Botanicals that build beauty from the inside out

With an understanding that healthy skin begins within, consumers are beginning to expect high-quality products that nourish, heal and rejuvenate — not just cover wrinkles. Mindy Green picks the top botanicals with natural healing power

Conscious consumers care about both what goes in their bodies and on their skin. Applying botanicals to the skin to maintain youth is a practice that dates to ancient Egypt, but now knowledgeable customers can stave off the ageing process through both avenues in the newest approach to maintaining a youthful appearance.

The new millennium promises greater advancements in treating skin from the inside out through research that shows that we can enhance skin health through the use of oral supplements, known as nutriceutical cosmetics, or simply nutricosmetics. Active compounds in plants have the ability to reduce free radicals; rejuvenate healthy cell turnover; and heal and soothe stressed, mature or sun-damaged skin from within.

The use of supplements to complement a healthy skincare regime begins with anti-inflammatories. All of the herbs listed below fit that category. Inflammation may lead to redness, pain or swelling, but sub-clinical inflammation — the kind we don't notice — is now recognised as the first step in many diseases and is part of the breakdown of healthy cellular regeneration. Inflammation is potentiated by stress, poor lifestyle choices as well as excess sun exposure.

Antioxidants counteract the oxidative damage that assaults us on numerous fronts — air pollution, ozone, sun exposure, smoking and poor diet.

Other ingredients provide important nutrients and vitamins to the skin, or improve the production of connective tissue components such as elastin and collagen. This is sometimes known as the extracellular matrix of the skin, which provides contour, plumpness and bounce to young-looking skin. The enzymes that break down this matrix increase as we age, but research shows that certain botanicals will counteract these enzymes and reduce the destruction of these youthful structures.

Resveratrol: This isolated compound found in a number of plants is usually derived from Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), though there are other sources including grapes, berries and chocolate. This polyphenolic compound is a premier anti-inflammatory and is considered a leading ingredient to slow the ageing process. It can extend life at a genetic level by producing Sirtuin 1, an enzyme involved in cellular regulation.1 It also acts as an antioxidant.

Goji: The nutrition-packed wolf berry (Lyceum barbata) is available as an extract or juice, and an oil pressed from the seed can be used both internally and externally. Many forms are being used for a variety of anti-ageing benefits. Goji berries are rich in antioxidants, particularly the carotenoids beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, offering the added benefit of contributing to eye health.2 A study with hairless mice demonstrated antioxidant activity in the skin with five per cent goji juice against lipid peroxidation induced by UVA radiation.3

This protein and mineral-rich fruit contains polysaccharides that fortify overall immunity and support healthy skin from the inside out. A concentrated extract will be most potent for skin health, but the mildly sweet flavour of these superfruits makes them an easy addition to beverages.

Eleuthero: Formerly known as Siberian ginseng, this well-known adaptogenic herb (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has multiple effects that benefit skin health, but in a less direct way. It is best known for athletic recovery and stamina, working through a variety of mechanisms. It is used to boost immune function, detoxify the liver and protect against radiation exposure. Its antioxidant properties prevent cellular damage due to oxidative stress, such as excess sun exposure and physical exertion.

Its adaptogenic effects are the subject of most studies. Stress, fatigue, and mental and physical endurance have been shown to improve with the use of this herb. An important role in cell survival and apoptosis is the up-regulating and stress-mimetic effects on the "stress-sensor" protein Hsp70, which inhibits the expression of NO synthase II gene and interacts with glucocorticoid receptors directly and via the JNK pathway, affecting levels of circulating cortisol. This regulates the resistance to stress and enhances mental and physical performance and, possibly, increases longevity.4

Gotu kola: Indian pennywort, as it is sometimes known, is an edible plant native to India, southeast Asia and Africa, and once thought of only as an herb to improve memory and detoxify the body. Anti-ageing claims for this herb are not new; Centella asiatica has been used for centuries.

Anecdotally, it is also said to be useful in the treatment of psoriasis, varicosities, stress, arthritis, wound healing and weight loss. Research on asiaticoside, a saponin from Centella, shows it to be of great support in speeding the healing of burns through the promotion of angiogenesis.5 This same compound induces type I collagen synthesis in human dermal fibroblast cells.6 Sun-damaged skin also was helped by another compound from Centella. Madecassoside, also known to induce collagen expression and/or modulate inflammatory mediators, was used in 20 women; after six months of treatment, two thirds of the women showed improvements in superficial skin suppleness, firmness, wrinkles, elasticity and hydration.7

Frankincense: This resinous plant extract (Boswellia serrata) is an anti-inflammatory through several mechanisms. It reduces the enzyme 5-lipoxygenase and decreases the activity of human leukocyte elastase (HLE). Blocking these two inflammatory enzymes makes this herb an active compound to consider in formulation with other synergistic botanicals. It limits degradation of the extracellular matrix of skin and reduces elastase, the enzyme that breaks down the production of elastin in the skin.8 Elastin and collagen give skin the plump, full look of youth; these break down with age and lead to visible wrinkles, sagging and skin laxity.

Grape: This most ancient of food/herbs is high in proanthocyanidins — oligomeric flavonoids found mostly in the seed and skins of grapes (Vitis vinifera). Research has been done on everything from wine to skin and seeds. It is backed by research on skin-cancer protection in a mouse model.9 One of the most widely known causes of ageing is from advanced glycating end products (AGEs), mainly from excess sugars and carbohydrates. These cause cross linking of elastin and collagen fibres. Gallic acid, catechin and epicatechin, the three major polyphenols in the seeds, all can significantly decrease AGEs.10

Mindy Green is an aesthetician, author, herbalist, former R&D employee of Aveda and industry consultant.

Outside now ingredients
Look to the following herbs for the ingredient list of your topical cosmetic products. Most contain antioxidants that facilitate free-radical scavenging — the first line of defense for ageing cells.

Aloe (Aloe vera) has been used to soothe burns and irritated skin for centuries. This ancient desert plant's emollient effects are useful for all skin types.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is an antiseptic, burn- and wound-healer.

Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) may protect the skin against ultraviolet light-induced damage. It is also an excellent healer for wounded skin.

German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) has anti-inflammatory properties useful for skin creams. Its broad content of flavonoid constituents supports elasticity in small capillaries, for couperose skin (tiny broken blood vessels in the face). Topical is generally safe, with few reports of allergic reactions.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is a circulatory stimulant and free radical scavenger applied preventively to reduce cellular and tissue damage provoked by UV radiation. It increases microcirculation to the skin for the management of ageing skin and is added to many products for treating cellulite and varicose veins. It also inhibits the formation of scar tissue.

Ginseng (Panax ginseng) increases skin's elasticity and is an effective moisturiser that increases hydration.

Licorice (Glycerhyizza glabra) is an effective topical anti-inflammatory for atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. Some studies show it is more effective when used in conjunction with hydrocortisone than cortisone alone.

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an anti-inflammatory for bruising, nerve damage and pain.


1. Kaeberlein M. Resveratrol and rapamycin: are they anti-aging drugs? Bioessays 2010 Feb;32(2):96-9.
2. Wu H, et al. Effect of Lycium barbarum polysaccharide on the improvement of antioxidant ability and DNA damage in NIDDM rats. Yakugaku Zasshi 2006;126(5):365-71.
3. Reeve VE, et al. Mice drinking goji berry juice (Lycium barbarum) are protected from UV radiation-induce skin damage via antioxidant pathways. Photochem Photobiol Sci 2010 Apr;9(4):601-7.
4. Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol 2009 Sep;4(3):198-219.
5. Kimura Y, et al. Facilitating action of asiaticoside at low doses on burn wound repair and its mechanism. Eur J Pharmacology 2008 Apr 28;584(2-3):415-23.
6. Lee J, et al. Asiaticoside induces human collagen I synthesis through TGFbeta receptor I kinase (TbetaRI kinase)-independent Smad signaling. Plant Med 2006 Mar;72(4):324-8.
7. Haftek M, et al. Clinical, biometric and structural evaluation of the long-term effects of a topical treatment with ascorbic acid and madecassoside in photoaged human skin. Exp Dermatol 2008 Nov;17(11):946-52.
8. Safayhi Hasan, et al. Inhibition by Boswellic Acids of Human Leukocyte Elastase. JpharmacologyET 1997 Apr 1:281(1):460-3.
9. Kowalczyk MC, et al. Differential effects of several phytochemicals and their derivatives on murine keratinocytes in vitro and in vivo: implications for skin cancer prevention. Carcinogenesis 2009 Jun;30(6):1008-15.
10. Farrar JL, et al. Inhibition of protein glycation by skins and seeds of the muscdine grape. Biofactors 2007;30(3):193-200.

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