Wouldn't it be nice if there were a quick, nonsurgical way to stay wrinkle free forever? Of course, and many product developers are working toward that end, designing antioxidant-charged foods and drinks that may help make skin glow and halt aging. The scientific set agrees that when it comes to your appearance, paying attention to what you put into your body, not just what you put on it, pays dividends inside and out. Think of yourself as a cake, says Ben Fuchs, pharmacist and cosmetic chemist for Sanitas Skin Care, a line of products that features compounds found naturally in skin. “Cosmetics and topical treatments can be helpful icing, but if the cake inside doesn't have the right ingredients, no amount of icing can hide it.” Still, there isn't a master key to lustrous looks. Rather, skin and hair require a deft combination of nutrients. Lay the foundation for overall wellness by staying hydrated and eating a balanced diet. Then work in certain essentials to tackle specific beauty concerns. The following building blocks are sure to have the biggest — and most lasting — impact on your appearance.
1. Choose fats wisely
Don't be afraid of fats — be picky about them. The American diet is festooned with oils that have been chemically altered to prolong their shelf lives. Feasting on these trans-fat-packed hydrogenated oils causes inflammation in the body, which damages skin cells and triggers signs of aging, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Meanwhile, omega-3 essential fatty acids, those panaceas of wellness, prevent skin from succumbing to premature wrinkles and drooping by fighting inflammation on a cellular level. Omega-3s — particularly the type found in fatty cold-water fish — do far more than just stave off aging. For starters, they help maintain the skin's natural oil barrier, keeping moisture in and germs out so that skin stays soft and supple, explains Lisa Drayer, RD, in her book The Beauty Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2009). Plus, because they help the body balance hormones, omega-3s may also help clear up acne. Unless you eat fish more than twice a week, take 1,000 mg of omega-3s in the form of fish oil daily.
2. Add more antioxidants
Antioxidants such as vitamins, flavonoids, and carotenoids are the heavy hitters in any beauty regimen. These naturally occurring substances drastically counter the cell-ravaging effects of free radicals, unstable molecules produced when the body metabolizes food or is exposed to harmful ultraviolet rays, environmental toxins, and pollutants. Free radicals attack healthy cells and may lead to premature aging, as well as a host of other maladies. As you age, your body loses its ability to take up beneficial antioxidants, says Fuchs, making supplementation with these beauty all-stars key.
An all-around healthy appearance depends largely on whether you get enough of this vitamin, which is found in the diet as retinol from animal sources (such as liver) or as provitamin A — also called beta-carotene — in fruits and vegetables (think mangoes and dark leafy greens). “Vitamin A deficiency can result in bumpy, rough skin that's covered with fine scales,” says Drayer. Long used in pharmaceuticals to treat chronic acne breakouts, vitamin A prevents follicles from getting plugged up, thereby warding off bacteria growth, says Alan Dattner, MD, a holistic dermatologist in New York. Take enough — try 2,000-3,000 IU per day — and you may also see a change in your hair. Vitamin A helps produce natural oils in the scalp that strengthen tresses. But too much vitamin A can actually contribute to hair loss, warns Drayer, so be sure to stay within the recommended dose range.
This potent antioxidant vitamin helps stimulate the production of collagen — the fibers that keep skin firm — which falters as you get older, resulting in looseness and wrinkles. In fact, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007 showed that women who ate more vitamin C-rich foods actually had fewer wrinkles than those with lower C intakes. Bell peppers, broccoli, and brussels sprouts are excellent sources, but the human body is unable to store adequate amounts of vitamin C, so it's important to get a continuous supply, says Esther Blum, MS, RD, author of Eat, Drink and Be Gorgeous (Chronicle, 2007) and Secrets of Gorgeous (Chronicle, 2008). She recommends taking 500 mg twice daily.
3. Replenish your minerals
Similar to vitamin C, zinc helps cells produce collagen and is crucial to skin regeneration. But it also helps balance blood sugar levels, so cramming your body with refined carbohydrates quickly depletes zinc stores. What's more, many Americans don't meet the upper intake for zinc (40 mg per day) from their diets alone. To combat a deficiency, which can lead to hormonal imbalances and acne, take 50 mg of zinc per day for three to four months, then 25 mg per day for maintenance, says Blum. And be sure to fill up on other good zinc sources, including cheese, whole grains, and beans.
Even if you're not clinically anemic, skimping on iron can cause symptoms such as dry hair, says Drayer. Why? Iron helps red blood cells carry oxygen to hair follicles. Too little may stunt hair growth and make strands brittle. In severe cases, iron deficiency can even result in hair loss. Head to your doctor's office to rule out anemia. This is especially important for menstruating women, who require as much as 18 mg per day (compared with 8 mg for men) to maintain proper iron levels. Taking vitamin C — or drinking a glass of orange juice — with iron supplements will aid absorption, while calcium may decrease it, so don't take calcium and iron together. Another boon: “Iron helps you produce energy,” says Blum, “and if you have plenty of energy, there are no excuses for avoiding the gym.” If you are anemic, make sure to eat meat two to three times per week and supplement with 18 mg of iron for three months or until levels return to normal. Note that healthy, nonanemic men shouldn't take iron supplements because the mineral can accumulate in various organs and increase free radical toxicity.
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This vital trace mineral is an essential cofactor for antioxidant enzymes. The result is a powerful ability to guard skin's elasticity by fighting free radical-spurred cellular damage. Also essential to the body's natural detoxification system, selenium facilitates the release of toxins through the liver, reducing the risk that they will seep out through the skin. Nuts, seeds, and fish contain high levels of the mineral, but Fuchs points out that many people still tend to be deficient in selenium. Try supplementing with 80-200 mcg per day.
4. Bring on probiotics
Beyond improving digestion, restoring an optimum balance of good bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract is likely to carry long-term payoffs for your appearance. When the digestive system is off-kilter, says Fuchs, it's unable to absorb ingested nutrients, depriving nutrition to the rest of the body. For example, improper nutrient digestion could lead to graying hair or, worse, hair loss. To keep gut flora in check, take 8 to 16 billion organisms of acidophilus or bifidobacteria every day, and eat low-sugar plain yogurt with live active cultures. In addition to keeping hair silky, this regimen may also promote clearer skin and bolster your immune system, says Blum.
Denver-based writer Hilary Oliver loves zinc for its complexion-smoothing effects. She is the health and beauty editor of Natural Foods Merchandiser.