A saying you’ve no doubt heard over and over again, and there is so much truth to it. Whilst this saying was referring to one’s personality and other internal attributes, it holds true of what we put into our body and not just onto it.
There are many nutrients required to build, enhance and maintain the health and appearance of our skin, hair and nails.
- Hydration: Perhaps the easiest macronutrient to optimize for your appearance is hydration. Being dehydrated leads to less plumpness of the skin and can eventually lead to hampered digestion and subsequent nutrient deficiencies.
- Protein: Beyond water, protein is another crucial macronutrient involved in beauty. Protein goes beyond just building and maintaining muscle mass within the body. Amino acids, the breakdown product of proteins, are needed to produce structures within the body.
- Collagen is a fibrous, structural protein that holds our tissues together. It comprises approximately 30% of the body’s proteins and up to 80% of the skin. Alongside elastin, collagen supports the structure and strength of the skin, improving the plumpness and reducing the appearance of wrinkles. These compounds are produced by fibroblast cells within the body which combine the required amino acids into collagen or elastin. Collagen is composed of the amino acids, glycine, proline, hydroxyproline and arginine while elastin is made of lysine, valine, proline and glycine (1).
Nails and hair are made of another protein, keratin, giving them their hard structure. As one would expect, producing keratin requires adequate dietary amounts of protein.
- Fats: specifically omega-3 fats have proven effective in improving the health of the skin. They have a lubricating effect, reducing dryness, as well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects within the body. From this, they have been shown to improve hair thickness and reduce hair loss (2).
- Vitamins: Beyond omega-3s, adequate dietary fat is needed to properly absorb fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin A, D and E, which all play a part in skin, hair and nail health.
Water-soluble vitamins, such as Biotin, B7, and Vitamin C have also shown promise at improving hair, skin and nails. Vitamin C is needed to synthesize collagen within the body, reducing wrinkles and smoothing skin (3).
- Minerals: There are a few minerals that are crucial as well. Namely iron, zinc, silica and selenium. While zinc and silica are often present in beauty supplements due to improving the formation and structure of hair and nails, iron is also needed in adequate amounts to produce red blood cells (4, 5). A deficiency of iron can lead to poor oxygenation and nutrient delivery to areas such as the hair and nails, causing them to be brittle, weak and dull.
Selenium can have a two-fold effect, assisting in the production of antioxidant compounds known as selenoproteins and also being necessary for T4 from the thyroid gland to be converted to the more metabolically active T3. Low levels of thyroid hormones, including T3, have been associated with dry skin, thinning or loss of hair and brittle nails.
You aren’t just what you eat
It’s clear that there is a plethora of nutrients required to improve the health and appearance of your hair, skin and nails. Whilst it is important to consume these nutrients daily, it is just as important to ensure you are adequately digesting these nutrients.
Ensuring adequate levels of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes is a crucial beginning step to improving digestion. Eating in a calm environment is one such way to stimulate production of these digestive juices.
The role of oxidation and inflammation
Free radicals, or reactive oxygen species (ROS), are substances that cause damage to the cells and tissues of the body. On a day-to-day basis, humans are exposed to both endogenous and exogenous ROS, though we are also equipped with systems to deal with this.
Some sources of oxidation include;
- Emotional and mental stress
- Environmental toxic exposures
- Metabolic processes to breakdown food
- Blood sugar dysregulation and excessive sugar intake
- Being overweight or obese
When oxidation becomes greater than the amount your body can handle via its antioxidant capacity, there is increased damage to the cells and subsequently increases in signs of aging internally and externally.
Excessive sugar consumption is particularly problematic for the collagen structures within the body. Sugar binds to collagen in the body, a process known as glycation, leading to the production of advanced glycation end-products. This leads to stiffening and weakening of the body structures while also increasing the noticeable signs of skin aging, such as less plumpness, more wrinkles and sagging.
Due to all of this, it would come as no surprise that antioxidant foods which increase the body’s ability to handle oxidation would benefit the health of the skin. For instance, antioxidant rich foods such as green tea and turmeric have shown promise in improving the health and appearance of the skin (6, 7). Vitamins A, C, E, selenium are some key nutrients that have antioxidant effects within the body.
Liver detoxification and skin health
The liver is involved in detoxifying the body through phase I and II detoxification processes. Toxins, both endogenous and exogenous, are transformed and then bound to a substance to be excreted from the body.
How does this relate to skin health? In two main ways.
Firstly, if our liver is unable to adequately detoxify these substances from the body, then they can act as ROS, producing more cellular and tissue damage, leading to deterioration of skin, hair and nail health.
Secondly, the liver is the body’s major detoxification organ, but it is not alone in that role. The body also detoxifies and eliminates via the bowels, kidneys, lungs, skin and the microbiome, discovered recently (8). If the liver is not adequately detoxifying, then it falls onto the aforementioned organs to increase their load. This is one such reason why liver health is so important to skin health.
The benefits of glutathione
Beyond just the dietary sources of antioxidants listed above, the body produces its own antioxidants, the most potent being glutathione. Unlike the antioxidants from foods which work extracellularly, glutathione is produced and works within the cell, having the ability to directly protect the energy producing organelles, the mitochondria.
Beyond this, glutathione is necessary for phase I and II liver detoxification. By improving liver detoxification, glutathione production should ease the burden on the other elimination organs, including the skin.
How to improve skin health with supplementation?
One such solution that comes to mind is to simply supplement with collagen directly. If low levels of collagen cause skin issues then it makes sense that consuming more of it would improve our appearance. This is partially true. After being ingested, proteins, such as collagen, are broken down into their constituent amino acids during digestion and the body uses these amino acids to produce what it needs, which may be collagen or other proteins.
So, collagen by itself may help improve the health of the skin and nails, as shown in studies, but so may other sources of amino acids (9, 10). It is unclear if the skin effects are due to correcting a diet deficient in some amino acids or the collagen itself.
A new supplement, collagen hydrolysate has been theorised to make its way into the bloodstream intact, to directly support collagen levels (11, 12).
When comparing collagen to whey protein, collagen is not a ‘complete’ protein, in the sense that it does not contain all of the essential amino acids, while whey protein does. Whey is also substantially cheaper than collagen protein products on a per weight basis and contains higher levels of many amino acids.
Beyond that, undenatured native whey protein also contains ample amounts of the aforementioned glutathione precursors and have been shown to positively affect glutathione levels within the body (13).
There are many factors, nutritional and environmental, that can impact on your appearance, from the plumpness and wrinkle-free appearance of your skin to the strength and shine of your hair and nails. Beyond consuming a nutrient rich diet full of minerals, vitamins, omega-3s and amino acids, it is important to ensure those nutrients are being digested. Furthermore, the function of the liver and detoxification processes must be prioritised, with one such solution being to improving glutathione status within the body.
- Ruvolo Jr, E.C., Stamatas, G.N. and Kollias, N., 2007. Skin viscoelasticity displays site-and age-dependent angular anisotropy. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 20(6), pp.313-321.
- Le Floc'h, C., Cheniti, A., Connétable, S., Piccardi, N., Vincenzi, C. and Tosti, A., 2015. Effect of a nutritional supplement on hair loss in women. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 14(1), pp.76-82.
- Pullar, J., Carr, A. and Vissers, M., 2017. The roles of vitamin C in skin health. Nutrients, 9(8), p.866.
- Araújo, L.A.D., Addor, F. and Campos, P.M.B.G.M., 2016. Use of silicon for skin and hair care: an approach of chemical forms available and efficacy. Anais brasileiros de dermatologia, 91(3), pp.331-335.
- Betsy, A., Binitha, M.P. and Sarita, S., 2013. Zinc deficiency associated with hypothyroidism: an overlooked cause of severe alopecia. International journal of trichology, 5(1), p.40.
- Van de Wiele, T., Gallawa, C.M., Kubachk, K.M., Creed, J.T., Basta, N., Dayton, E.A., Whitacre, S., Laing, G.D. and Bradham, K., 2010. Arsenic metabolism by human gut microbiota upon in vitro digestion of contaminated soils. Environmental health perspectives, 118(7), pp.1004-1009.
- Katiyar, S.K. and Elmets, C.A., 2001. Green tea polyphenolic antioxidants and skin photoprotection. International journal of oncology, 18(6), pp.1307-1313.
- Vaughn, A.R., Branum, A. and Sivamani, R.K., 2016. Effects of turmeric (Curcuma longa) on skin health: A systematic review of the clinical evidence. Phytotherapy Research, 30(8), pp.1243-1264.
- Proksch, E., Segger, D., Degwert, J., Schunck, M., Zague, V. and Oesser, S., 2014. Oral supplementation of specific collagen peptides has beneficial effects on human skin physiology: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Skin pharmacology and physiology, 27(1), pp.47-55.
- Hexsel, D., Zague, V., Schunck, M., Siega, C., Camozzato, F.O. and Oesser, S., 2017. Oral supplementation with specific bioactive collagen peptides improves nail growth and reduces symptoms of brittle nails. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 16(4), pp.520-526.
- Song, H. and Li, B., 2017. Beneficial effects of collagen hydrolysate: a review on recent developments. Biomed J Sci Technol Res, pp.1-4.
- Yazaki, M., Ito, Y., Yamada, M., Goulas, S., Teramoto, S., Nakaya, M.A., Ohno, S. and Yamaguchi, K., 2017. Oral ingestion of collagen hydrolysate leads to the transportation of highly concentrated Gly-Pro-Hyp and its hydrolyzed form of Pro-Hyp into the bloodstream and skin. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 65(11), pp.2315-2322.
- Bounous, G. and Gold, P., 1991. The biological activity of undenatured dietary whey proteins: role of glutathione. Clin Invest Med, 14(4), pp.296-309.