Top 3 Skin Stressors

Considering that each of us is covered in a dozen or more pounds of the stuff, it’s surprising how little thought we give to our skin’s essential role in the drama of our daily existence. Skin, after all, is where we meet the world. It’s the interface between our body and its surroundings. It’s our first line of defense against pathogens and sharp objects. It is the point at which we encounter sensation – pain or pleasure, heat or cold. Our skin is both the face we show the world and our most intimate means of physical connection.

By understanding your skin as a vital organ and by smartening up about the factors that most profoundly affect its condition – from sun exposure, nutrition and hydration to internal and external skin stressors – you can optimize the look and feel of the skin you’re in, and also reap whole-body health benefits in the bargain.

Combine a nourishing diet with adequate hydration, appropriate exercise, good stress management and high-quality sleep and you’ve got the underpinnings for the systems that help build, nourish, protect and repair your skin. But when it comes to coaxing out the best skin your body has to offer, you’ll also want to keep the following key stressors and solutions in mind:

Stressor 1: The Sun.

We need a certain amount of sunlight to support our general health. But experts agree: There is no such thing as a healthy suntan. A tan is your body’s response to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Photoaging, the term used to describe the damage to skin caused by UV exposure, is responsible for 90 to 95 percent of extrinsic skin aging, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Too much sun can cause free-radical formation and collagen breakdown. It can contribute to “age spots,” dark patches and other visible skin discolorations. It also can inhibit the immune system and interfere with DNA repair.

But before you slather on the sunscreen, consider the ingredients in your sun protection of choice. According to a 2001 study by the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, common sunscreen ingredients like benzophenone-3 (BP-3), homosalate (HMS), 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC), octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC) and octyl-dimethyl-PABA (OD-PABA) are estrogenic substances that may cause reproductive problems and endocrine disruption. Other evidence suggests that a variety of chemicals such as PABA and benzophenone present in commercial sunscreens may stimulate free radicals, damaging DNA and contributing to the very skin cancers they’re designed to protect us against.

Sun Smarts. Get in the habit of donning a hat when you go outside. And if you’re worried about chemical safety, consider natural sun-block products that use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to block rays.

Vitamins C and E also counter the effects of sun exposure. In 2005, the Journal of Investigative Dermatology reported that people who supplemented with vitamins C and E significantly reduced their risk of sunburn from exposure to UVB radiation.

In addition, scientists saw a reduction of factors linked to DNA damage within skin cells, leading them to conclude that antioxidant vitamins help protect against DNA damage.

Stressor 2: Free Radicals.

Free radicals are a byproduct of our body’s process for turning food into energy, and also the result of exposure to the stressors above and below. They are infamous for contributing to the oxidation (a rust-like weakening) of the body’s internal and external tissues and have been implicated in causing widespread inflammation and cellular damage throughout the body – including the skin. For example, free radicals damage collagen, one of the essential components of the connective tissue that keeps skin smooth, firm and wrinkle-free. Free radicals can also contribute to the formation of skin discolorations.

Antioxidant Allies. Commonly associated with the vitamins A, C and E, antioxidants are abundantly represented in the phytochemicals (e.g., carotenoids, flavonoids and polyphenols) of brightly colored fruits, vegetables and legumes. Red beans and brightly colored berries, according to a 2004 USDA study, top the charts for antioxidant activity.

In recent years, a number of high-powered antioxidants, such as alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), have been getting increased attention in the skincare industry. Believed by some researchers to be up to hundreds of times more effective at counteracting free-radical damage than vitamins C and E, ALA also has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s found in spinach, broccoli, and other plant and animal sources. It can be taken as a dietary supplement or applied topically.

It’s important to note, though, that while applying topical antioxidants directly to the skin may prove helpful in the long run, there’s no guarantee it will produce visible results in the short term. Limiting free-radical and inflammatory activity within the body is likely to have a further-reaching impact on skin’s health and appearance overall. Best of all, this same course of action also helps support the systems that protect the integrity of the skin’s cells while improving the vitality of the body as a whole.

Stressor 3: Smoke and Pollution.

One of the skin’s most vicious enemies is cigarette smoke. “Past studies have shown that the skin of smokers ages twice as fast after the age of 30 as the skin of nonsmokers,” explains Christiane Northrup, MD. Smoking dehydrates, slows skin growth and rejuvenation, depletes essential nutrients, and contributes to decreased levels of estrogen, leading to collagen and elastin breakdown.

Air pollution takes its toll on the skin by causing irritation and inflammation, contributing to the body’s toxic load, eating away at the ozone layer (which protects us from the sun), and contributing to the presence of airborne volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause allergic skin reactions. New furniture, carpet and building materials can also off-gas the VOC formaldehyde, which causes skin irritation in some folks.

Pollution Solutions. The obvious, and perhaps best, step to take to avoid smoke and pollution damage is to stop smoking, limit exposure to secondhand smoke and take whatever steps you can to avoid other environmental toxins. You can also emphasize good nutrition and proper hydration to protect your skin from damage, enable detoxification and optimize its repair mechanisms.

Skin-Friendly Fatty Acids

Certain essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in the omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 families play a crucial role in supporting strong skin structures, keeping skin soft and smooth, fighting inflammation, and maintaining good skin health. Some, like gamma-linolenic acid (an unusually healthy type of omega-6), have been shown to be effective in the treatment of common skin ailments such as rosacea, psoriasis, eczema, dryness and acne.

Because the body can’t make EFAs on its own, they must be obtained from food or supplements – but the key here is balance. According to the National Institutes of Health, most American diets provide more than 10 times the amount of certain omega-6s (found in many processed foods, red meat, eggs and most vegetable oils) as omega-3s. That imbalance not only negatively affects your skin, it contributes to long-term diseases, including heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis and depression.

Avoiding processed foods and cooking oils like sunflower, safflower, corn and soybean, and eating red meat sparingly (no more than a couple of times a month) can help reduce your intake of unhealthy omega-6s. Good food sources of omega-3s and other healthy fatty acids include nuts, seeds, and cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, tuna and halibut. EFA supplements are available in liquid, ground-seed or capsule form.

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