The new year's promise of renewal is somewhat lessened if the prior year left unsavory evidence of its passing. Whether that evidence is deeper nasiolabial folds or a softening jawline, the stressors and neglect of the past can show up on the face. For purely cosmetic reasons, it's obvious that we want our skin to look its dewy, radiant best. But the skin's condition is also a barometer of overall health. "Your skin is your largest body organ, so by looking at someone's skin, you can tell, healthwise, how well they're doing," says Rebecca Lee, a dietitian and nutritionist at East Jefferson General Hospital. Here's a four-pronged plan targeting the skin from the inside out to restore a youthful glow — and increase overall well-being at the same time.
EAT THE RIGHT STUFF
"It's very true that we are what we eat," Lee says. "If you put the right things inside, the outside will show better." Molly Kimball, a dietitian with Ochsner Health System, agrees. She recommends a diet rich in healthy fats like those found in tuna, salmon, avocado, olive oil and macadamia nuts, and cautions against low-fat diets.
"A higher intake of fat helps improve not only skin hydration, but also skin's elasticity," Kimball says. "Skin elasticity helps maintain that firm, toned appearance."
Lee emphasizes the importance of vitamins A, which supports healthy skin and vision; C, which is needed to synthesize collagen and maintain skin's elasticity; and E, which protects skin from free radical damage. Foods like apricots, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, mango, tomato juice and sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin A. Papaya, strawberries, oranges, mango, Brussels sprouts, red bell peppers, grapefruit, raspberries, pineapple and Russet potatoes (with the skin on) are good sources of vitamin C. Sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, papaya, peanut butter and avocado contain vitamin E.
"Omega-3 fatty acids are really anti-inflammatory, which helps make the skin look bright," Lee says. Salmon, walnuts and flaxseed oil are rich in omega 3 fatty acids.
In addition to supporting skin elasticity and warding off free radicals, the antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables and green and white teas can stave off photoaging (skin damage caused by exposure to UVA and UVB rays) by making sunscreen work better, Kimball says. "A diet high in antioxidants ... can enhance the protective effects of sunscreen."
When it comes to maintaining healthy skin, the things you don't eat are just as important as the things you do. Kimball cautions against diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates like white flour and white sugar. "I had one client come in and giggle and say she had a steady diet of sugar — Cokes and Skittles for lunch," Kimball recalls. "Although she was thin, she had deep circles under her eyes, acne and scaly skin. (Her diet) stood out all over her skin."
Kimball urges people to nibble on fruits, vegetables and nuts rather than sugary, refined foods like 100-calorie "snack packs" or prepackaged weight loss shakes. "When we look at inflammation from sugar, that doesn't just affect our skin, it affects our total system," she says. "There's no guarantee that eating the right foods will give us dewy, luminous skin, but if that gives us one more reason to incorporate these foods and avoid the others, this is a step forward. Better-looking skin is one potential bonus, along with the way you feel, the way your clothes fit, less fatigue, less highs and lows from the sugar, and other positive benefits."
When it comes to overall well-being, including skin health, exercise is an unparalled panacea. "For all the reasons exercising promotes health, it promotes skin health as well," says Dr. Julie Mermilliod, chairwoman of the department of dermatology at Ochsner Medical Center.
"Exercise has a positive impact on your skin," says Krista Schultz, a triathlete, exercise physiologist and former Division I track and cross-country athlete at the University of New Orleans. "It stimulates blood flow, helps skin cells regenerate and repairs tissue. The more you take care of your body in general, the better you look."
A.C. Lambeth, an instructor at Wild Lotus Yoga, says she noticed an improvement in her skin and in other yoga practitioners' skin once they started coming to class regularly. "I know a yoga teacher, and so many people have come up to her and said, 'You look younger. What are you doing?' And it's yoga," Lambeth says. "Any of the poses increase circulation and blood flow. Even doing a simple sun salutation can get fluids moving and activate glands, especially endocrine glands, which helps balance hormones."
Schultz agrees that exercise can help balance hormones, which in turn can improve skin's appearance. "If you're stressed and you're overproducing cortisol (a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland) and your estrogen is out of balance, it may cause you to break out as a response," she says. "There could be dryness or even a rash. Exercise is a way to rebalance that, because it helps control the release of cortisol. When you have a balance of the hormones, the skin has a positive reaction."
USE SUNSCREEN, MOISTURIZERS AND RETINOLS DAILY
Mermilliod recommends a beauty regimen that both prevents and repairs skin damage. "Sunscreen is No. 1, and retinols are No. 2 for (addressing) photoaging," she says. "Cosmeceuticals and antioxidants are the next layer for staving off the aging process."
Mermilliod points out that the American Academy of Dermatology recommends daily application of broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen to the face and neck. "People forget that a sunscreen is just that — a screen," she says. "Physical barriers like hats and protective clothes are important. Stay out of the sun during peak hours. It's the day-to-day damage that causes fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots."
"The sun is probably the No. 1 cause of aging problems in the skin," says Elise Davis, an esthetician, makeup artist and owner of Esthetique Facial Spa. "I tell my clients in their 20s that everything they're doing now — tanning, smoking — will show up in their 40s." Davis stresses the importance of reapplying sunscreen throughout the day. "If you're hanging out at a festival eating and drinking, bring a wet wipe, wipe your face and reapply your sunscreen when you use the bathroom."
While sunscreen can stave off the cumulative damage done by sun exposure, retinols, which contain a form of vitamin A, can restore a youthful appearance to skin by encouraging cell turnover, evening out spots on the skin and restoring skin tissues. "Retinols help build the collagen and elastic tissue that gets damaged over time," says Mermilliod, who recommends that her clients begin using retinoids between ages 18 and 20. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so I think you should start with Retin-A (a prescription retinoid)when you have acne and never stop."
She also recommends using mild cleansers and applying moisturizer right after showering. Topical application of antioxidants can also improve the skin, Kimball says. Davis advises people to seek out products that contain retinols, hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid and lactic acid for the best anti-aging effects. Massage products into the skin to increase the benefits. "The more you massage your face with some kind of product, the better and plumper your skin will be," Davis says. "Even cleansing techniques can stimulate collagen production. When you see wrinkling, there's a loss of activity in that area, so it kind of breaks down. Use somewhere between light and medium pressure."
USE SUPPLEMENTS WITH DISCRETION
Lee prefers her clients get their nutrition from foods rather than supplements ("I really encourage the fruits and vegetables"), but she says if they prefer, they can take a multivitamin and/or fish oil. "Make sure you get concentrated doses of DHA and EHA, which are cardio-protective," Lee says. "To boost health, they need 500 milligrams, and for heart diseases you want 1,000 milligrams. But don't get too much omega-3, because too much can cause a stroke."
Certain diets designed to enhance the skin, like the popular diet espoused in The Perricone Prescription, recommend taking coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), an antioxidant. However, Lee says she is not convinced CoQ10 is good for the skin. "I'm not sure if it has been proven definitively," she says. "It's an antioxidant, so I can see why people would recommend it, but I would recommend it for the proven cardio-protective benefit."
Lee says vitamin C antioxidant supplements may be harmful, and she recommends that her clients who take them stick to doses below 250 mg. "There is not a need to take supplements. There are mixed and some negative reviews," she says. "There have been a lot of studies that have researched antioxidants, and they act more as pro-oxidants, which can have more harmful effects. But there have been no adverse effects with 250 milligrams of vitamin C."
She also does not suggest supplements or "green" powders containing ingredients like spirulina and wheat grass. "You have to be careful with supplements, because the manufacturers are just out to sell their products," she says. "I don't believe you get as much benefit with the powders and the dehydrated fruits and vegetables."
Abundant in fruits and vegetables, vitamins A, C and E support skin elasticity and ward off damage from free radicals.