Too often, we look to products to solve our skin woes—thinking that a face mask will solve all of our issues. The following is excerpted from The Beauty of Dirty Skin: The Surprising Science of Looking Radiant From the Inside Out by dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., who explains the importance of nutrition and supplementation to skin health, including the supplements she recommends to her patients.
For the most part, we can get all our nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and probiotics, from our diets—and we should aim for that. But let’s be honest: Achieving optimal levels through diet alone on a daily basis is often not realistic today (at least not for me and my patients!). We are busy, and our dietary options can fall short once in a while, despite our best efforts.
The ones I’ve chosen to highlight are the vitamins and supplements most helpful in accomplishing two important goals: first, supporting the gut-brain-skin axis by nourishing the intestinal microbiome, and second, giving the body what it needs to maintain healthy skin (and, I should add, healthy hair and nails).
None of the items listed below will cost much, and they can all be obtained at your local pharmacy without a prescription. (Do, however, consult your doctor if you’re already taking any medications or supplements; get the a-OK before adding new supplements.)
Here are my go-to-glow supplement recommendations:
1. Vitamin E supplement (400 IU daily)
This fat-soluble vitamin is an antioxidant that stops the production of free radicals when fat undergoes oxidation. In addition to its activities as an antioxidant, vitamin E is involved in immune function, cell signaling, regulation of gene expression, and possibly other metabolic processes. The term vitamin E actually is the collective name for a group of fat-soluble compounds with distinctive antioxidant properties. Vitamin E is very difficult to consume through diet because it’s not found in many foods (sunflower seeds and some nuts contain this vitamin). Moreover, UV damage rapidly depletes vitamin E.
2. Vitamin C supplement (1,000 milligrams daily)
The vitamin famously linked with citrus fruits does a lot more than boost immunity. It not only promotes fibroblast proliferation (fibroblasts are the cells that produce collagen and other fibers), but it also acts as an assistant (a "cofactor") in enzymatic activity that relates directly to skin health and function. It even controls some of the DNA repair that goes on in skin to forestall cancerous growths. Its association with cells that control skin pigmentation (melanocytes) makes it a helpful ingredient in products that address skin discoloration. Because this vitamin is so easily lost in our urine, it’s ideal to consume vitamin-C-rich foods throughout the day via fresh fruits and vegetables while also taking a supplement. Foods high in vitamin C include red peppers, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and, of course, oranges (but please eat them whole—never juiced!).
3. Vitamin D supplement (1,000 IU daily)
Actually a hormone, not a vitamin, vitamin D is produced in the skin upon exposure to UV radiation from the sun. It participates in a wide variety of biological actions to promote health, including strengthening bones and increasing calcium levels. In fact, there are receptors for vitamin D throughout the body, which speaks volumes about its importance. Both animal and laboratory studies show that vitamin D protects neurons from the damaging effects of free radicals and can reduce inflammation—all good things in terms of skin health. In 2017, a team of researchers at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center showed that oral supplementation of vitamin D can quickly reduce inflammation caused by a sunburn. We have evidence now that vitamin D deficiency and the development of melanoma—the most deadly type of skin cancer—are related. And here’s another critical fact: Vitamin D performs a lot of its tasks through its regulation of gut bacteria.
It is best to get this vitamin by consuming supplements (and foods and fortified drinks) rather than exposing oneself to skin-damaging sun. Foods such as salmon, mushrooms, cheese, eggs, and fortified products such as almond milk all contain vitamin D. The safe upper limit is 4,000 IU per day, so if you take a 1,000 IU supplement and eat a few eggs or a piece of salmon in a single 24-hour period, you’re still in a very safe range.
4. Calcium supplement (500 milligrams daily)
A common element in the human body, calcium is critical to the health not only of your bones and teeth but of all bodily organs, including the skin, where it plays a role in regulating the skin’s many functions. Most calcium in the skin is found in the outermost layer, and if there’s not enough there, your epidermis can appear fragile, thin, and dry. A lack of calcium in the skin will prevent the production of new skin growth and the shedding of dead skin cells. In other words, skin turnover comes to a screeching halt. Calcium ions also allow neurons to signal one another, which ties in to the gut-brain-skin axis. It’s fine to find a calcium supplement that contains vitamin D (in which case you don’t need a vitamin D supplement).
5. Collagen supplement
Collagen is the body’s most abundant protein. It comprises one-third of the body’s total protein, accounts for three-quarters of the dry weight of skin, and is the most prevalent component of the extra-cellular matrix. So as you can imagine, collagen continuously undergoes a cycle of renewal (including breakdown and repair). In fact it’s what makes your skin (and muscles, which are also rich in collagen) particularly adept at preparing cells after damage. Ingesting collagen on the daily can help with this renewal process.
6. Trace mineral supplements
The minerals most essential to skin health are zinc, copper, and selenium. If you get enough in your diet, you will not be deficient in these minerals and will not need to supplement with them, so be sure to do testing with your doctor. Look for them in the supplements I’ve already recommended, to which they are often added.
Zinc (10-30 mg daily)
This mineral works as an antioxidant, lessening the formation of damaging free radicals and protecting skin fats and fibroblasts. Because zinc is involved with cellular turnover and immune function, it is thought to help reduce acne flare-ups. The amount you take will depend somewhat on your diet (zinc is naturally found in grass-fed meat, grains, oysters, sesame and pumpkin seeds, peas, and beans). You don’t want to go overboard with zinc because too much of it will put you at risk for copper deficiency (large doses of zinc prevent the absorption of copper in the digestive tract). These two minerals work together. Do not take zinc on an empty stomach, for it can cause stomach upset and nausea. Aim to take zinc halfway through a meal or right after.
Copper (1.5 - 3 mg daily)
Copper peptides in skin care products promote the production of collagen and elastin, among other important skin structures, and act as an anti-inflammatory. Copper also benefits your skin when taken orally because it’s a factor in many enzymatic activities that promote healthy skin, hair, and even eyes. Good food sources of copper include dark leafy greens, legumes (especially beans), nuts and seeds, mushrooms, shellfish (especially oysters), avocados, and whole grains.
Chelated selenium (45 mcg daily)
This trace mineral is an antioxidant that protects other antioxidants, such as vitamin E. Studies have shown that a deficiency in selenium may play a role in inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Selenium functions in an enzyme called glutathione peroxidase, which is important in preventing the inflammation that characterizes acne. Foods high in selenium include Brazil nuts, halibut, sardines, grass-fed beef, turkey, and chicken.
7. Probiotics supplement (10 to 15 billion CFU each daily)
While it’s ideal to obtain your probiotics from fermented foods and beverages like kombucha, there’s nothing wrong with taking a probiotic supplement. Probiotics control the development of the immune system, often shifting the immune response toward regulatory and anti-inflammatory conditions. This ability to modify chronic inflammatory states means that probiotics may have a role in treating chronic inflammatory conditions, ranging from inflammatory bowel disease to acne, rosacea, eczema, and premature aging resulting from the ravages of UV radiation.
To ensure you’re getting plenty of probiotics, consuming probiotic-rich foods and beverages as well as taking a supplement is optimal. And to find the highest-quality probiotics, first go to a reputable store known for its natural-supplements selection.
Please do not stop taking the pharmaceuticals that your doctor or dermatologist has prescribed for you. These supplements do not replace drug regimens or sunscreen. They will work in tandem with any other protocol you are currently following. As a reminder, if you are taking oral antibiotics, schedule your probiotics so that you take them in the hours in between your doses of antibiotics.
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Excerpted from The Beauty of Dirty Skin: The Surprising Science of Looking Radiant From the Inside Out. Copyright © 2018 by Whitney Bowe M.D. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.