by Pamela Bond
When the weather outside is frightful, there's a good chance you have customers complaining about dry winter skin. "In winter, cold air holds less moisture," says Lisa Petty, registered nutritional consulting practitioner, nutritionist and author of Living Beauty (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2005). "And when you turn on the heat inside, you make the internal environment even drier than outside."
These parched surroundings suck moisture out of the skin, particularly if the semi-permeable cell membranes aren't nourished. "When the membranes of your cells aren't healthy, they are a less efficient barrier at trapping moisture in the skin," Petty says. For some people, the problem becomes worse than an uncomfortable tight, dry feeling. Their skin gets so thirsty that it flakes, cracks, itches and swells. Conditions like eczema and psoriasis can flare up.
The good news: Your customers can feed their skin and get its glow back, even in winter. In addition to drinking plenty of water and applying a topical solution like olive or coconut oil to help trap moisture, shoppers can heal the skin from the inside out by taking certain supplements.
"Particular oils contribute to the healthy functioning of cellular membranes that help control the natural water loss," says Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D., clinical nutrition specialist, author of The Gut Flush Plan (Avery, 2008). "Nutrients can be your best friends when it comes to beautiful skin in winter." And although vanity is nice, hydrated skin also plays an important role in promoting general well-being.
"Skin tells a lot about what's going on in the body," Petty says. "If skin is dry and dehydrated and easily scratches, you're opening a gateway for pathogens to enter deep in the body. When flu bugs and cold viruses are all over the place, you don't need to give them another way to get into the body." Here, experts share the top supplements for customers to take to keep skin healthy during winter.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fats—such as those in fish oil—work on multiple levels to protect and preserve skin. When you ingest these essential fatty acids, which your body needs but doesn't make, they form healthy cell membranes that can effectively hold water inside the cell. The more water in the cell, the better hydrated the skin.
Taking in too many harmful fats such as trans fats, on the other hand, has the opposite effect: When these particular fats are present, they hamper membrane transport and fluidity, so cells aren't as robust as they could be, Petty says. Omega-3s also bring nourishing blood and oxygen to the skin, as well as encourage the production of new skin cells to replace the ones that slough off during the season. And to combat seasonal redness and swelling, particular components of omega-3s—EPA and DHA—serve as nature's best anti-inflammatories (Nutrition, 2001). Researchers recently discovered that DHA, which is found in fish oil, improves eczema symptoms (British Journal of Dermatology, 2008).
"The other thing that people forget about in the winter is sun," Petty says. "When you're out walking the dog or skiing, you're still susceptible to sun damage, even in winter." Scientists note that omega-3s are particularly valuable for protecting against skin cancer and sun-induced aging (Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2002).
Dose: Take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of fish oil (in triglyceride form) daily. If you have extra-dry skin and don't eat fish, up the dose to 2,000 milligrams a day, Petty says. Vegetarians may opt for flaxseed oil, but the synthesis of omega-3s could be slow, Gittleman says.
Omega-6 fatty acids
Americans tend to get more than enough omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils, except for one particular omega-6 nutrient: gamma-linolenic acid, according to Petty. Many, but not all, recent studies found that anti-inflammatory GLA improves skin moisture, elasticity, firmness and roughness (International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 2005; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2005). But if you don't take GLA straight, getting enough can be tricky. "Even when you get the raw material through vegetable oil—for example, through safflower oil—the body can't always transform that to GLA," Gittleman says. The body uses the delta-6 desaturate enzyme to change the oil into the active, beneficial GLA. Unfortunately, that critical enzyme is not all that efficient to begin with, and it becomes less efficient as you age or if you have diabetic problems.
A sign that your D6D enzyme may be sluggish or blocked: dry, inflamed skin. To reap the benefits of GLA, supplement with a direct GLA source, such as borage oil or evening primrose oil, rather than a vegetable oil that the body needs to convert to GLA. Researchers have discovered that borage oil relieves dry skin of elderly people (Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 2000).
Dose: Take 360 to 1,000 milligrams of GLA a day, as borage oil or evening primrose oil, Gittleman says. If you have liver problems, do not take, she adds.
Vitamin A and carotenoids
Gittleman calls fat-soluble vitamin A the "skin vitamin" and the "No. 1 wrinkle fighter." Researchers found that applying topical vitamin A (retinol) reduces wrinkles, increases collagen production, helps the skin retain water, strengthens skin and reduces sun damage (Archives of Dermatology, 2007; Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 2000). Taken internally, some provitamin A carotenoids—found in colorful fruits and vegetables—can be made into retinol by the body.
A new meta-analysis found that taking beta-carotene supplements protects against sunburn, and the longer you take the pills, the greater the protection. The effect may be due to beta-carotene's antioxidant activity (Photochemistry and Photobiology, 2007). Other carotenoids, such as lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin, don't actually have vitamin A activity but show promise for protecting winter—and summer—skin from sun damage. Antioxidant lycopene, found in tomatoes, may neutralize the harmful effects of UV rays. Taking extra lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found naturally in the skin, bolsters the body's antioxidant defense systems against the sun, perhaps better than topical applications in the case of lutein.Dose: Take 10,000 to 25,000 IU a day of vitamin A. Consult a health care practitioner for individual doses of carotenoids.
According to Gittleman, vitamin E acts like estrogen at the molecular level. "Estrogen is key for keeping skin plump," she says. The antioxidant also is proven to help protect and repair skin exposed to pollutants and sun rays, especially when combined with vitamin C. It's tough to get enough vitamin E through diet alone, so a supplement may be necessary. For example, one-fourth cup of almonds—one of the richest food sources of vitamin E—has only about 6 IUs of vitamin E.
Dose: Take 400 to 1,000 IUs daily, Gittleman says.
Zinc plays a key role in wound healing and is a metabolic cofactor that helps the body better use essential fatty acids, according to Gittleman. It also helps balance excess copper. Too much copper in the body leads to poor skin function, she says.
Dose: Take 25 to 50 milligrams a day, Gittleman says.
Antibiotics as well as chlorine in the water you drink or bathe in are meant to kill off bacteria, including the beneficial ones in your gut that support digestion, fight infection and calm inflammation. "If you're not digesting nutrients properly, there's no way the rest of the supplements will get to the cells," Petty says. "They will just leave your body." Plus, poor digestion that results from food allergies or gut pathogens can contribute directly to skin conditions, including dryness, swelling and redness, Gittleman says. Introducing probiotics—"good" bacteria—into the intestinal tract helps the body digest necessary nutrients. (See "Gut reaction" on pg. 30) Probiotics restore a healthy balance of gut flora by crowding out germs and "bad" bacteria and thus soothing digestion-linked skin conditions.
Dose: Aim for 5 to 10 billion units a day, Petty says.
Pamela Bond is a freelance writer in Eldorado Springs, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 30,32,34