this year: Happy in our own skins
I love the French expression, “être bien dans sa peau” – to feel well in one’s own skin.
I learned it from adverts on the Montréal Métro (oh the days of travel!), which seemed to conjure a sense of contentedness and acceptance of oneself.
But ‘being comfortable in one’s own skin’ can be both metaphorical and literal.
With all the self-confidence in the world, if your physical skin is itching or inflamed, you may not feel awfully bien in your peau.
And this is the subject which many of you have asked me to address: skin conditions.
Skin conditions can crop up seemingly out of nowhere, whether posing brief irritations (like a prominent zit) or proving a lingering, niggling bother like eczema for years.
Skin problems have a way of betraying how we really are. When they're not hidden under makeup, they quietly signals to others when we might need some help. An effective early-warning system.
One of my favourite experiences last year was seeing a client who’d suffered with severe eczema for around 30 years, come off immune-suppressing medication (with the GP's approval).
Several of you have asked me to write about some specific skin conditions, which will appear in following posts. But first it's very important to start by looking at how skin works when it works well – and how to support it that way.
First of all, then, let's look at the structure. There are layers to the stuff.
From outside in, the three layers of skin are:
1. Epidermis, the initial barrier, the top layer
2. Dermis, the cells which support and nourish the epidermis and
3. Hypodermis, tissues containing fat to insulate the body
I like the UK National Eczema Society’s description of what we see on the outside, the epidermis, when it’s healthy:
“think of the skin as a brick wall: the outer cells are the bricks, while fats and oils are the mortar, holding everything together and acting like a seal. The cells attract and keep water inside, and the fats and oils also help to keep moisture in.”
When our skin is working well, it performs at least six powerful functions for us:
1. Protects us from the elements, from dehydration and UV light
2. Controls our temperature and sweat
3. Excretes water and toxins
4. Defends us against foreign material, as a basic immune defence
5. Conveys the sensation of touch and pressure
6. Synthesises Vitamin D from UV light
Our skin can also absorb nutrients, for example, permitting magnesium to enter the body via lotions or salts - but without such risk of speeding up the bowels, as magnesium pills sometimes do.
So what does skin need to stay healthy?
Let’s start with a couple of key supports for skin: barrier integrity and anti-oxidants.
1. Skin needs: Good barrier integrity
We’re all noticing this one because of our anti-Covid hand-washing, which dries out the skin.
And here’s why that happens: repeated use of soap and water can reduce the integrity of the skin’s outer barrier, the healthy fats that keep the moisture in.
The fats in our epidermis and dermis which help to keep our skin healthy are the essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids which we need to ingest though food. We can consume omega 6 fats through nuts and seeds and olive oil, and omega 3s from oily fish, flaxseed oil, and certain kinds of algae.
When our skin’s natural acid pH and microbiome are disrupted by alkaline soaps and detergents, we experience loss of moisture, or ‘trans-epidermal water loss’. This can then cause the cracked, red skin of ‘contact dermatitis’ from too much washing.
How to support the basic barrier integrity of the skin?
As well as consuming healthy fats, you might find it helpful to:
1. consume vitamin C-containing foods, since this helps to support wound healing
2. balance soap-and-water washing with soap-alternatives (see the UK eczema society on this) or a proven essential-oil-based sanitiser (My favourite source is my friend Claire who sells these things online).
3. switch to ecological laundry detergent and conditioner (I go to my local zero-waste bulk shop, where I fill up old bottles with gentle stuff that works and smells nice and doesn’t irritate the skin).
4. avoid all non organic / non-ecological skin products. Parabens, for example, have been shown to damage skin cells, and many synthetic perfumes are irritating.
The next thing that skin needs to be healthy, is plenty of anti-oxidants in the diet, to balance out the inevitable oxidants we encounter every day life.
2. Skin needs: sufficient anti-oxidants
Oxidative damage to the skin can come from sources such as UV radiation, air pollution and sugar intake, and it has been shown to play a part in inflammation generally, including the skin condition rosacea.
So the key here is:
1. to reduce one’s exposure to oxidative factors like smoking and sugar while also
2. increasing one’s intake of anti-oxidant foods such as ginger, a variety of fresh vegetables, green tea, and turmeric.
Both zinc and selenium have also been shown to reduce oxidative stress in the skin; these minerals can best be gained from oysters / beef and organic brazil nuts / seafood / red meat respectively. (Do ask me for supplementation ideas if you are vegan.)
As I said earlier, in the next blogs I will get to the nitty gritty of skin that is suffering from specific conditions.
And I’ll also be talking about the connection between skin and hormones, the liver, and of course the gut.
So, stay tuned for more on getting happy in your own skin for 2021, and as always,
stay in touch with your ideas, thoughts, comments and questions.
I always love hearing from you.
To your very best of health in the coming year. May you truly feel wonderful in your own skin,
PS to those of you who notice these things, I haven't forgotten about Part II of thyroid health. That's coming soon too.
Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT,
Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC, Consultations online
References and resources
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