Beauty may be only skin deep, but healthy skin depends on what's deep within us — especially the food we eat, according to Phoebe Yin, a naturopathic doctor and core faculty member at Bastyr Center for Natural Health.
"When it comes to skin health and appearance, you really are what you eat," says Dr. Yin, who focuses on skin health along with allergies, digestive health and women's health. "Eating better changes the skin. I can see the difference in my own appearance."
The epidermis (the skin) is made of rapidly dividing tissue, so it has a high demand for nutrients. And because bodies tend to heal from the inside outward, the skin reflects internal health, says Dr. Yin.
She offers three keys for promoting healthier skin through nutrition.
1. Take care of the "organs of elimination"
The skin is one of the organs that remove toxins and waste products from the body (along with the lungs, bowel/colon, lymphatic system, liver and kidneys). Because their work is connected, taking care of the lungs (by not smoking), the liver (by limiting alcohol intake) and the colon (by eating a high-fiber diet) are all ways to improve skin health.
2. Stick to an anti-inflammatory diet, which includes good fats and a low-sugar diet
Chronic inflammation can cause or aggravate a number of skin conditions, Dr. Yin says. Avoiding inflammatory foods such as saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and refined sugar can help. (Complex carbohydrates in whole grains are OK. So are polyunsaturated fats from avocados and fish oil.)
She points out that acne may affect up to 95 percent of teenagers in Western cultures. Acne is virtually non-existent among the Kitavan Islanders of Papua New Guinea and the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay, two populations that eat fruit, fish, game and tubers but not cereals or refined sugars, she says. Its suspected that elevated blood sugar sets off hormonal changes that contribute to acne.
3. Eat antioxidant-rich food
Antioxidants prevent free radicals from damaging skin cells, and the antioxidants selenium, vitamin E and vitamin C have been shown to decrease the effect of sun damage and prevent further skin damage, Dr. Yin says.
For selenium, eat Brazil nuts, whole-grain cereals, seafood, garlic and eggs. For vitamin E, look to wheat germ, nuts, seeds (such as sunflower) and leafy green vegetables. For vitamin C, try kiwi, broccoli, bell peppers, kale, cauliflower, strawberries and many more fruits and vegetables.
You can get nutrients such as these through supplement pills, but the body often has a better chance of assimilating them through the diet, Dr. Yin says.
"The best way to get these nutrients is through food," she says. "Then you're getting them the way they were designed in nature."