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Written by Nicole Crane, BS, NTP
As we move towards summer, the sun gets stronger and has the potential to damage our skin. When it comes to sun protection, there are some things that many of us know to do already - wear sunscreen, sit in the shade, wear a hat and sunglasses - but all of these protective measures have limiting factors. Sunscreen has to be reapplied often and washes off easily when we perspire or go in the water. Most also contain harsh active ingredients and other chemicals that disrupt our healthy hormone balance and have major negative effects on our healthy respiratory, endocrine and immune function. This can be quite damaging to our health, plus sunscreen blocks the absorption of Vitamin D, an essential nutrient for immune and skin health. The good news is that there is something you can do that provides extra protection that doesn’t require sunscreen, a hat or sunglasses and it stays with you all day. It certainly does not replace any of these other protective measures, but it can give you an edge when it comes to protecting the skin from aging, wrinkling and even sunburn. They're called Superfoods.
Carotenoids are yellow, orange and red pigments found in fruits and vegetables. They play a really important role in protecting our skin from sun damage and sun burn, from the inside out. Different antioxidants tend to offer more support to some parts of the body than others, and carotenoids are the antioxidants that support skin health best. As antioxidants, carotenoids neutralize free radicals that create inflammation and damage. As carotenoid levels build up in our skin (from regular intake of colorful fruits, vegetables, or supplements), they provide us with an internal sunscreen. While the level of SPF (sun protection factor) is incomparable to a topical sunscreen, colorful fruits and vegetables and the carotenoids they contain could be the critical difference between a burn and a healthy glow following some fun in the sun.i Carotenoids increase our skin's defenses against UV-light related skin damage. Other research shows that carotenoids act as photoprotectors ii . Photoprotection prevents UV photodamage, DNA damage and the far reaching negative effects of oxidative damage. In other words, the more carotenoids we store in our skin, the more sun protective benefits we gain.
Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant, and it seems to be one of the best carotenoids for shielding the skin from sun damage, especially in those with a fair complexion. Lycopene is found in the skin of tomatoes. Tomatoes are an impressive fruit (yes, tomatoes are technically a fruit!) for warding off sunburns and skin damage, especially for those who are most vulnerable to the sun's harsh summer rays. A 2001 study examined participants aged 26-67 with lightly pigmented skin, light-colored hair, and blue eyes, who also tended to burn quickly and/or tan minimally. The participants consumed approximately 3 tablespoons of tomato paste in olive oil, while the control group just consumed the olive oil for 10 weeks. The lycopene content was about 16 mg. The subjects were exposed to UV radiation to induce a mild sunburn at the start of the study, as week 4 and then at the end of the study at week 10. After 10 weeks, the tomato paste group experienced a 40% reduction in UV induced skin damage and sunburn compared to the olive oil only group iii . Further, the tomato paste group increased their lycopene levels by 95% and the content of carotenoids in their skin increased by15%. In the control group, the blood level of lycopene decreased by 8% and the levels of skin carotenoids decreased by a substantial 51%. This shows that the lycopene and carotenoids in general offer significant protective benefits against UV skin damage.
The benefits of lycopene and skin extend beyond those who are fair and burn easily. In a 2008 study in the British Journal of Investigative Dermatology, researchers gave 20 subjects either 5 tbsp. of tomato paste, rich in lycopene plus 1 tbsp. of olive oil, or just olive oil alone for 12 weeks. They were then exposed to UV light at the beginning and end of the study and it was found that the tomato paste group has 33% more protection against sunburn than the olive oil only group iv . The researchers said that this was the equivalent of 1.3 SPF, which means that you can stay in the sun 1.3 times longer just from tomatoes. The SPF for concentrated lycopene measures at closer to 3 or 4 SPF. While this certainly does not replace a natural sunscreen with a much higher SPF, every bit helps, especially when this protection comes from the inside out. When it comes to skin, tomatoes and the lycopene they contain packs a powerful punch against sunburns and aging skin, no matter your skin tone. Lycopene can be a hard nutrient to absorb, and cooked tomatoes, especially pureed and paired with a healthy fat like olive oil, is much more bioavailable than raw tomatoes.
Your drink of choice in the summer could have major impacts on how your skin responds to the sun. White Tea comes from the same plant as green and black tea, Camellia sinensis, and they share many of the same medicinal properties. White tea is picked earlier and has a greater amount of antioxidants and catechins compared to green tea. This means that white tea may have even greater benefits than its greater known green sibling. This is especially true for skin health. Studies have shown that white tea offers great protection against UV damage and oxidative damage vi , two major factors that make skin look and feel older. Other research shows that white tea has substantial benefits beyond its antioxidant effects, which are noteworthy. A 2009 study published in the BMC Journal Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that white tea is a potent inhibitor of the enzyme matrix metalloproteinases (MMP). MMP are enzymes that degrade the key proteins of the skin, especially collagen and elastin. When collagen and elastin are lost, the skin is much more prone to wrinkling, sagging and an overall aged appearance. White tea actually helps to preserve the levels of collagen and elastin in the skin, which helps skin look smoother, firmer and more youthful from the inside out. What is most significant is that out of 21 plant extracts examined in this study, including green tea and pomegranate, white tea was shown to be the strongest inhibitor of the MMP subtypes collagenase (which breaks down collagen) and elastase (which breaks down elastin). The research also indicates that white tea is 3-6 times stronger than green tea when it comes to protecting the skin matrix, which is made up of the natural youth defenders of our skin, collagen and elastin. vii
Further, by protecting collagen from being broken down, white tea may play a substantial role in helping the skin look and feel younger. Our skin loses collagen at a rate of 1.5% percent per year starting in our late 20s! viii By the time we’re 60, we have lost half our skin's collagen content. This is especially true for post-menopausal women, because when estrogen levels drop off, collagen production drastically declines. In the 5 years following menopause, women go through an acute loss of collagen in their skin and can lose an additional 30% of their total collagen. ix White tea seems to slow the natural breakdown of collagen that comes as we age. The next time you are poolside or beachside, making the effort to sip iced white tea will go a long way to nourish and protect your skin. Consider adding a concentrated white tea extract to supercharge your iced tea.
Cocoa and chocolate have long had a bad rap when it comes to healthy skin, but there is little validity behind these myths. Actually, cocoa has some healing and balancing properties that make it quite beneficial for skin. The caveat is that to reap the most benefits, cocoa needs to be as close as possible to its natural raw state. Sugary, milky chocolate just doesn’t cut it. Cocoa (Theobroma cacao) is rich in a spectrum of antioxidants, including theobromine, catechins, epicatechins and proanthocyanidins that protect the body from inflammation, support cardiovascular wellness, boost mood and shield skin from sun damage and accelerated aging. As an antioxidant, cocoa is more powerful than red wine or green tea against protecting skin from free radicals caused by UV sunlight. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, it was shown that a high flavanol cocoa and water drink containing 6.6 mg epicatechin was 25% more protective against UV-induced erythema (sunburn) after 12 weeks compared to a low flavanol cocoa drink containing 1.6 mg epicatechin. The benefits of cocoa for skin are quite multifaceted. Not only does high flavanol cocoa protect skin against sunburn and sun damage, it plays an important role in increasing blood slow to the skin, supports skin hydration and can even increase thickness of skin. Further, examination of the skin surface in the high flavanol group showed that skin became significantly smoother and scaling of skin was drastically reduced. These same results were not seen in the low favanol group, demonstrating that cocoa flavanols offer wonderful benefits for photoprotection, circulation and skin hydration. These factors are especially important because many of the long term damaging effects of sunburn are rooted in skin dryness (dehydration) and decreased blood flow to the skin's surface. Any chocolate lover would be happy to learn that the antioxidants in unprocessed cocoa nourish and slow the rate of skin aging.xi Be selective of how you eat cocoa, make sure it is free of sugar, a notorious wrinkle producer, free of dairy, which is highly inflammatory and not Dutch processed (alkalized) which destroys many of the beneficial antioxidants. Stick to these guidelines for finding quality cocoa and healthy, glowing, protected skin will be your delicious reward.
When it comes to well-rounded skin support, one super fruit really shines: pomegranate. Whether fresh or in extract form, pomegranates really pack a punch. This delicious fruit is rich in protective antioxidants, collagen boosting Vitamin C, as well as potassium, iron and zinc. All these nutrients play a role in healthy skin and the manufacture of new, healthy skin cells and the proteins that hold skin together.xii Studies show that pomegranate plays a wonderful and effective role at regenerating skin, both in the dermis and the epidermis. Like white tea, this red fruit helps to inhibit MMP-1, an enzyme that breaks down proteins in the skin, which makes it age at a faster rate.xiii By controlling the rate of MMP, the proteins in skin are spared from premature aging. This can have a positive impact on not only the appearance of skin, but also how smooth skin feels. Ellegic acid, one of the active constituents in pomegranates, has also been shown to combat the inflammation and collagen breakdown in skin that comes from UV sun damage. xiv By protecting the skin from sun damage, pomegranates offer substantial protection against wrinkles and older looking skin. Collagen makes up 70% of our skin, and the older we get, the more collagen is lost. By slowing the breakdown of collagen, skin is protected from sagging, thinning and dreaded wrinkling. Pomegranate also supports circulation to the skin and natural detoxification processes. When blood is flowing to the skin and the body is able to remove toxins efficiently, skin feels soft, smooth and properly hydrated. Pomegranate seeds are delicious in a salad, dusted with cocoa powder or infused in white tea. If you find them too hard to find, or just too hard to eat, pomegranate extract is also available as a supplement.
It’s never too early or too late to protect your skin from the sun, and the best way is to shield skin with superfoods in your diet. Eating a nourishing diet, rich in colorful fruits and vegetables will help to guard skin against time, sun damage and all the toxins we are exposed to every day. The next time you head out to buy skin care, but sure to stop by the grocery store or supplement store and stock up on some superfoods for healthy skin as well. You are what you eat, so stock up on antioxidants, that enrich and safeguard skin by forming a protective layer within the skin. Your best defense is to support beautiful and healthy skin from within.