Skin is more than a decorative covering for the body. Weighing in at 10 pounds, this expansive organ is vital for survival. It holds us together and keeps the world out. In fact, losing too much skin, due to a major burn for instance, can lead to death. This article will outline a few of the most common skin conditions and how you can find relief through nutrition, herbs and other natural therapies.
Skin is several layers thick starting with the outer most barrier or epidermis. This external layer not only provides physical protection, but shields us from disease and excessive sunlight as well. The melanocytes, found in the epidermis, are cells that give skin color; the more pigment in your skin, the less chance you’ll suffer from sunburn or skin cancer. Langerhan cells are members of the immune system that reside in skin. They offer a first line of defense against bacteria and other infectious agents. Because the epidermis is most susceptible to wear and tear, replacement cells are continually dividing in this segment.
Underneath the epidermis is the dermis which provides physical support and nourishment for the busy epidermis. It’s in this second tier that nerves, blood vessels and hair follicles are kept. Although hair is primarily decorative in humans, hair follicles are found all over the body except on the palms and soles. In other animals, when hair or fur stands on end it provides warmth and even dissuades predators. While humans possess the anatomy, that is arrector pili muscles abutting hair follicles, to achieve the same thing, the effect is less than spectacular. Without a heavy coat of hair to fluff up, a chill or fright in people creates only goose bumps.
Sebaceous glands, another resident of the dermis, secrete an oily substance and skin moisturizer called sebum. Two types of sweat glands are also housed in the dermis. The eccrine sweat glands cool the body during intense physical activity or hot weather by secreting perspiration onto the skin’s surface where evaporation can occur. Besides water, sweat contains sodium chloride (salt), urea, lactic acid and potassium. When required, two and a half gallons of sweat are produced per day. The apocrine sweat glands, found mainly under the arms and in the genital region, create body odor.
The third layer is composed of fat which cushions the skin, resists cold and injury, and stores extra calories.
Skin problems can originate within the skin, for example a poison ivy rash, a local allergic reaction. Infections, systemic allergies, nutritional deficiencies or metabolic disorders may afflict skin. Sometimes recurrent skin infections or rashes are the tip of the iceberg in a more pervasive condition.
Exposure to chemicals or taking certain medications can create a rash. Immune depressing states, such as pregnancy, increase your susceptibility to infections. You need to be aware of contagious skin diseases; be careful of genital herpes and genital warts if you’re sexually active. Prolonged sunbathing, especially for the fair skinned, is an invitation to skin cancer.
Some skin diseases are linked to nutrient imbalances and lifestyle habits. In these cases, natural medicine offers many safe, effective and often long-term solutions to common skin ailments. I’ve outlined three common skin conditions below: acne, eczema and psoriasis. Besides explaining our current understanding of these problems, I’ve offered a few therapeutic suggestions.
Acne is by far the most common skin problem. Most teenagers, at least in this culture, suffer the embarrassment and frustration of pimples. The bad news is acne can begin as early as eight years old or may persist into the fourth decade of life. The good news is with a few dietary and other health precautions, this condition needn’t be a rite of passage.
Adolescent boys are the most likely acne candidates as male hormones surge through their bodies, stimulating sebaceous glands. A combination of increased sebum production, plugged hair follicles and the normal colony of bacteria that reside nearby creates an ideal environment for acne. Warning: young males or adult women plagued with chronic, unresponsive acne should get tested for hormonal abnormalities.
While a multitude of factors aggravate or cause acne, the best place to start is diet. According to William Rosenberg, MD and Betty Kirk in an editorial written several years ago for the Archives of Dermatology, physicians see far too many acne patients. “Many have come to regard (acne)… as just another inevitable fact of life. We believe that it is not–that it is probably another result of a diet that is too high in calories for our sedentary habits, too rich in fat, salt and refined carbohydrates, and too poor in vegetable fiber.”
Avoiding refined carbohydrates, like sugar and white flour, for acne is more than good health sense. Glucose tolerance tests, a blood test that measures how well one handles sugar and other carbohydrates, differs between acne and clear-skinned individuals. While the standard oral glucose tolerance test is normal in most acne patients, skin glucose tolerance tests may not be. For this reason, sticking to complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and whole grains can help clear up pimples. Large quantities of sugar are also immune suppressing and may contribute to other skin disorders.
Commercial dairy products, which contain hormones that might exacerbate the androgenic or male hormone influence, should be replaced with organic milk or soy-based beverages, yogurt and cheeses. In addition, fatty foods, products that contain trans fatty acids like margarine and hydrogenated oils, and high iodine foods (contaminated dairy foods from iodophor-disinfected pipes and containers, and iodine fed to cows as a foot rot prevention; iodates added to bakery products; fish; seaweed) should be eliminated. There’s some evidence that a high protein diet is helpful. Because many commercial meats are laden with hormones, try eating organic beef or poultry, or incorporate beans, legumes, grains and other plant protein sources.
The skin depends on several nutrients to keep it healthy. The antioxidants including vitamin E, vitamin A and selenium, are occasionally useful for acne. Vitamin E also regulates vitamin A, a nutrient that’s been used in very high doses to treat acne. I don’t suggest using megadoses of vitamin A as a initial acne therapy; definitely don’t try it on your own. If you decide you want to try this vitamin in large amounts, do so only after trying more benign therapies. And even then, see your doctor. As a precautionary note, the symptoms of vitamin A toxicity include headache, fatigue, emotional liability, muscle and joint pain, chapped lips and dry skin.
Zinc has been used successfully to treat acne, particularly when a deficiency is present. Any time you take supplemental doses of this mineral, do so for only three months unless under professional nutritional guidance. Excessive zinc can disrupt copper levels in your body.
Other simple measures you can take for acne include a judicious amount of sunlight each day and gentle washing with calendula soap. Vigorous or excessive scrubbing doesn’t cleanse your skin, it irritates it and aggravates acne. Try soothing blemished skin with an occasional bentonite clay mask.
If these methods fail, you may not have acne. Cosmetics, soaps, lotions, pollutants and chemicals can all create acne-like blemishes. Many women suffer from the acne of PMS. (Does your acne just appear a week or two before your menstrual period?) Ask your practitioner about other possible causes.
Physicians toss many undiagnosed rashes into the wastebasket called “eczema”, a word from the Greek meaning to “to boil over”. Here we’ll discuss atopic dermatitis, also called eczema.
Eczema, a very common rash, appears as dry skin that oozes a clear fluid. The underlying skin is red with blisters and crusting on top. Most people find it nearly impossible to not scratch this itchy rash, hence the leather-like thickening, bleeding and scratch marks that develop. This itch-and-scratch pattern obviously damages skin, and in the long run makes it more susceptible to Staph infections. In older children and adults this distressing rash typically appears on the face, chest, hands, crook of the arm and behind the knees.
Eczema sufferers tend to be allergic as well. At least one-third have a history of respiratory allergies, like hayfever or asthma, and twice that many have family members who are allergy prone. There’s also a food allergy connection.
The first step in treating eczema is to reduce or eliminate itching since this symptom leads to skin thickening and infection (and can be unbearable). Relieving stress is the best way to control itchiness. One way to do this is by examining your day: are there ways you can decrease tension? When does your rash itch more? Some people find that a particularly stressful event precedes the urge to scratch. Others discover that nighttime, when stress lets up, is worse. Whatever your pattern, look for ways to reduce daily tension by delegating chores, saying no to all but absolutely necessary demands and don’t expect perfection from yourself.
Because eczema has such a strong allergy component, you need to address potential environmental and food allergies. Children are often allergic to dairy products. Other foods that tend to cause allergies in children and adults include wheat, eggs, soy foods, tomatoes, citrus fruits, chocolate and nuts.
You can identify allergens one of two ways. If you suspect certain allergens, like a food, try eliminating it for five to seven days. Record your symptoms during the week, reintroduce the suspected allergen and watch how you react. This method of elimination and challenging allergens can be long and tedious (although it’s inexpensive and quite accurate). If you don’t want to bother with this method, find a doctor to administer allergy tests.
Whenever an allergy is causing health problems, eating healthy meals low in sugar and fat helps symptoms too. Decreasing your intake of animal fats, as in meat and dairy, will decrease the redness of eczema (or any other inflammatory condition, for that matter). There are, however, some fats that help heal eczematous rashes: fish oils and essential fatty acids. Eicopentaenoic acid, found in fish like herring, mackerel and salmon, and EFAs, especially evening primrose oil, have the opposite effect of animal fats, that is they reduce inflammation.
As with acne and many other skin problems, zinc may help control eczema–particularly if there is a deficiency of this mineral.
Psoriasis is a case of epidermal cells gone mad. When cell proliferation in the epidermis exceeds normal rates, silvery scales and inflamed, sharply defined patches appear on the backs of arms and elbows, scalp, knees, the back or buttocks. Although psoriasis literally means itchy in Greek, many times these lesions are not itchy. About five percent of cases are accompanied by arthritis, and although different, mimics the painful and sometimes crippling fingers and toes of rheumatoid arthritis.
One-third to a half of psoriasis sufferers know a family member with the same condition. Genetics aside, one explanation for the overly-enthusiastic production of skin cells found in psoriasis are cyclic-GMP (cGMP) and cyclic-AMP (cAMP), naturally occurring compounds that control cell division rate. When these substances are out of balance, for example cGMP is too high and CAMP too low, then psoriasis occurs.
Fortunately, there are several ways to manipulate cGMP and cAMP levels. The simplest is through diet. Because toxins, such as those derived from bacteria and yeast, boost cGMP, a high-fiber-toxin-removal diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is essential. If your liver isn’t adequately filtering blood, psoriasis may be the result. Alcohol, which encourages toxin absorption and discourages liver function, should be avoided in this condition.
Inflammation, a key symptom in psoriasis, can also be controlled through foods. Eicosapentaenoic acid, onions and garlic are all natural anti-inflammatory agents. Animal-derived fats have the opposite effect–they promote redness, swelling and pain.
There are many other steps you can take to control a psoriasis outbreak. Several nutritional supplements have been shown to be helpful including selenium, vitamin E, zinc and vitamin D. Chromium may be indicated if you have a blood sugar problem.
Sunlight, a source of vitamin D, is excellent for psoriasis as well as stress reducing activities. Ask your doctor to check how well your digestive system is working. Poor protein absorption and utilization contribute to psoriasis symptoms. Depending on what’s wrong, you may need to take supplemental hydrochloric acid or pancreatic enzymes.
Medicinal plants also have a place in a psoriasis regimen. Milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, not only calms the redness, but works by improving liver function. Dandelion can also be used for the liver. Many traditional psoriasis herbs work by normalizing the affected body process. Red clover, or Trifolium pratense, works this way as does sarsaparilla root, or Smilax offinalis. Trifolium also soothes eczema.
Psoriasis is a disease that waxes and wanes. Conditions that aggravate it include injury to susceptible areas, and sometimes a bad sunburn or general irritation of the region. Some individuals, especially children, have a violent psoriasis outbreak after a urinary tract infection.
Beauty may only be skin deep, but healthy skin demands more than superficial care. Your skin’s health is a reflection of your overall well-being. Genetics and individual physiology are the framework for health. But it’s what you nail to that frame, your nourishment, activity level, mental outlook, emotional stability and spiritual harmony, that shapes the final product.
Did you know…
- Until Eskimos were introduced to a Western diet after World War II, they rarely suffered from acne.
- The female hormone, estrogen, not only makes female skin softer and smoother than a man’s, but also causes cuts to bleed more.
- Skin helps keep us warm in cold weather by: not sweating, by restricting blood flow to the body surface and thus preserving body heat, and by causing us to shiver.
- After living in hot weather for one to six weeks, sweat glands produce up to 1.5 liters of perspiration per hour. Salt loss, on the other hand, reduces dramatically.
- Triglycerides comprise most of the lipids in the sebaceous glands.
- Nails and hair are considered part of the skin.
- You lose on average 50 to 100 hairs per day.
- Toenails grow slower than fingernails.
- Nails help you grasp and pinch things.
1. Rosenberg EW, Kirk BS. Acne diet reconsidered. Archives of Dermatology 1981;117:193-95.