What Are Skin Disorders?
Your skin is your body’s largest and most direct interface to the world around you. As such, it is exposed to a wide variety of insults, including air pollution, chemicals, sunlight, bacteria, and viruses. Under these circumstances, a vast number of conditions can cause transitory or chronic inflammatory skin disorders. Only a few examples of inflammatory skin disorders will be described here as proof that anti-inflammatory nutrients can be beneficial. Among these disorders are contact dermatitis, sunburn, psoriasis, and eczema.
Dermatitis literally means skin inflammation, and the term is usually interchangeable with eczema. Both are generally descriptions, not specific diseases. Dermatitis can take a variety of forms anywhere on the body, including itchiness, inflammation, swelling, and flaking skin. Many people consider dandruff a hair-related disorder, but it is actually a skin condition known as seborrheic dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis is often caused by direct handling of an irritating chemical. The body can often adapt to the exposure, which is what happens to people regularly working with chemicals. However, many people pay a physiological price—complete intolerance of the chemical—after a number of years. Some types of contact dermatitis are also caused by specific naturally occurring compounds in a variety of foods. Dermatologists refer to this as “balsam-related contact dermatitis.” The term comes from a plant extract called balsam of Peru, which contains allergenic substances, which are also found in tomatoes, citrus, cola drinks, chocolate, and various spices (including vanilla).
Mild sunburn, known as erythema, is actually an inflammation of the skin. It is caused by damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, which split apart water molecules in cells and create free radicals. Tiny blood vessels rupture, and white blood cells respond to the damage. Regular sunburn or more severe sunburn can increase the long-term risk of skin cancers. That is because free radicals damage the DNA in skin cells.
Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease that often begins during a person’s teenage years. It is characterized by thick, red skin patches. These patches are covered by white or silvery scales. These skin lesions itch, burn, crack, and sometimes bleed. About 15 percent of people with psoriasis also have arthritic joints, a condition known as psoriatic arthritis. Psoriasis tends to be worse during the winter months, when the air is drier and people have less exposure to sunlight.
Finally, wrinkling reflects age-related changes in the skin, including free-radical damage to the proteins forming skin and a thinning of the skin. Wrinkling can be accelerated by smoking and by excessive exposure to the sun.
How Common Are Skin Disorders?
Everyone experiences some type of dermatitis from time to time. Psoriasis, one of the most common chronic skin disorders, affects more than 7 million Americans. Many people enjoy the darker complexion afforded by a tan, but sun worshipers usually develop premature wrinkling and an increased risk of skin cancer, consequences of skin-cell damage from ultraviolet light.
Nutrients That Can Help
The classic signs of fatty acid deficiency (omega-6, omega-3, or both) are dry and flaking skin. Such symptoms can develop when people are malnourished or eat low- or zero-fat diets. Eating fish and taking fish oil capsules can provide omega-3 fatty acids, and olive oil is an excellent source of omega-9 fatty acids. Adequate amounts of omega-6 fatty acids can be obtained in olive oil and raw nuts such as almonds, or pumpkin seeds.
Several antioxidants have been shown to be helpful in reducing the effects of sunburn. Combined with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants can likely ease other forms of skin inflammation through an inside-out approach: take oral supplements and use a topical cream with antioxidants. Vitamin E is the body’s principal fat-soluble antioxidant, meaning that it protects against free-radical damage in fatty parts of cells such as membranes. Topical applications are well absorbed through the skin, with some of the vitamin also entering general circulation. In addition, topically applied vitamin E blocks UV damage to DNA. In a recent study Bernadette Eberlein-König, M.D., of the Technical University of Munich, measured how daily oral supplements of vitamin E (1,000 IU) and vitamin C (2,000 mg) increased resistance to UV rays. She found that subjects taking the vitamins were about 34 percent more resistant to sunburn, compared to people taking placebos.
Vitamin C also can reduce the damaging effects of UV radiation. A study by Steven S. Traikovich, D.O., of Phoenix, Arizona, found that a vitamin C–containing lotion was able to reduce fine wrinkles, roughness, and skin tone compared to a similar lotion without the vitamin. Vitamin C is essential for the body’s production of collagen and elastin, two of the key proteins forming skin. In addition, several studies have found that beta-carotene supplements enhance the protective effects of sunscreen, illustrating the benefits of an inside-out approach to skin care.
Pycnogenol, a complex of antioxidant flavonoids extracted from the bark of French maritime pine trees, has been shown to reduce inflammation and, specifically, protect skin cells. Laboratory experiments have shown that Pcynogenol decreases the activity of two genes, calgranulin A and B, which are overactive in psoriasis and some other skin disorders.
Pycnogenol decreased the activity of calgranulin A and B by twenty-two times. Other researchers have shown that Pycnogenol helps prevent the breakdown of elastin from inflammation and free radicals.
What Else Might Help?
Like many herbs, chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is rich in antioxidants. In Germany it has a rich history of use in treating skin disorders and also is found in many modern cosmetics. Allergist Holger Biltz, M.D., of Bad Honnef, Germany, found that a chamomile-containing cream reduced reddening after UV exposure and reduced skin roughness. One high-quality line of chamomile-containing skin products is CamoCare, available at many natural foods stores and pharmacies. Green tea also is a powerful antioxidant and may be helpful in some skin disorders.
A wholesome diet, similar to the Anti-Inflammation Syndrome Diet Plan, can help preserve the skin. Australian researchers have reported that people eating diets with large amounts of olive oil, fish, and vegetables experienced less facial wrinkling compared with people who ate more red meat, processed deli meats, soft drinks, and pastries.
Lastly, it is paramount not to smoke tobacco products and not to be in the sun long enough to get sunburned. Smokers develop a particular type of facial wrinkling, which is related to their premature aging in general. Approximately fifteen minutes of sun exposure daily are sufficient for the body to make large amounts of vitamin D, but not enough to result in sunburn (for most individuals). Longer sun exposure should be accompanied by the use of sunscreen or UV-blocking clothing.