Skin nutrition and The Australian Healthy Skin
Diet - buy the book now
Worrying about what you put on your skin is only half the answer to helping it stay healthy. Your body’s nutrition and diet is the other half.
Skin is the largest organ in the body, making up around 15 per cent of your body weight and measuring around two square metres for an average sized adult.
Skin is part of a delicate ‘integumentary system’ of the body, which also includes hair follicles, hair, nails, sebaceous glands and sweat glands
Research has found links between diet and teenage acne, polycystic ovarian syndrome (also called PCOS), acne, rosacea, menopause, pigmentation, psoriasis, eczema, hirsutism (also known as excess body hair), dermatitis, alopecia and even random skin tags. Surprisingly, skin tags are associated with underlying insulin resistance.
Skin changes can be the first hint of an underlying health issue and shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘just a rash’ or another breakout.
Skin and premature ageing
Our skin will change and age just as consistently as the rest of your body. Eventually all of us will develop fine lines around our face that are signs of our life experience.
Wrinkles and sun damage tell the story of how we have lived our lives. Both internal and external factors are responsible for the changes that occur to our skin over our lifetimes.
Internally, genetics determine the speed at which your skin ages. Over time, skin cell turnover slows down and collagen production declines, leading to thinning, drying skin and uneven pigmentation.
At a functional level, your skin becomes less effective at healing wounds and at acting as a protective barrier as you age - it will also lose volume and plumpness.
Externally, the factors that impact your skin over time include sun exposure and even the effects of gravity exerting downward pressure on your face. There are also lifestyle factors like smoking or using tanning beds which can accelerate the ageing process. This is why it's important to start looking after our skin early in our adult years, by making better food choices and nutritional changes, to help delay the skin ageing process.
The importance of your hormones - and insulin resistance
Hormones are the body’s invisible messengers that can create harmony or havoc at every stage of life. Insulin resistance - and the rise of Type 2 diabetes, along with its close cousin polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) - can cause skin changes which is intimately linked to how the hormone insulin is working in your system.
For women, menopause inevitably causes skin changes. It is important to keep well nourished if you want to lessen the impact of ageing. Menopause contributes to a decrease in the three ingredients that keep skin looking young and healthy: collagen production slows and the replenishment rate of elastin cells and hyaluronic acid declines. Furthermore, oestrogen levels drop markedly during menopause, to the detriment of your skin's capacity to hold water and remain plump and full.
How you eat and how your hormones respond - which may give rise to insulin resistance - might help explain a variety of skin conditions. Insulin problems are often seen as ‘normal changes’ in the body and not picked up. Underlying insulin resistance can be simply easy weight gain, the embarrassing patch of hair in an odd place, the irrational mood swings, pimples and even boils, up-and-down hunger and hot flushes.
If parts of this timeline, pictured below, look familiar, then it could be worth seeking specialist medical advice about insulin resistance.
Food intolerances and allergies
Australia has one of the highest rates of food allergies in the world, with a 41 per cent increase in the risk of anaphylaxis reported between 2009 and 2014. Geraldine has seen more children presenting with insatiably itchy, red, scaly rashes at her practice, which often triggers guilt and self-doubt in the parents.
The cause of the increase is uncertain but research is beginning to explain how food allergies might have a role to play in eczema and atopic dermatitis. This is not to suggest that everyone with skin problems should eliminate peanuts, cow’s milk and eggs but it might be something you could investigate with the help of a dietitian.
As a dietitian who works with people diagnosed with coeliac disease, I’m also conscious of the rise in people who aren’t diagnosed with coeliac eschewing gluten. Going gluten-free without a diagnosis or expert help may provide no benefit - in fact, it could actually result in nutritional deficiencies and lower-fibre diets.
There is research to suggest that some people have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. These people don’t develop the nutrient deficiencies commonly seen in people with coeliac disease, but they do have a higher tendency to get skin irritations and inflammation.