Free radicals generated from UV light exposure contribute to cell damage, aging, and increase the risk of skin cancer. Antioxidants work to quelch free radicals and stop their harmful effects. Some antioxidants you may recognize include vitamins A, C, and E, selenium, beta carotene, and lycopene. There are literally thousands of compounds in plant-based foods that act as antioxidants, many of which we have yet to discover. These compounds provide the plant protection from excess UV light and when consumed by us as food, end up in our tissues providing a similar benefit.
A study published in the Sept 2007 issue of Molecular Biotechnology found that after about 3 months on a flavonoid and carotenoid-rich diet, volunteers showed a decrease in sun sensitivity. (Mol Biotechnol. 2007 Sep;37(1):26-30.) And in a 2003 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that taking a dietary supplement of mixed carotenoids including beta carotene, lutein, and lycopene, can help protect the skin from damage caused by UV radiation. The study used 8 mg/day of each. Other research found a similar effect when combining vitamin C and vitamin E supplements.
A predominantly plant based diet with occasional fatty cold water fish intake is a great foundation to build your diet around. Cold water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, anchovies, and sardines are rich in the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats EPA and DHA. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans are naturally rich in antioxidant compounds. A few foods especially high in antioxidants include pomegranates, various berries such as blueberries and raspberries, green leafy vegetables, cherries, plums, even dark chocolate and tea. Generally the deeper the color of the produce, the greater the concentration will be of protective plant compounds.
Green and white teas are a rich source of the antioxidant EGCG. White tea contains the most as it is the least processed, followed by green, then black tea. Emerging research suggests that consumption and topical application of EGCG can help protect the skin from UV damage and skin cancer. One may need to drink 4-5 cups a day to reap the benefits from oral intake. You can also find it in topical beauty products that contain EGCG or ‘green tea extract’.
Although cocoa is not a popular summer beverage, this study shows how consuming more antioxidants can really protect skin. A study published in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Nutrition found that women who consumed a concentrated cocoa beverage-rich in antioxidant flavanols, had a reduced amount of skin roughness and scaling after exposure to UV light compared to women who consumed a cocoa beverage with a minimal amount of flavanols. The higher amount of antioxidant flavanols in the concentrated beverage provided more UV protection. Now, instead of loading up on rich, sugary chocolates you could add natural unsweetened cocoa powder to your protein shakes or sprinkle it into your oatmeal for an antioxidant boost. Unsweetened cocoa powder is just that, nothing else.
Pro-Inflammatory Foods to Avoid Limit alcohol and excessive caffeine consumption as they can be dehydrating, especially if you are going to be out for long periods in extreme heat or humidity. Alcohol dehydrates the body and the skin and can deplete nutrients important to skin health.
Sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats are all pro-inflammatory and increase the rate of aging. Avoiding foods containing these age-accelerating ingredients is always a good idea. Also, avoid foods that you are sensitive or allergic to as they can contribute to increased inflammation in the body as well.
Certain medications can increase sun-sensitivity so talk with a pharmacist to see if you need to take extra precautions when in the sun.
Increasing the amount of certain fats in the diet can help reduce the amount of damage caused by UV sun exposure. EPA and DHA are omega 3 fats found in cold water fish. They are important to skin health in general and are a component of skin cell membranes. While they don’t block UV rays, their potent anti-inflammatory properties do help protect the skin. Most research has examined the EPA omega 3 fat and has found that this fat increases the amount of time it takes to get a burn and may even help reduce the risk of skin cancer. Tests done by ConsumerLab.com on omega-3 fatty acid supplements showed that all but two were fresh and all contained their claimed amounts of EPA and DHA. None of the products were found to contain detectable levels of mercury. By comparison, mercury levels in fish generally range from 10 ppb to 1,000 ppb, depending on the fish. In addition, none of the products contained unsafe levels of PCBs. PCBs have been found in several fish including farm-raised salmon.
The American Heart Association recommends 1000 mg/day for those with existing heart disease, but other conditions may require more. Many safely take up to 3000 mg/day, but talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are already on medication that thins the blood before taking fish oil supplements
Do Get Some “D”
For most of the US, they have experienced a long, cold winter with little sun exposure. A little sunscreen-free sun exposure will help boost vitamin D levels. People with lighter skin tones need only spend about 10-15 minutes in the sun 2-3 times a week. Those with darker skin tones will require a little more time in the sun. Remember to still use sunscreen and take the proper precautions when in the sun for extended periods of time! Overexposure to the sun can lead to premature aging and skin cancer, but under-exposure and low vitamin D levels can lead to health problems too.
Megan Witt, RD, LD