Basic Vehicle Maintenance: The Skin

Originally published as a three part series of articles for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa

Part One: Five Detox Strategies for Better Skin

When you think about people, chances are you think about skin. Most of what we see that isn’t covered up by clothing is skin, after all. Humans are skin bags. Sorry, did that make you feel kind of gross? Anyway, like it or not, the quality of our skin can have a big influence on how others perceive us. It’s why we get so distressed by things like acne, wrinkles, birthmarks, warts, and scars, even though they don’t actually compromise our function or health.

When people come to me for help with a cosmetic skin issue, they often act a bit sheepish about it, as if they believe I’ll consider them shallow for caring about their appearance. But I recognize how much our feelings about our appearance affect our happiness and the way we relate to others. I think that as long as we’re not obsessive about it, we should do whatever we need to do to feel pretty or handsome.

More importantly, skin health is an expression of overall health. This doesn’t mean you won’t get wrinkles if you’re healthy, but even a wrinkly face can look vibrant if it’s part of a vibrant body and spirit. Last month I discussed some basics of vehicle maintenance – i.e., taking care of your body – with regard to nutrition and digestion. Now I’m going to cover basic mechanics and maintenance of your skin.

There are a number of factors that affect skin quality, including genetics, climate (wind, dryness, sun, chlorine, smoke, pollution, etc.), and our internal environment, to name just a few. We have more control over certain factors than others. Obviously, your skin will need different things in a dry, windy place than in a hot, damp place. But regardless of your particulars, there are two main things worth focusing on for healthy skin: good nutrition and good detoxification.

This week I’ll focus on detoxification. Most naturopathic physicians see dull skin and chronic skin problems as an expression of internal toxicity, which often results from digestive imbalance and/or a sluggish liver, plus a history of exposure to chemicals and/or problematic foods. When we cleanse the liver and gut (and support the lungs and kidneys while we’re at it) skin problems frequently clear up. Even without rashes or other obvious problems, our skin tends to be flat, dry, or irritated when our detoxification mechanisms aren’t at their best.

Here are four basic starting points for supporting internal and external detoxification:

  1. Drink plenty of water. For any kind of skin problem, from acne to eczema to wrinkles, you should first make sure you’re well hydrated. The body functions better when well hydrated, and this includes our detoxification mechanisms. I recommend drinking half the number of pounds you weigh as ounces of water per day (thus, a 100 pound person would drink 50 ounces of water). And this should be consumed evenly over the course of the say, and should not be ice cold.
  2. Make sure your bowels are moving regularly. Constipated people are retaining toxins in the colon for longer than is healthy. If you’re not having at least one big, complete feeling bowel movement a day, here are some measures you can take. Try drinking a glass of hot water first thing in the morning. Adding some honey may help. Consider prune juice if necessary. As I mentioned above, be sure to get enough water throughout the day. Eat plenty of good fats for lubrication (olive oil, walnuts, chia seed, flax seed, oily fish, coconut and coconut oil, avocado, etc.) and plenty of fiber to scrub your colon. Get exercise that engages your abdominal muscles. Stop tensing your abdomen throughout the day if this is a habit of yours. If you need more help, get some powdered magnesium (such as Natural Calm) and gradually increase the dose until your bowels start moving more freely.
  3. Practice dry skin brushing. Get a natural fiber skin brush and brush over all of your skin, always working toward the heart. Start at your toes, brushing firmly up your feet and legs, going over the same area a few times, and gradually coming up the legs to the torso. Work from the fingers to the torso next. Then cover the torso itself. Be gentle over delicate areas, and don’t brush so hard that it hurts. When done, jump in the shower, finish with cool water, and then give yourself a quick massage with a high quality oil, like jojoba, coconut, or sesame.
  4. Sweat. You can induce sweating through exercise (a great option) or through heat (sauna). Take a cool shower afterwards. Sweat carries toxins, including heavy metals, out of our bodies. Spending a long time in a medium hot sauna, just to the point of glistening skin, is more sustainable than going into a very hot sauna and dripping sweat.
  5. As a basic cleanse, consider abstaining from all grains, meat, dairy products, nightshade family vegetables (tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers), and anything processed. The bulk of your diet should be vegetables, including some raw greens (bitter ones are good), and basic homemade soups. Some fruit is ok, but veggies are best. If you need something starchy, bake a sweet potato in foil at 400 degrees for 90 minutes. Try it for one to seven days. You’ll feel great, and your skin will become more clear. On an ongoing basis, try a low dose liver cleansing formula such as silymarin (milk thistle), artichoke, and turmeric (you can get this as a premade formula called S.A.T. made by Thorne), or just take plain milk thistle or dandelion.

Give these strategies a try and report in the comments section on your results.

Part Two: Seven Nutrition Tips for Glowing Skin

Last week I wrote about the importance of getting the garbage out of your system to promote healthy skin. In Chinese Medicine, the skin is sometimes referred to as the “third lung,” because it “breathes” through its pores – excreting toxins and absorbing what’s put on it. The lungs work as a pair with the colon: while the lungs take in oxygen and let go of carbon dioxide, the colon takes in water and lets go of solid waste. Like the skin itself, these two organs are sort of the “frontier” between the inside and outside of the body. They need to be functioning well in order for our skin to glow.

The flipside of clearing out the waste is feeding the body with everything it needs for healthy skin. Here are some nutritional measures you can take to promote clearing of rashes and youthful and elastic skin.

  1. Water. I mentioned water last time as an important factor of detoxification. Because it’s about two-thirds of what we’re made of, it’s also a vital part of nutrition. When I was studying botany, one of the most fascinating courses was Post-harvest Physiology – a class all about how to keep crops fresh for as long as possible after they’re picked. One of the key factors in the shelf life of fruits and vegetables is water loss. It’s why we now coat most fruit with wax – to keep water in. As they lose water, leafy vegetables wilt, crunchy things get mushy, citrus gets hard, juicy fruits get mealy, and things with skin get wrinkly. We’re so much like fruit, really. Our skin rapidly loses quality when we’re dehydrated. So, drink water frequently and evenly throughout the day.
  2. Deep breathing and aerobic exercise in clean air. I’m speaking loosely of nutrition when I when I recommend you “feed” yourself with more oxygen and better blood flow. Work with the lung-skin connection and oxygenate yourself. Do it away from cars, factories, construction sites, and moldy areas. Exercise brings more blood to the skin and promotes better elasticity. Breathing, circulating, and sweating don’t just get more life to your skin, but as I mentioned last time, they’re important for detoxification.
  3. Give yourself a daily oil massage. Because the skin is more permeable than most people think, sometimes it’s most efficient to feed the skin directly. Infusing the body with oil through the skin is a major emphasis of Ayurvedic medicine. You can either use a liberal amount of oil on yourself before taking a shower (ideally right after doing skin brushing), then shower without soap, dry off, and you should still have a nice layer of moisture left. Or you can use a smaller amount of oil after showering. Good oils include sesame, jojoba, avocado, coconut, and safflower. If you can afford it, kukui, tamanu, and rosehip oil are especially great when there is sun damage, scarring or irritation. Always store your oil in a dark, cool place and throw it away if it becomes rancid. (Read more about rancidity here.)
  4. Consume plenty of healthy fats. Some good sources of healthy plant-based fats include: coconut and coconut oil, avocado, almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds (especially the black ones), chia, olives and olive oil, flax seed and flax oil, hemp seed and hemp oil, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Good sources of healthy animal-based fats are free range, omega-3 fortified eggs, fish and fish oil, and the milk and meat of grass-fed mammals (these last two in moderation). These fats are instrumental to the suppleness of skin, and many have anti-inflammatory properties that help calm rashes and irritation.
  5. Eat protein. Most Westerners overeat meat, but I still encounter quite a few patients who don’t consume enough protein. Amino acids are essential to the formation of collagen, cartilage and muscle, which are vital for good looking skin and the underlying facial structure as we age. Egg and whey (milk) protein are the most usable by the body, followed by meat, and then by beans and seeds. An amino acid or sugar free protein powder can help if you have trouble getting enough protein in your diet.
  6. Eat lots of brightly colored vegetables and fruits. These are rich in minerals, vitamins, beneficial pigments, and antioxidants. They help maintain healthy tone of blood vessels and structure of the skin and underlying connective tissue, and protect against the oxidative damage that leads to aging and cancer. Health articles might lead you to believe that antioxidants are the miraculous solution to everything that ails us. That’s a bit far from the truth, but oxidative stress does play a significant role in skin degradation, and it’s worsened by exposure to pollution, smoke, radiation, various toxins, trans fats and other junky food. Fruits, vegetables, and spices are our best dietary source of antioxidants. Some potent ones include blueberries and other berries, pomegranates, green tea, capers, cloves, garlic, cinnamon, rosemary, cayenne, red cabbage, black plums, and kiwis.
  7. Consider supplementing with extra skin nutrients. If it’s hard for you to get enough of the good stuff through diet alone, there are a few supplements worth considering:
    1. MSM. MSM, or methyl sulfonyl methane, is organic sulfur – an element found in every cell, and integral to the structure of hair, skin, nails, cartilage, and other connective tissues. It’s mostly thought of for joint pain, but can be taken internally, or used in topical creams, to improve skin elasticity.
    2. Vitamin A. Vitamin A is probably the most used nutrient for skin problems. It is instrumental in skin and cartilage growth. Synthetic forms of this vitamin have long been used in the treatment of acne and to tighten the skin. Vitamin A benefits a wide array of skin conditions, and when it’s deficient, our skin tends to become rough and scaly. We may also develop bumps on the backs of the arms. Cod liver oil, liver, whole milk, and egg yolks are the main dietary sources. You can also take 25,000 IU’s of vitamin A (not its precursor, beta carotene) a day in supplement form. Pregnant women should not take more than 5,000 units a day.
    3. Alpha lipoic acid. This powerful antioxidant occurs naturally in the body and is also available as a supplement and in topical skin products. It is much stronger as an antioxidant than vitamin C or E. It may reduce puffiness, blotchiness, fine lines and wrinkles, and even skin tone.
    4. Zinc. Zinc improves wound healing, decreases inflammation, and promotes cell regeneration. It may be beneficial for acne, eczema, and other chronic skin conditions. Oysters and other shellfish are really the only sources of abundant zinc. Plant sources are mostly inadequate; vegetarians are often deficient in zinc. You can take 30 milligrams once or twice a day. Make sure you have some food in your stomach when taking zinc, otherwise you can get a stomachache from it.

Don’t expect overnight changes in your skin from dietary modifications and supplementation, as it takes a while for internal changes to manifest on the surface. But, everything I’ve recommended here is good for you in numerous ways, so, do expect that these changes will have benefits beyond nice skin.

Part Three: You’re Not Alone – Heal Your Skin With Help From Some Friends

The human microbiome is the total collection of organisms that live on and in your body, and there’s a growing recognition among scientists that they have quite a lot to do with our health. Different organisms live in the armpit versus the toe creases. In fact, every part of the body – the ears, the mouth, the elbow crease, the navel, the forehead, the groin, the chest, etc. – has its own bacterial culture, each with different species that tend to live there. The emerging field that studies these microbes and how they affect us – microbial ecology – is poised to dramatically change medicine.

One of the most vital functions of these organisms is to help maintain the health and integrity of our epithelium. Epithelium, or epithelial tissue, forms the surfaces of structures throughout the body, as well as the linings of cavities. The skin, the respiratory tract, the digestive tract, the mouth, nostrils, genitalia, and other mucous membranes are all composed of different kinds of epithelium. And through the intelligence of the microbiome – and what’s now being called the gut-brain-skin axis – theyare all connected.

Emerging research links health issues as diverse as depression, anxiety, acne, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, fibromyalgia, and autism (to mention just a few) to a disruption of our microbiota (the microorganisms that constitute our microbiome). We’re beginning to understand that this is especially true of epithelial problems – respiratory problems, digestive problems, skin problems, etc. And most often, the disruption begins with the intestines.

This isn’t exactly new science. Two dermatologists, John Stokes and Donald Pillsbury, started proposing the gut-brain-skin connection in the early 1900s. But the medical institution can be a slow moving machine. Traditional medical systems, such as those of China and India, even without understanding the microbiome concept, have long viewed the digestive system as central to the health of the skin and the whole body/mind.

There are now numerous studies supporting the role of intestinal health in skin health. In particular, inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema tend to occur in people with gut inflammation and imbalance of intestinal flora (microorganisms). And they almost always respond positively to administration of probiotics (beneficial microorganisms used to bolster those in the gut) and other nutritional measures for intestinal repair. When the gut is inflamed, unhealthy bacterial excretions can leak into the blood stream, causing inflammation elsewhere. Probiotics can reestablish a strong population of healthy bacteria that keep the unhealthy strains in check, and they also serve to stimulate repair of the intestinal lining.

Historically, people didn’t have capsules of bacteria to take for this purpose; they just ate cultured foods. Cultured foods should be a part of everyone’s diet. Some cultured foods include yogurt, crème fraiche, and kefir (“keh-FEER” – a sort of drinkable yogurt), pickled vegetables (cucumber, carrots, ginger, mushrooms, peppers, beets, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplant, sauerkraut, kimchee, etc.), fizzy drinks such as jun and kombucha, and fermented soy as miso and tempeh.

If you buy these foods premade, be sure that they aren’t in jars that have a lid that “pops” when you open it. This means they’ve been heat-sealed, which likely killed the beneficial flora in there. By the same token, you shouldn’t cook these foods, since that, too, would kill them. Also, look for vinegar on the labels of pickled foods – it shouldn’t be there. Things pickled in vinegar generally don’t contain probiotics. Traditional fermentation is done in just water or vegetable juice (such as cabbage or celery) or the juice of the material that’s being fermented, plus some kind of starter culture or naturally occurring microbes.

Get some cultured foods, or better yet, make your own, and then incorporate a little bit with each meal. Sometimes a probiotic supplement can be of great help, especially when you are really out of balance. They’re available in liquid, power, and capsule form. When purchasing a probiotic, I recommend choosing one with a wide array of microorganisms, since not every strain “takes” well in every person’s gut. One of my favorites is Proflora Concentrate, made by Integrative Therapeutics. We carry it at our spas. Another good one is called Primal Defense.

Recently, skin care companies have started making topical probiotic preparations, which can be beneficial in inflammatory skin conditions. We carry some in the Epicuren line that are worth trying. However, they’re not a substitute for also getting your gut healed. In addition to using probiotics and/or cultured foods, if you have health concerns that you think might be gut-related, I encourage you to see a naturally-oriented healthcare practitioner who can help you identify foods or drugs that may be contributing to gut inflammation and recommend a more comprehensive gut healing plan.

Wishing you well, inside and out,

Dr. Peter Borten