by guest blogger Mark A. Moyad, MD, MPH
The middle of winter is the time to feel really sorry for your skin. Regardless of where you live, the air tends to be warm and very dry indoors, and your skin, the largest organ of your body, pays a price. But there are easy steps you can take to nourish your skin during the winter months.
1. Soothe with Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed oil is one of the best sources of plant-derived, inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. Recently, researchers tested the ability of flaxseed oil to improve specific skin features. They did a 12-week randomized study of women in which one group took approximately 2,200 milligrams (mg) of flaxseed oil daily, compared to safflower seed oil. In the flaxseed oil group, there were significant reductions in skin sensitivity, skin water loss, roughness, scaling, and skin smoothness, and hydration actually increased. This was a small study, but the results were impressive, and flaxseed oil is safe and cheap enough that after analyzing this study I began to recommend it, especially in the wintertime for folks who have dry skin issues. I take flaxseed oil now, too, because my skin gets very dry in the winter, and I’ve had great results. I just put a tablespoon of flaxseed oil on my daily salad or gulp a tablespoon of it with a water/nonalcoholic chaser, and this is more than enough plant omega-3s for the entire day.
2. Regenerate with Vitamin C
Arguably one of the largest studies in the world to analyze the relationship between nutrient intake and skin health for women found that a higher intake of vitamin C from foods and beverages was associated with a lower risk of wrinkles, dryness, and thinning of the skin. It was also interesting that these findings were unchanged even when researchers look at a variety of factors, including sunlight exposure. What this means is that foods and beverages high in vitamin C were the primary reason women benefited; though other studies have found that supplements also help, the first goal is to find healthy foods rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and improves collagen production, healing, and the regeneration of skin tissue, so perhaps this finding is not so surprising. Additionally, studies show that vitamin C protects the skin from sunlight, which is why many dermatology creams now contain vitamin C. Women with more wrinkles in this study also had lower intakes of vitamin A and protein from foods, and both of these also have skin-protective properties. This is another reason why consuming fruits and vegetables improves health, and oranges are not the only good source, A few other more surprising foods high in vitamin C include: kale, kiwi, guava, papaya, strawberries, hot chili peppers (red and green), and bell peppers.
3. Hydrate with Plants
Lutein and zeaxanthin are compounds that belong to a larger class of plant pigments known as “carotenoids.” One interesting study found that lutein and zeaxanthin could also significantly improve skin health. Researchers tested a topical product, and a lutein dietary supplement that contained 5 mg of lutein and 0.3 mg of zeaxanthin, taken twice a day with meals. Interestingly, the supplement worked better than the topical product in a variety of areas of skin health. Not only did lutein and zeaxanthin appear to provide some protection from UV light, but it also improved skin hydration and elasticity. However, you don’t have to supplement to get the benefits of these two compounds. Foods high in them include: kale, spinach, lettuce, broccoli, corn, peas, brussels sprouts, cabbage, arugula, basil, collards, parsley, radicchio, and watercress.
4. Nourish with NO
Nitric oxide (NO) has to be one of the most fascinating molecules ever discovered. NO is released in your body on a regular basis, and it widens and keeps large and tiny blood vessels open so that oxygen and healthy nutrients can be delivered throughout your body, including to the surface of your skin. Research has shown that as we get older we lose the ability to produce NO in the quantity we did when we were kids. This makes it more difficult to keep the skin healthy or to take advantage of a healthy diet that can deliver nutrients to the skin surface. However, researchers recently figured out that regular exercise helps to maintain and even improve the amount of NO produced as we age. In other words, exercise is really one of the best antiaging secrets because it helps keep the body physically and mentally healthy for as long as possible, whereas a lack of exercise can accelerate the aging process. A sufficient quantity of NO gets produced every time you exercise to allow the really tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin to continue to supply oxygen and healthy nutrients to it now and in the future. A very cool reason to exercise!
5. Protect with the Right SPF
Full-body moisturizers used right after slightly drying off from your morning shower work very well to keep your skin hydrated all day. But you should also make sure your moisturizer includes a broad-spectrum sunscreen. I know, you’re thinking, it’s winter—I don’t need sunscreen. Yes, you do. There are two types of ultraviolet light that can damage the skin: UVA and UVB. UVB loses its intensity in the wintertime, but UVA is just as strong and damaging in winter as it is during the summer! House and car windows block UVB light, but not UVA. In one of the largest and longest skin cancer-prevention studies ever completed, men and women reduced their risk of invasive melanoma by more than 70 percent when using sunscreen daily. The participants were from Queensland, Australia (which has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world), and they used sunscreens year-round, applying it like a moisturizer from head to toe. You may not live Down Under, but that doesn’t change the fact that the most optimal way to protect your skin in the winter is to start buying a full-body moisturizer with an SPF of 15 or higher because it provides broad-spectrum (UVA & UVB) protection. Sun-protective compounds like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, oxybenzone, and others are found in some newer products. I have used the Eucerin and Lubriderm body moisturizers with sunscreen, and they are both wonderful. One day soon, every company that makes a body moisturizer will have one with sunscreen in it because the research shows that it’s the best way to protect your skin from dryness, wrinkles, and skin cancer.
Dr. Moyad is the Jenkins/Pokempner director of complementary and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center and the consulting director for the Eisenhower Wellness Institute. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI, with his wife, Mia, and their dog, Chauncey.