We all know by now the importance of sun protection. Dermatologists, sunscreen companies and public policy makers have done a decent job educating us about the rise in skin cancer. While some regard the advice as too cautious and downright paranoid, I am obsessive about my skin care routine and super careful about sun exposure. While I do understand that most people are Vitamin D deficient, in addition to obvious concerns about wrinkles and skin cancer, I also battle a skin condition (melasma) that gets worse with even the slightest sun exposure. For me, supplementation with Vitamin D3 is necessary. But slathering sunscreen is never fun so did you know that certain foods can help protect your skin? There are a number of superfoods, most of them in your produce aisle, that increase your skin’s ability to fight UV damage. Eating these superfoods won’t make you superhuman, but you’ll come close.
The hype around green tea suggests that it has the power to help you lose weight, get smarter, and live longer. What you may not know is that green tea may also help protect you from UV radiation. In the March 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, scientists conducted tests and found that extracts from green tea were very effective at reducing the adverse effects of overexposure to UV radiation. This is because green tea contains antioxidants that can help protect cells from radiation. The green tea extracts reduced the damage to DNA that UV radiation causes, and skin treated with green tea extracts had fewer sunburn cells and more protected health cells. Make sure to start your meal with green tea, and drink up!
The Anti-inflammatory Diet
Inflammation—like a sunburn—is not only the body’s mechanism to repair itself, but also a source of cell damage. Free radicals damage cells, and radiation essentially splits your cells’ genetic material and releases free radicals in the body. This has visible effects in terms of inflammation and redness and, eventually, signs of aging like wrinkles and sun spots. Eating an unprocessed diet high in protein, fresh vegetables and healthy fats with plenty of water to fight inflammation and slow aging will not only result in better health and optimal weight but will also help protect your skin from the damaging effects of radiation.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In the March 2003 issue of Carcinogenesis, scientists reported that omega-3 fatty acids protect against photocarcinogens—a fancy way of saying the radiation from light sources like the sun that cause cancer (in animals). While they call for more research on human subjects, their findings certainly mean it is a good idea to eat fish and supplements high in omega-3 fatty acids. Wild Alaskan salmon and sardines are all high in omega-3 fatty acids (and low in mercury). Shellfish and skinned poultry also contain this sun-fighting nutrient as well. Legumes like lentils and also tofu are also options for a protein course.
Another 2001 study found that individuals consuming tomato paste and olive oil had 40% less sun burn effects than individuals not consuming these foods. The effects wear off, though, so make sure to keep that Mediterranean diet coming! Research also finds that tomatoes should be pureed or made into a paste, as in the study, to be most effective. Cooked tomatoes or vegetable juice provide the most protection. Tomatoes and other red and pink fruits and vegetables are high in lycopene and carotenoids, which are the components scientists think help protect you from the sun. Butternuts, carrots, cantaloupes, and sweet potatoes are other healthy options. They absorb and diffuse the sun’s energy to lessen skin damage.
Another study done by Dr. Paul Talaly and his team at Johns Hopkins found that applying an extract made from broccoli to the skin protected as well or better than sunscreen. After the topical application, study participants had on average 38% less erythema—the redness on your skin that marks the cell damage of a sunburn—than individuals who were not given topical treatment with broccoli extract. This protection also continued for several days after the study. While you might not want to smear broccoli paste all over before heading to the beach, adding broccoli to your diet can provide similar protection for your cells because it is one of the foods high in lutein. Recent studies have indicated that 10 mg of lutein daily can increase skin hydration, elasticity, and lipid content. Kale, spinach, other leafy green vegetables, asparagus, and zucchini are also excellent options. Besides just being good for you and having lots of other vitamins and minerals like iron, vegetables like kale, broccoli, and sprouts can provide your skin with invisible armor.
Vitamins C and E
A study at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in 1996 found that vitamins C and E both decrease photodamage to the skin from sun exposure. They found that particularly in combination, these two vitamins can reduce the inflammation and redness associated with sun exposure. Besides daily vitamins, citrus fruits and vegetables will provide you vitamin C. Nuts, seeds, many fruits and vegetables, and some kinds of fish are also high in vitamin E. Raw sunflower seeds, peanuts, hazelnuts, and almonds are all high in vitamin E, but they lose much of this vitamin when processed. Peppers, cauliflower, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, and citrus fruits are high in vitamin C.
Dark chocolate has powerful antioxidants—the same things that are in beneficial green tea—and consuming two ounces of dark chocolate a day is not only a pleasure, but it is also something that your doctor might order! The antioxidants in dark chocolate help protect your skin from radiation and cancer. Make sure not to be fooled by the look-alike milk chocolate, however. Milk chocolate does not have the same health benefits as dark chocolate. Another study found that an additional component of dark chocolate called flavonols also helps protect skin from sun damage. After participants ate flavonol-rich chocolate for three months, it took them twice as long to develop the redness that indicates cellular damage.
This is one of those times when that saying “you are what you eat” is a good thing.