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Nutrients & Foods for Healthy, Clear Skin

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Skin tells us so much about ourselves and each other – from our age to the state of our health. You can’t hide skin. Not really. The point is, our skin is a window to our physical health. And if our skin is not looking healthy, it might be a sign that our body isn’t either.

Healthy skin is hydrated, with smooth texture and even skin tone. If you’re suffering with skin issues such as blotchiness, dark circles, spots and acne and are otherwise in good health you might want to start by analyzing your diet and your gut health.

Because you can rub in all the expensive creams and lotions that boast vitamins, minerals, essential oils and antioxidants in the world, but if you’re not consuming them daily in your diet, it’s not going to give you the healthy, radiant, and clear skin you want. If your stomach has also been acting up, you way want to check out how your gut can give you problem skin.

Conventional medical professionals often discount the link between a healthy diet and skin health. Instead, many recommend the use of skin care products filled with harsh, unpronounceable ingredients.

However, clinical research shows that nutrients you ingest do indeed shield your skin against both internal and external stressors, improves overall skin health, and can help delay skin aging.

1. Selenium

This trace mineral is now recognized as being essential in human nutrition and its role in combating several types of degenerative diseases has been known for decades 1. More recent studies now suggest that selenium plays a key role in skin health. Selenium is needed for the proper functioning of glutathione.2 

Gluthatione is a very powerful antioxidant that can quench the oxidative damage caused by free radicals and hence, reduce risks of skin cancer, slow down skin aging and reduce inflammation 1.

Acne sufferers often have low levels of selenium. 2 Increasing dietary selenium intake can improve acne while increasing glutathione activity. For optimal results, you may also want to increase your vitamin E intake from dark green leafy veggies, tropical fruits or healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds.

Selenium can protect the skin against sun damage 3 by preserving the skin’s elasticity and preventing hardening of tissues brought by oxidation, the trace mineral can prevent the formation of wrinkles and age spots.

If you’re suffering from intestinal disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease you’re at greater risk of suffering from selenium deficiency, as these disorders can reduce intestinal absorption of dietary selenium.

Food Sources of Selenium

Animal sources: Organ meats and seafood (especially cod, tuna, halibut, sardines, and salmon); muscle meats such as beef, turkey, and lamb are also good sources.

Plant sources: Brazil nuts are terrific sources of Selenium – just 2 nuts per day will provide you with 200 micrograms! Wheat germ, brown rice and mushrooms also contain some selenium.

2. Silica

Although not an essential nutrient, it’s worth mentioning that a deficiency in the trace mineral silica has been associated with weak connective tissue and poor collagen quality 4. In other words, a diet low in silica would reduce your skin’s elasticity – hello wrinkles and sagging!

That’s not all, since silica is involved in the synthesis of hyaluronic acid, a glycosaminoglycan (structural building block of connective tissue); it indirectly promotes the growth of healthy skin cells and increases levels of retinoic acid which helps keep them properly hydrated 4. Not only is dehydrated skin is more prone to premature aging, it is also more vulnerable to toxins and pathogens.

Food Sources of Silica

Forget the synthetic form of this trace mineral, you can get plenty of silica in leeks, green beans, garbanzo beans, strawberries, cucumber, mango, celery, asparagus and rhubarb.

3. Sulfur

This mineral is rarely evoked in mainstream nutrition despite being the third most abundant mineral in the human body. Plus sulfur is a crucial nutrient for both skin health and overall well-being:

  • Sulphur is needed for the synthesis of collagen, the structural protein which keeps skin elastic and firm, making wrinkles and fine lines less noticeable 5.
  • Sulphur helps slow down cellular aging since it is involved in the production of glutathione, an antioxidant which can reduce inflammation and other symptoms caused by inflammatory skin conditions 6.

Food Sources of Sulfur

Animal sources: Egg yolks, meat, poultry, and fish

Plant sources: Garlic, onions, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and kale. Since fermentation increases the bioavailability of sulphur, try to include foods like sauerkraut and other fermented crucifers in your diet.

4. Zinc

Your skin alone contains 6% of all the zinc in your body! Here’s how dietary zinc can keep your skin looking clear and healthy 7:

  • Zinc protects the cell membranes and optimizes their structure thereby keeping harmful pathogens at bay.
  • Zinc also maintains collagen.
  • Zinc is significantly involved in skin renewal.
  • Zinc has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and can shield skin cells against UV radiation.

If you suffer from acne, make sure to consume a zinc-rich diet: a study found that, compared to healthy controls, men and women with severe acne had lower levels of serum zinc.9 Research indicates that, by interacting with vitamin A, zinc can alleviate acne as effectively as antibiotics like tetracycline 10.

Food Sources of Zinc

Animal sources: Seafood especially oysters, lobster, mussels, crab and other shellfish; turkey and chicken (dark meat), veal liver, lamb and wild beef.

Plant sources: Wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and butter, starchy beans (such as black, navy, pinto, garbanzo, kidney), lentils, black-eyed peas, soybeans (edamame), lima beans, pine nuts, cashews, peanuts and peanut butter, pecans.

Tip! To get the most zinc from fresh beans, pulses and seeds, allow them to soak overnight in water.

5. Astaxanthin

This fat-soluble reddish-orange carotenoid pigment is a powerful antioxidant that can provide broad spectrum protection to almost every cell in your body 11:

  • Astaxanthin has been shown to reduce the skin’s vulnerability to UV light-induced damage 13.
  • Astaxanthin is able to reduce sagging and wrinkling 12.
  • Unlike topical sunscreens that can only reach the skin’s outermost layer, astaxanthin is able to penetrate all skin layers – as such, this antioxidant can inhibit cancer growth at any stage of development 14.

Food Sources of Astaxanthin

Salmon, shrimps, crustaceans and anything that feeds on certain marine algae – the pigment in these plants is what lends the reddish hue to this seafood.

6. Ellagic acid

Ellagic acid is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to protect the skin.

  • Ellagic acid works by blocking the production of enzymes that break down collagen in damaged skin cells 15. In other words, this antioxidant helps keep the skin firm and makes wrinkles less visible.
  • Ellagic acid also prevents wrinkle formation and skin thickening by decreasing a substance (ICAM) involved in inflammation 15.
  • Ellagic acid has been shown to significantly inhibit the growth of skin tumors 16.

Food Sources of Ellagic Acid

Strawberries, raspberries, pomegranate, Arctic bramble and walnuts are good sources of the antioxidant.

7. Flavanols

Cocoa and dark chocolate which are rich in flavanols may very well be skin allies. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, flavanols can do wonders for your skin because of their ability to increase blood flow to the skin 17. Improved skin microcirculation ensures that:

  • The delicate skin cells will be optimally supplied with oxygen and nutrients that are crucial for skin health.
  • The skin’s outer layer will be kept properly hydrated – a dried out skin ages much faster than a sufficiently moisturized one and is also more prone to wrinkles and scaling. Proper hydration also protects the skin from external stressors.

Regular intake of flavanols also appears to protect the skin against sun damage 17.

Tip! Choose dark chocolate with at least 75% of cocoa or natural cocoa powders that are sugar-free – excessive sugar consumption can accelerate skin aging and make it more vulnerable to inflammatory conditions.

8. Lycopene

You’ve probably heard of lycopene, the substance that gives tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables their color. Lycopene is able to partially block UV light, thus protecting the skin against sun damage that has been linked to skin cancer and aging 18. Lycopene is thought to be able to improve the skin’s texture and help keep skin looking young 20.

Tip! The highest levels of lycopene are found in cooked or processed tomatoes such ketchup, soup and juice, which are more easily absorbed by the body.

Food Sources of Lycopene

Cooked tomatoes, pink grapefruit, papaya, wolfberry and gojiberries.

9. Resveratrol‎

Resveratrol is produced by plants as a protective mechanism to stress, disease, strong UV radiation or infection. Scientists have found that, in humans, resveratrol‎ acts as an antioxidant that can slow down skin aging by:

  • Protecting the skin against UV radiation damage
  • Scavenging free radicals and inhibiting their formation
  • Supporting the production of healthy collagen, helping to keep the skin tight
  • Protecting the skin from harmful enzymes which could otherwise promote the production of abnormal skin cells. 21

Tip! Keep in mind that some antioxidant like resveratrol‎ can actually have adverse health effects when taken as a supplement – so keep it fresh!

Food Sources of Resveratrol

Red grapes, red apples, blueberries and peanuts.

10. Omega-3 & Omega-6

For your skin to look young and remain healthy, it needs a strong protective barrier to shield it against excessive moisture loss and to ‘deny’ entry to harmful toxins and pathogens. That’s where omega-3 fatty acids come in: they keep the skin’s cell membranes (the skin’s barrier) healthy and selectively permeable 22. Omega-6 fatty acids also boost the protective function of the skin’s barrier 22.‎

Studies suggest that omega-3s can protect your skin from the sun’s radiation and thus decrease photo aging by making the skin less vulnerable to UV-light 23. Omega-3s also maintain the skin’s elasticity by protecting collagen from wear-and-tear 23.

Food Sources of Omega-3 and Omega-6

Sources of omega-3: Cold water fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies, and black cod

Sources of omega-6: Avocado, poultry, nuts, meats and eggs

11. Probiotics

Several studies have shown a clear link between the skin’s health and that of the gut. Scientists have found that a suboptimal gut flora and/or bacterial infiltration from the colon into the large intestine (i.e. poor gut health) can promote both systemic and local inflammation which are known to cause skin disease especially acne and rosacea 24, 25.

Read on: Ways to improve your gut health & microbiome

Doctors usually prescribe antibiotics to treat skin condition and while these may help your body get rid of harmful pathogens, they also kill friendly bacteria. To restore your gut’s health, increase your intake of probiotics. Research shows that probiotics can help reduce skin inflammation and provide relief to acne sufferers 26.

Food Sources of Probiotics:

Fermented foods such as kefir (a fermented milk product), unpasteurized sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and sour pickles.

For convenience, you can also take a high quality probiotic supplement. Make sure to also decrease your consumption of sugar-laden or refined foods as these help bad bugs thrive.

Other skin essential nutrients include:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Biotin
  • Pantothenic Acid (vitamin B5)
  • Niacin
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K2

26 sources

  1. Brozmanova J. (2011) Selenium and cancer: from prevention to treatment. Klin Onkol.; 24(3):171-9.
  2. Michaëlson, G. (1990). Decreased concentration of selenium in whole blood and plasma in acne vulgaris. Acta dermato-venereologica, 70(1).
  3. Leccia, MT, et al. (1993) Protective effect of selenium and zinc on uv‐a damage in human skin fibroblasts. Photochemistry and photobiology4: 548-553.
  4. Chen, W. J., & Abatangelo, G. (1999). Functions of hyaluronan in wound repair. Wound Repair and Regeneration, 7(2), 79-89.
  5. Brown, R. G., Button, G. M., & Smith, J. T. (1965). Changes in collagen metabolism caused by feeding diets low in inorganic sulfur. The Journal of nutrition, 87(2), 228-232.
  6. Nimni, M. E., Han, B., & Cordoba, F. (2007). Are we getting enough sulfur in our diet? Nutr Metab (Lond), 4, 24.
  7. Wintergerst ES, Maggini S, Hornig DH. (2007) Contribution of selected vitamins and trace elements to immune function. Ann Nutr Metab; 51:301-23.
  8. Rostan, et al. (2002) Evidence supporting zinc as an important antioxidant for skin. International journal of dermatology 41(9): 606-611.
  9. Amer, M., Bahgat, M. R., Tosson, Z., Mowla, M. Y., & Amer, K. (1982). Serum zinc in acne vulgaris. International journal of dermatology, 21(8), 481-484.
  10. Michaëlsson, G., Juhlin, L., & Ljunghall, K. (1977). A double‐blind study of the effect of zinc and oxytetracycline in acne vulgaris. British Journal of Dermatology, 97(5), 561-566.
  11. Hussein, G., Sankawa, U., Goto, H., Matsumoto, K., & Watanabe, H. (2006). Astaxanthin, a Carotenoid with Potential in Human Health and Nutrition⊥. Journal of natural products, 69(3), 443-449.
  12. Camera E, Mastrofrancesco A, Fabbri C, et al. (2009) Astaxanthin, canthaxanthin and beta-carotene differently affect UVA-induced oxidative damage and expression of oxidative stress-responsive enzymes. Exp Dermatol.;18(3):222-31.
  13. Lyons NM, O’Brien NM. (2002) Modulatory effects of an algal extract containing astaxanthin on UVA-irradiated cells in culture. J Dermatol Sci.;30(1):73-84.
  14. Yuan JP, Peng J, Yin K, Wang JH. (2011) Potential health-promoting effects of astaxanthin: a high-value carotenoid mostly from microalgae. Mol Nutr Food Res.;55(1):150-65.
  15. Bae, J. Y., Choi, J. S., Kang, S. W., Lee, Y. J., Park, J., & Kang, Y. H. (2010). Dietary compound ellagic acid alleviates skin wrinkle and inflammation induced by UV‐B irradiation. Experimental dermatology, 19(8), e182-e190.
  16. Stoner, G. D., & Mukhtar, H. (1995). Polyphenols as cancer chemopreventive agents. Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, 59(S22), 169-180.
  17. Heinrich, U., Neukam, K., Tronnier, H., Sies, H., & Stahl, W. (2006). Long-term ingestion of high ‎flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin ‎condition in women. The Journal of nutrition, 136(6), 1565-1569. ‎
  18. Evans JA & Johnson EJ. (2010 ) The role of phytonutrients in skin health. Nutrients.;2(8):903-28.
  19. Fazekas, Z., Gao, D., Saladi, R. N., Lu, Y., Lebwohl, M., & Wei, H. (2003). Protective effects of lycopene against ultraviolet B-induced photodamage. Nutrition and cancer, 47(2), 181-187.
  20. Aust O, Ale-Agha N, Zhang L, Wollersen H, Sies H, Stahl W. (2003) Lycopene oxidation product enhances gap junctional communication. Food Chem Toxicol ;41(10):1399-407.
  21. Adhami VM, Afaq F, Ahmad N. (2003) Suppression of ultraviolet B exposure-mediated activation of NF-kappaB in normal human keratinocytes by resveratrol. Neoplasia; 5(1):74-82.
  22. Pilkington, SM & Rhodes, LE (2011) ‘Omega-3 fatty acids and skin.’ In Nutrition for Healthy Skin (pp. 91-107). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
  23. Pilkington SM, Watson RE, Nicolaou A, Rhodes LE. (2011) Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: photoprotective macronutrients. Exp Dermatol; 20:537-543.
  24. Parodi A et al. (2008) Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth in rosacea: clinical effectiveness of its eradication. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol 6:759-64.
  25. Volkova LA, Khalif IL, Kabanova IN. (2001) Impact of the impaired intestinal microflora on the course of acne vulgaris. Klin Med (Mosk) 79(6):39-41.
  26. Bowe WP & Logan AC. (2011) Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis – back to the future? Gut Pathog. 31;3(1):1.

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