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Skin Deep

How Nutrition Affects the Largest Organ in Your Body

The incident occurred several years ago at a major international bodybuilding contest. I was in the audience explaining to a female acquaintance the nuances of bodybuilding judging. I mentioned that at least some portion of the score related to personal appearance, such as the condition of skin and hair, and told her why bodybuilders shave all the hair off their bodies’that kind of thing. At that point the judges called for the men in the lineup onstage to turn to the rear.

‘Wait a minute,’ my friend exclaimed. ‘I thought you said that personal appearance was judged in these guys and that they were all healthy.’

‘Yes, that’s true as far as I know,’ I replied.

‘Then look at those three guys in the middle.’

Sure enough, when the huge men onstage had turned to the rear for the required compulsory ‘relaxed’ back display, I could tell even from my seventh-row seat that the three men in question had backs riddled with massive lesions, or zits. Their backs were so acne-ridden and inflamed that they resembled star-gazing maps.

So much for the superior health of competitive bodybuilders. And it’s not just bodybuilders. The appearance of skin is a reflection of overall health. Many illnesses show up in the skin as what doctors call ‘cutaneous manifestations of disease.’ That isn’t surprising considering that the skin is the body’s largest organ and that it’s affected by how other organs and systems function.

The skin and hair also reflect how you eat and exercise; nutrient deficiencies show up first there. Some emerging research shows that how you eat can even affect how rapidly you show the effects of age on your skin. Some foods speed the aging process, while others slow it down. Genetics and lifestyle habits may also adversely affect skin health.

From a bodybuilding perspective, the worst nonnutritional habit for the skin is lying in the sun or using a commercial tanning bed. While many equate a tan with vibrant health, any dermatologist will quickly confirm that a tan is the skin’s first line of defense against sun exposure. By the time you accumulate enough skin pigment (melanin) to cause a tan, you’ve already damaged your skin’the fairer your skin, the worse the damage. People who are naturally dark-skinned have some additional natural protection against the sun’s harmful rays, though they, too, are susceptible to the accelerated aging effects of exposure to the sun.

While the skin is normally rich in natural built-in antioxidants, the sun’s ultraviolet radiation causes excessive oxidation. The radiation is so powerful that it can cause cellular mutations in the skin and lead to various types of skin cancer. In most cases, however, the immediate effects of sun exposure manifest in either of two types of damage: the gross inflammatory state we know as sunburn or the tan, which is simply the body’s attempt to shade the skin from further solar damage.

Nothing ages the skin faster than continual sun exposure. One researcher a few years ago noted that some Chinese monks who’d never been exposed to the sun showed little or no skin wrinkles even at the age of 90. Solar oxidation processes foster skin aging by breaking down the structural proteins elastin and collagen. Elastin, as the name implies, provides elasticity to the skin. Collagen is the cornerstone of the skin itself’a little like the foundation of a building. When the foundation dissipates with age or sun damage, the skin loses thickness and thus wrinkles.

Bodybuilders add to the age-promoting effects of sun or tanning-machine exposure through their dieting practices. The dehydrating effect of dieting amplifies the sun’s drying effect, causing a premature aging appearance in the face. Reducing calories to the point of starvation may cause the body to catabolize the skin’s structural proteins and produce premature skin aging and wrinkling. Not taking in enough protein compounds the aging effect many times over, though that’s not usually a problem among modern bodybuilders.

Hydration is an important aspect of skin health. The epidermis, or outer layer of the skin, retains moisture and keeps the skin soft and healthy looking, and curtailing fluids in an effort to show more muscular definition takes a toll. Using diuretic drugs makes things worse, which explains the haggard facial appearance of many highly muscular bodybuilding competitors. Some who are no older than 25 appear to be middle-aged. ALL Another common bodybuilding habit detrimental to skin health is gaining and losing weight rapidly. Guys who like to gain 50 pounds or more in the off-season are stretching their skin, placing undue stress on its structural proteins. Eventually the proteins show permanent changes that look like premature aging. The faces of these guys start wrinkling around the time they turn 30.

Most bodybuilders don’t smoke, although the message about the dangers of tobacco doesn’t seem to have trickled down to athletes from Europe. Because smoking’including cigars, pipes and marijuana’accelerates oxidation and inhibits blood circulation, it adversely affects skin health and promotes rapid skin aging.

Nutrition and Your Skin

While all nutrients are vital to clear, healthy skin, some are more specific to skin health. Take vitamin A, for example, too much or too little of which can affect the skin’s appearance. Too much leads to excessively dry skin. Several drugs, such as Retin-a, are synthetic analogues of vitamin A (retinol) that work by drying the skin, thus helping with conditions linked to excessive skin oiliness, such as acne. Vitamin A is also involved in skin-cell replenishment and helping skin cells divide at an orderly rate. Vitamin A, particularly in the form of analogues such as beta-carotene and lycopene, found in fruits and vegetables, also offers the skin some antioxidant protection.

Some people believe that applying vitamin E to a recent skin wound will prevent the formation of excess scar tissue. The research evidence for that assertion is mixed, but the fact that vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that can help protect the skin against the effects of sun and aging is not debatable. Even so, it’s difficult to obtain vitamin E in therapeutic amounts’a minimum of 400 units a day’from food alone, so supplements offer an easy and safe alternative. The best form of vitamin-E supplement is a mixed-tocopherol, or antioxidant-compound, blend.

One of the first signs of scurvy, or vitamin-C deficiency, is a type of skin rash. Among many other functions, vitamin C is required for the production of collagen. It’s also the body’s primary water-soluble antioxidant. The beneficial effect of vitamin C on the skin is so potent that many antiaging creams and emollients contain it in topical form.

Some experts warn that in large doses C turns into a pro-oxidant, leading to greater free-radical, or toxic oxygen by-product, release. But that’s true only when no other antioxidants are present to keep vitamin C ‘honest’ by capturing and converting the free radicals. Among the nutrients that can promote conversion are coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid, and it’s no coincidence that both turn up in antiaging skin creams along with vitamins C and E.

The trace mineral zinc is also heavily involved in skin metabolism. Some researchers suggest that those who are prone to acne may be deficient in zinc; however, as with other minerals, you mustn’t go overboard with zinc intake. Too much zinc causes the excretion of another trace mineral, copper, which can lead to a copper deficiency in some rare cases. Other research suggests that taking more than 100 milligrams of zinc daily (the suggested dietary allowance is 15 milligrams) increases the risk of prostate cancer.

The initial sign of an essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency is dry, flaky skin. Those who favor ultra-lowfat diets are particularly susceptible to an EFA deficiency. The body requires two EFAs, linoleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid. Omega-3 fats, found in such fatty fish foods as salmon, mackerel and sardines, have a potent anti-inflammatory effect on the skin by interacting with eicosanoids, hormonelike substances made in the body from dietary-fat precursors. Bodybuilders and others interested in skin and hair health should consider taking an EFA supplement.

A recent study showed that an antioxidant found in green tea called EGCG appears to rapidly reverse aging effects in the outer skin cells. You’d need to drink at least five to six cups a day of green tea to get the effect; another option is to use a standardized green-tea-extract supplement. Other supplemental antioxidants that may slow skin aging include polyphenols, found in grape-seed extract, which interfere with a skin enzyme that breaks down elastin. A good daily dose of GSE is 150 to 200 milligrams. A supplement called pycnogenol offers similar effects but is about twice as expensive as GSE.

A study that examined the effects of food on skin wrinkling also provides some valuable information.1 Researchers examined the eating habits of elderly people and found that a higher intake of vegetables, olive oil, monounsaturated fat and beans appeared to slow the aging of the skin. Conversely, foods such as whole milk, processed meat, butter, margarine and high-sugar foods accelerated skin aging. The cause for these findings isn’t difficult to figure out. Vegetables are rich in protective antioxidants, such as various flavonoids and polyphenols. Olive oil contains potent antioxidants and is less likely than other fats to become oxidized. The fats found in whole milk aren’t prone to oxidation, but the trans fats in margarine, while not subject to oxidation, have other properties that lead to ill health.

The effects of fat may be related to functioning of various eicosanoids, which are made from polyunsaturated fats. Excess saturated and trans fat may interfere with eicosanoid metabolism, which helps explain the link between saturated fat and skin aging. Too much sugar ages skin by promoting a process called glycoslation, a reaction between sugars and proteins that leads to a weakening of connective tissue, including skin tissue.

So to wrap it all up, you can look younger and healthier longer by following these guidelines: Avoid excessive sun exposure or use a high-SPF cream when you go out in the sun; drink plenty of fresh, clean water; don’t go on extreme diets that curtail protein or other required nutrients; avoid excessive dehydration by not using diuretics, and be aware that the combo of dehydration and ultraviolet exposure is guaranteed to age you prematurely; get plenty of antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables.

You can’t control the other aspect of skin health’genetics’but by following the suggestions outlined here, you’ll likely save money on early facelifts and Botox injections and spare your face from looking like a walking map of the Los Angeles freeway system. Or even worse, being offered a senior discount at age 30.

1 Purba, M., et al. (2001). Skin wrinkling: Can food make a difference? J Amer Coll Nutr. 20:71-80. IM

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