPE, a powerful type of vitamin E), is useful in elevating the moisture content of the skin and helps lower cholesterol levels. The average adult can take up to 10,000 - 20,000 IU of vitamin A per day and between 400 to 800 IU of vitamin E a day.

Vitamin C is a good water soluble antioxidant. Because it is water soluble, it needs to be replenished daily. Vitamin C aids in helping the cellular membranes retain their integrity and thus aids in the absorption of other nutrients. Vitamin C (with a high bioflavonoid content) strengthens the immune system and white blood cells. It also fortifies connective tissue and capillary walls and helps prevent spider veins. Vitamin C is necessary in the production of collagen and helps wounds heal more quickly. The average adult can take between 3,000-5,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily.

Another powerful and universal (soluble in fat and water) antioxidant is alpha lipoic acid. It is strong anti-inflammatory and useful in helping the body regulate blood sugar. The average person should take about 100 milligrams a day. Lastly, there are the omega-3 fatty acids. The importance of these in hydrating the skin and producing a glowing complexion can not be overstated. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids fight inflammation, aid in heart health and can be very useful in healing chronic skin conditions such as eczema.   

Although there are other vitamins and minerals that help our skin fight sun damage and aging, the aforementioned ones are critical. However, getting nutrition from actual food versus supplements is very beneficial. Most Americans do not get enough raw fruits and vegetables. These are rich in antioxidants as well as fiber and water. Eating nutritionally packed meals helps prevent weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and other disorders caused or affected by nutrition in addition to helping your skin, eyes and hair look healthy.

There are many skin healthy foods. Cold water fish, free range meats and eggs and flax seeds are just a few ways to load up on omega-3s. Vibrantly colored vegetables and fruits such as squash, spinach, blueberries and kiwi are rich in antioxidants. Fats such as olive oil, canola oil and avocados raise the skin's moisture content.

Don't take your skin for granted. Wear sunscreen, eat well and enjoy the great outdoors.