(Originally published for The Dragontree)
Life experience has taught me that people don’t like to be compared to vegetables. But the thing is, there are some similarities between us and our friends in the plant kingdom that we can learn from. When I was a botany student, one of the best courses I took was called Postharvest Physiology. Once a crop is picked – whether a flower, fruit, vegetable, or grain – the process of dying begins, which is known as senescence. In order for the crop to get to the consumer looking fresh, everyone involved in packing, transporting, and retailing the product should ideally know at least a little bit about how to slow down senescence – without causing an unnatural kink in the process.
Everyone knows about refrigeration, for instance. Generally, the colder we keep our produce, the slower it ages. But if we over chill it, we can stop ripening or cause irreparable damage. If you’ve ever had a peach that was dry and mealy inside, this is called “wooliness” and it means that someone involved in the storage of that peach got it colder than it could handle.
Another major intervention for prolonging the life of harvested crops is reducing water loss. The loss of water from flowers, fruits, and veggies parallels a loss in quality. When leafy greens lose water they wilt. When carrots and celery lose water they aren’t crunchy anymore. When potatoes lose water they get wrinkly and corky. When oranges lose water they become dry and fibrous. Essentially, all of these produce items shrink when water evaporates from them. And humans go through a similar process as part of our own senescence.
Food producers do all sorts of things to reduce water loss. They raise the humidity of storage environments, they pack produce in sealed bags to contain escaping water (this is also the concept behind the crisper drawer of your fridge), veggies that can handle being wet get packed wet (such as baby carrots) or are displayed under sprinklers in the store, many crops are coated with oils or waxes to block water from evaporating (tomatoes, apples, peppers, citrus, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes and others), and flowers are, of course, always drinking water from a bucket or vase.
In order to preserve your own youthfulness, my recommendations really aren’t all that different from how we treat our crops. Like potatoes, we shrink as we age, making skin wrinkly and saggy. We need to control moisture loss and maximize rehydration.
First, environmental control. Having moved from ultra-moist Portland to ultra-dry Boulder a couple years ago, I’ve been more acutely aware of my skin than ever before. The parched air seems to be sucking the water out of me. And I can’t help but notice that many people who have lived here for a few decades have skin that looks significantly older than that of Portlanders of the same age. Both climates present their own issues.
If you live in a very moist place, you need to watch for mold in your home and workplace, which can cause respiratory problems (which can indirectly affect the skin) and rashes, but for the most part, you should consider your skin lucky. If you live in a dry place, get a humidifier. I have an expensive humidifier and even after it has run for several hours, the relative humidity in the room will have risen by only one or two percent. So, you need to have one running constantly. A better option is a whole house humidifier, which is typically connected to your furnace, and requires less maintenance.
When you live in dry air, the water in the superficial tissues of your body will naturally move from the inside to the outside, attempting to equalize the moisture inside and outside. So, if there’s more water in the air around you, you’ll keep more of the water that’s in your skin. But this doesn’t apply to actually being immersed in water. When you bathe, especially if you take long showers or baths, and especially if you use very hot water, and especially if you use soap, you strip moisture from your skin. Therefore, if dry skin is a problem for you, shorten your bathing time (or take a bath with moisturizers added to the water), use cooler water, use less soap or at least use soap with moisturizers in it, and be sure to apply a moisturizer afterwards.
Another big difference between my old home and my new one is that Boulder is high and sunny and Portland is low and cloudy. Again, Portlanders’ skin benefits from this situation since sun damage is a rarity there, while it’s quite common in the intense sun of Colorado. In any case, a good sunscreen is important. Although we have yet to discover the health implications of applying nanoparticles of metals to our skin, at this point I recommend a mineral sunscreen (titanium and/or zinc based) rather than a synthetic chemical screen. Also, while I think it’s important to avoid sun damage, I believe moderate sun exposure is also a good thing; it’s one of the main reasons I moved to the Mountain West. So, don’t avoid sun altogether. It gives us life.
Finally, Colorado is also a lot windier than the Pacific Northwest, so applying a physical barrier to minimize moisture loss is also important. I’m not saying Portlandians are off the hook here, but it’s much less critical if you forget your lotion for a day. As with preserving the post-harvest life of vegetables, we can use oils and waxes – in the form of straight oil (olive, coconut, jojoba, avocado, macadamia, hazelnut, grapeseed, sesame, or others) or lotion (a blend of water and oil and sometimes bee or plant wax). Some of the most richest moisturizers for very dry or chapped skin include castor oil, beeswax, and shea butter. Aloe, which we hear so much about in skin products, is a nice soother, but not a good moisturizer on its own.
These oils don’t just function as a barrier, of course; they also enter and nourish the skin. Our skin is much more permeable than we give it credit for. So there’s real lasting benefit to regularly feeding our skin and the underlying connective tissue in a direct way.
Meanwhile, rehydration must become part of your lifestyle. I think people can occasionally go overboard with their water consumption, but I see way, way, way more folks who are underconsuming it. As a starting point, divide the number of pounds you weigh in half. (For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, divide that in half to get 80.) Now take this number and divide it by the number of hours you’re awake each day – let’s say 16. (80 divided by 16 equals 5.) This is the number of ounces of water you should be drinking each hour of the day. If you like, you can further divide this number in half to get the ounces of water you should have every half hour. Or divide it by four to get the number of ounces you should have every fifteen minutes. (5 divided by 4 equals 1.25, which means a 160 pound person should drink just over one ounce of water every fifteen minutes.) Don’t go more than an hour without drinking water. Your need for water may be greater than this if you you’re subject to more water loss by living in a dry climate, sweating, having the heat on, being sick, or taking drying or diuretic medications.
In addition to water, it’s important to nourish skin moisture by consuming ample amounts of beneficial fats, since fats are integral in all cell membranes, such as nuts and seeds, oily fish, and high quality egg yolks. It’s also important to consume adequate protein, since part of why we shrink and sag as we age is because we lose muscle and collagen, both of which are protein based tissues.
Give these recommendations a try, perhaps adding one new practice at a time. As with the post-harvest handling of produce, these are mostly preventative measures rather than restorative ones, so you’re not likely to see huge changes, but you will feel better, and someday, when you’re 80 and you look like you’re 40, drop me a line and send a photo.
Dr. Peter Borten