Skin Deep: What’s on the Menu to Help Your Skin?

The composition of your diet may slow or accelerate the effects of aging.
Image Credit: Artem Varnitsin / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

Aging has its benefits, but wrinkled skin isn't one of them. While there are creams and cosmetic procedures to rejuvenate aging skin, some of the best treatments just might be in your refrigerator. In fact, a number of foods may improve collagen and elastin and slow the effects of aging.

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Diet and Skin Health

Wrinkles and sagging skin are due in large part to a breakdown in collagen and elastin, two proteins in connective tissue, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). The skin is comprised of three layers — the outer layer (epidermis), middle layer (dermis) and inner (subcutaneous) layer under the dermis — and all contain connective tissue with collagen fibers, according to the NLM. The fibers provide skin with structure and support, while elastin provides strength and elasticity.

Your diet plays an important role in building and maintaining those proteins. According to a review on skin aging among Japanese women, published in the March 2017 Journal of Dermatological Science,​ diet may account for 30 percent of wrinkle formation in women. Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants like beta carotene, lycopene and vitamin C is linked with fewer wrinkles and more youthful looking skin, the review says.

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On the other hand, consuming excess sugar and alcohol can cause more wrinkles, according to the review.

Collagen and Elastin Boosters

A review of research, published in Dermato-Endocrinology in July 2012, suggests that healthy skin starts from within, and nutrition plays an important role in limiting some of the effects of skin aging.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish are some of the foods that have benefits for skin health, the review notes. Many fruits (especially citrus fruits) and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin C, which is essential for collagen formation. It also notes that foods like fish, walnuts, avocados, and deep-colored fruits and vegetables are also rich in essential fatty acids and antioxidants that protect skin from damage at the cellular level.

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Zenovia Gabriel, MD, a dermatologist with ZENA Medical in Newport Beach, California, says that skin cells constantly encounter what's called oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between damaging free radical compounds and the body's ability to fight them off.

Dr. Gabriel recommends eating foods rich in vitamin C and antioxidants because, she says, "They absorb the damaging particles, so cells stay healthy and collagen and elastin breakdown is minimized." Some of her favorites include:

  • Tomatoes.
  • Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes.
  • Matcha (green) tea.
  • Blueberries.
  • Walnuts.

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Philadelphia-area dermatologist Erum Ilyas, MD, of Montgomery Dermatology, adds olive oil (rich in antioxidants and vitamin E) and fatty fish (full of protein and omega-3 fats) to the list. "Some studies suggest that the combination of vitamins E, C and omega-3 fats can promote collagen synthesis," she says.

Dr. Ilyas also encourages her patients to eat lots of vegetables, especially leafy greens and carotene-rich vegetables, saying, "There's evidence they protect skin against damaging UV rays that cause fine lines, wrinkles and loss of elasticity." Good choices include:

  • Spinach, kale, arugula.
  • Carrots, sweet potatoes, sweet peppers.
  • Salmon, sardines, halibut, tuna.

Read more:OK, But What Are Antioxidants Really?

Sugar and Supplements

A scientific review on the causes of skin aging, published in Cell Transplantation in April 2018, notes that a biochemical process known as glycation causes loss of collagen and elastin with aging. With glycation, proteins (especially collagen and elastin) become bound to sugar molecules.

As the review explains, when glycation happens, skin loses elasticity and is more prone to deep wrinkles. There's no way to reverse it, but it can be prevented by avoiding excess sugar and eating a lower glycemic diet. Herbs and spices that may prevent glycation, according to the review, include:

  • Cinnamon.
  • Cloves.
  • Allspice.
  • Oregano.
  • Garlic.
  • Ginger.

As for supplements, collagen supplements are often recommended for healthier skin. However, like all sources of dietary protein, collagen is broken down into amino acids once it's digested, and "consuming oral collagen doesn't necessarily produce more collagen," Dr. Gabriel cautions. "As a supplement, it gives us more protein-building capacity, but not necessarily only collagen protein."

Remember This

The bottom line when it comes to skin health is to look to food over individual supplements because different compounds in foods often work synergistically.

As Dr. Ilyas explains, "studies on certain foods have shown an overall benefit, but it's extremely difficult to study individual nutrients."

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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