Up to 90 per cent of Australians – or 18 million people – will suffer from skin ailments at some time in their lives, including acne, eczema, skin cancer and psoriasis , according to figures from the Australasian College of Dermatologists. Almost one-quarter of children have eczema, compared with about 10 per cent a decade ago and about 85 per cent will have acne.
Although most acne clears after adolescence, up to 20 per cent of adults may continue to be affected.
It is no surprise, then, that the medicated skin care market is experiencing unprecedented growth, but some practitioners believe what we put inside our bodies is more important than smearing our skin with expensive treatments.
Nutritionist and author Patrick Holford says: “Your skin is affected by how well you are internally and is therefore a remarkable barometer of your overall health. Getting your body’s systems working optimally is crucial to addressing skin problems. Diet is key – eating foods that nourish your body while limiting those that contribute no nutritional value is important.”
Many skin conditions are thought to be a reflection of hormone imbalances and the inability to absorb nutrients and eliminate the byproducts of digestion. Helen Sher, founder of the natural skin care company Sher, says: “The majority of our clients have been on courses of antibiotics to banish spots and rosacea, but this is not a long-term solution.” She points out that antibiotics kill good bacteria as well as bad, which can damage the digestive and immune systems.
In the case of rosacea (an inflammatory condition that affects 45 million people worldwide, in which the face becomes flushed and itchy), there is evidence that many sufferers produce insufficient stomach acid and the resultant incomplete digestion of food is the main factor.
If skin disorders are the body’s way of expressing its imbalances, then treating a skin problem using topical creams and gels is the equivalent of applying a hot flannel to the tip of an iceberg. Robin Logan, author of The Homoeopathic Treatment Of Eczema, explains why it is important to view the body as a whole: “Suppressing eruptions [topically] can lead to the development of more serious internal complaints. This is typically seen in the eczema/asthma syndrome.”
According to Michael Franklin, founder of Britain’s Allergy and Nutrition Centre, food allergies play a considerable part in many skin complaints. “Psoriasis is usually extremely difficult to treat, yet if more patients and practitioners knew of the links with bowel toxicity, there would be fewer problems. Liver detoxification is an important part of treatment. With rosacea, a lack of B vitamins may play a role.”
Not everyone subscribes to the idea of treating your biggest organ from the inside out. Nina Goad, of the British Association of Dermatologists, says: “In general, diet has little influence on skin, though there are a few exceptions. Alcohol and spicy foods seem to make rosacea worse.
“As for acne, there is some evidence that foods with a high glycaemic index [which measures the effects of carbohydrates on blood glucose levels] may worsen the condition in some people.”
What foods to avoid
Dr Jonathan Wilkin, of Britain’s National Rosacea Society, says foods that might trigger flare-ups include liver, yoghurt, cheese (except cottage cheese), chocolate, vanilla, vinegar, spicy foods, coffee or tea.
The most documented reactive foods for eczema sufferers are milk, eggs, peanuts, soybeans, wheat, seafood and seeded fruits. Nutritionist Patrick Holford suggests that with skin complaints you should limit your intake of sugary foods, refined carbohydrates (such as white bread) and anything fried.
What foods to eat
The skin is the last place nutrients will arrive after they have serviced the rest of your body so it is vital to get enough of the things we know help the skin to heal and regenerate.
Proper hydration is vital to a healthy system. Helen Sher recommends drinking six or seven glasses of water daily. Vitamins C and E are important for skin health – mainly as antioxidants – so include organic fruits and vegetables in your diet, especially black grapes and blueberries. Apricots, oranges, peppers, carrots, strawberries and broccoli are rich in the carotenoid pigments, which your body converts to vitamin A.
Nutritionist and author Michael van Straten says: “Carrot juice is bursting with beta carotene; one glass a day, fresh if possible, works wonders for the skin and is a powerful antioxidant.”
The naturopathic nutritionist Charlotte Fraser suggests increasing your intake of essential fatty acids to help treat dry skin conditions and acne. Eczema and psoriasis sufferers will benefit from the anti-inflammatory effect of omega 3 found in oily fish.
Evening primrose oil is a source of gamma linoleic acid, which promotes healthy skin, hair and nails.
The most important B vitamin for the skin is biotin, which is found in bananas, eggs and rice. Zinc deficiency can be a factor in psoriasis and acne. Good sources of zinc are sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.