Most people have heard the often-spouted phrase: “You are what you eat”. Philosophy enthusiasts are probably also familiar with Hippocrates saying: “let foods be thy medicine”. Well, it’s true! A balanced diet full of plenty of fruits and vegetables can help prevent premature ageing and has shown value in reducing the risks of some diseases.
So how does what you eat, or what you don’t eat for that matter, affect skin health and premature ageing?
Natural Ageing Vs. Premature Ageing
The natural ageing process is an internal process where, over time, your soft tissue and organs begin to deteriorate. There are many factors that affect the rate at which you naturally age, all of which generally boil down to your genetics and are largely out of your control. However, premature ageing is affected by your environment and lifestyle and, to an extent, is something you can influence.
Natural ageing is inevitable with time but premature ageing is preventable.
When it comes to your skin, the natural ageing process causes the loss of facial fat padding leading to fine wrinkling and thinning skin. Naturally aged skin is usually smooth and unblemished. The biggest environmental influence on premature ageing is excessive sun exposure; this causes the loss of skin elasticity which results in deeper wrinkles, brown marks, and dry and leathery skin. You can read more about the ageing effect of sun exposure here.
Free Radicals and Ageing
One of the most popular theories of ageing is ‘the free radical theory of ageing’. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that are formed when your cells create energy. These molecules then cause a whole host of problems when they bond to other molecules in the body and stop them from functioning properly. The free radical theory of ageing suggests that the damage caused by free radicals in your body builds up over time, causing you to age, and increasing your risk of degenerative diseases.
While the production of free radicals is part of the natural ageing process, environmental influences such as sun exposure, pollution, smoking, stress, and poor diet can have a profound effect. Therefore:
After daily sunscreen use, the most effective way to reduce premature ageing from the effects of free radicals is a low-stress lifestyle with plenty of exercise and a balanced diet full of anti-oxidant rich foods.
The Role of Vitamins
Some vitamins fall into the anti-oxidant category and provide anti-ageing benefits when consumed as part of a healthy diet. Here are the three most important vitamins for anti-ageing benefits:
Carotenoids (e.g. beta-carotene) are the potent anti-oxidant form of Vitamin A that you get from the fruits and vegetables that you eat, which are then converted to retinol in your body. Retinol and its various forms are important for cell production and the production of the tissues that are responsible for keeping skin firm. Vitamin A helps to protect the skin against UV damage by preventing free radicals from breaking down collagen.
For example, beta-carotene supplementation has been shown to protect skin from sunburn, when taken at a high dose for a prolonged period of time (at least 7 weeks). Beta-carotene has also been shown to reduce some of the DNA mutations that excessive UV exposure causes, thereby reducing premature ageing.
Fruits and vegetables containing beta-carotene are often orange in colour such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and mangoes. Retinol is only available through diet by consuming fatty fish, dairy and liver.
It is incredibly important to include Vitamin C in your daily diet as your body is unable to create it naturally. A severe Vitamin C deficiency can lead to scurvy; a disease with many nasty effects on the skin. In terms of skin health, Vitamin C plays a large role in collagen production; making it an essential anti-ageing anti-oxidant.
Multiple studies have found that consuming a combination of Vitamin C and Vitamin E helps protect skin from UV damage. This is because Vitamin C helps restore and enhance the beneficial effects of Vitamin E.
You can find Vitamin C in ingredient lists as ascorbic acid or L-ascorbic acid and there are a number of good sources of dietary Vitamin C, including citrus fruits and parsley.
As mentioned in the previous example, Vitamin E works in combination with Vitamin C. Vitamin E works as a free radical ‘scavenger’ and helps to prevent the oxidation of fatty acids. Like Vitamin C, on its own, Vitamin E can protect the skin against UV damage when consumed at high doses. However, the two anti-oxidants taken together have far more dramatic protective effects.
You can find Vitamin E in ingredient lists as alpha-tocopherol and there are a number of good dietary sources of Vitamin E, particularly nuts, seeds, and plant oils.
So What Does This All Mean?
Overall, the evidence suggests that vitamins A, C, & E all contribute to healthier and younger-looking skin, primarily because of their antioxidant properties. Including these vitamins in our daily diets can help boost collagen production and reduce the wrinkles and skin sagging caused by sun damage. While vitamin supplements are an option, consuming foods rich in vitamins A, C, & E is a healthier and safer way to maintain youthful skin, particularly as these foods often contain other beneficial anti-oxidants.
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- Nguyen, G. & Torres, A. (2012). ‘Systemic antioxidants and skin health’, Journal of Drugs and Dermatology, 11(9), pp. e1-4.
- Placzeck, M., Gaube, S., Kerkmann, U., Gilberz, K. P., Herzinger, T., Haen, E. & Przybilla, B. (2005). ‘Ultraviolet B-induced DNA Damage in Human Epidermis Is Modified by the Antioxidants Ascorbic Acid and D-alpha-Tocopherol’, Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 124(2), pp.304-307.
- Schagen, S. K., Zampeli, V. A., Makrantonaki, E. & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). ‘Discovering the link between nutrition and skin aging’, Dermatoendocrinology, 4(3), pp. 298-307.
- Stahl, W., Heinrich, U., Jungmann, H., Sies, H. & Tronnier, H. (2000). ‘Carotenoids and carotenoids plus vitamin E protect against ultraviolet light-induced erythema in humans.’ American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71(3), pp.7 95-798.