Sarah Powell, an herbalist, medical anthropologist and proprietor of the natural bath & body business, Lilith’s Apothecary. Find her shop at www.lilithsapothecary.etsy.com and her blog at www.lilithsapothecary.wordpress.com for more natural body care tips and recipes.
If it is one thing we can all agree on, it is that having clear, glowing skin is the most important factor to your appearance. Clear skin boosts one’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and certainly makes us all feel good! Our skin is also a great reflection of what is going on internally, especially if we are experiencing an imbalance of some kind. A healthful life usually results in healthy skin. However, normal hormonal changes, dietary problems, and toxic drugs or chemicals can certainly take their toll.
This is the first in a series of posts devoted to caring for one’s skin naturally, and here we start with caring for the skin from the inside out. Skin estheticians will acknowledge that healthy skin is directly related to proper skin care, which includes good nutrition. Skin is nourished by the bloodstream, which gains nutrients from the gastro-intestinal tract. In conversation, Mary Friehofner, a Philadelphia esthetician and acne specialist, told me about a persistent denial in the medical community of any special correlation between sugar and acne. As someone who has suffered with acne herself, Mary said, “I know that I could almost feel and fuzzy or prickly feeling in my chin and jaw area (where I used to break out with acne) almost immediately after eating very sugary foods. Now western medicine has documented a release of hormones by the liver associated with intake of sugar and these hormones in some people initiate acne.”
So yes, yet again, the message is that “you are what you eat," or at least you are certainly affected by it! Herbalists have for centuries treated skin conditions with liver supportive and detoxifying herbs, as the liver is the responsible organ for processing fats, sugars, hormones, and chemicals we ingest, even if herbalists didn’t traditionally have the ‘science’ to back it up. There was plenty empirical evidence to suggest that supporting the liver can help correct many conditions, including eczema, psoriasis and acne. Skin conditions that result from hormonal imbalances, a common cause of acne, may require further hormone regulators in an herbal compound, but thankfully, we have many such allies to help with problem skin. We will delve further into the treatment of skin imbalances with herbs in later posts in this series.
Nourishment on the inside should be the first step in treating the outside appearance. We often see topical products on the market promising clear, even skin tone, regenerative powers, or other chemicals and even toxic ingredients to cause skin ‘plumping’ to make the skin appear healthier and younger. It’s true that there are ingredients added to skin care products that can help prevent the development of fine lines and wrinkles and certainly there are others that may cause some regenerative ability, but flawless skin starts with what you put into your body.
The skin is an incredibly complex organ –your body’s largest—and contains several layers: the epidermal, dermal, and subcutaneous, all of which have functions that keep our skin fed by the bloodstream and enervated by our nervous system, protected from the outside, acting as a barrier to protect our vital internal organs from the outside. It is a somewhat permeable barrier, however, and what we put on the skin’s surface may or may not penetrate to our bloodstream below. This is why some chemicals, such as propylene glycol, that facilitate absorption of harmful compounds are so problematic and should be avoided. Our skin performs vital functions that include maintaining the body’s temperature, protecting us from biological invaders and physical, chemical, thermal, and electrical damage. It regulates moisture, excretes toxins via sweat, secretes sebum—our natural ‘moisturizer’ –which lubricates skin and keeps it from drying out. It metabolizes and stores fat and also converts ultraviolet rays into vitamin D, which enhances calcium absorption (Tourles, 1999).
One of the first steps we can take towards achieving beautiful skin includes making sure we ingest the most vital vitamins and minerals for healthy skin. Vitamin A (beta-carotene) is a fat-soluble antioxidant that is essential for growth and maintenance of skin tissue and proper functioning of mucous membranes. Vitamin A also speeds healing of acne and boosts the body’s immunity. B-complex vitamins are water-soluble and should be taken as a ‘complex’ rather than in isolated parts. This is what some call the ‘anti-stress’ vitamin that helps prevent acne and premature aging. It promotes healthy circulation and metabolism, and is also essential for wound-healing. Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant that helps produce collagen in connective tissue, strengthens capillary walls, speeds healing, and helps protect against environmental stress. Vitamin D is a fat soluble nutrient that when combined with vitamin A, helps treat acne. It is gaining much recognition as a more important vitamin than we have realized in recent years, and recommended doses are currently being evaluated by regulatory bodies. Vitamin D, not even really a vitamin, may be more beneficial in much larger doses than we are accustomed to. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that oxygenates tissues, protects tissues, speeds healing of chronic skin conditions, and may decrease scarring. Mineral iodine aids in healing skin infections, increases oxygen consumption and metabolic rate in the skin; silicon aids in collagen formation, keeps skin taut, and strengthens skin tissues. Sulfur helps keep skin clear and smooth, while zinc promotes cell growth, boosts immunity, and helps treat acne along with vitamins A & B (Tourles, 1999).
Fat is an essential component to your skin’s health and beauty. Without at least a thin layer of fat providing padding to support your skin’s structure, it can’t be beautiful! For years, we have been told by mainstream dieticians and advisors that fat is “bad” and should be avoided, and now it appears the health gurus are changing their minds! Mother Earth News published a great article outlining this debate, one subscribed to by the Weston Price Foundation for nearly a century. Soy-based beverages are made with unfermented soy milk, which has its own controversy surrounding it, as indeed its high content of phytic acids may block the uptake of vital minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc. In line with more whole foods, local movements, I prefer sourcing locally produced raw or minimally processed milk and certainly drink whole milk and full fat cream as much as I desire.
Whether we are talking about the fat on our bodies, or the fat we ingest, we’ve been ‘trained’ to think of all of it as bad, but without fats, we can’t have well-lubricated, glowing skin with the roundness and shape we associate with beauty. Saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature and include animal fats, coconut oil, shea butter, and cocoa butter. Monounsaturated fatty acids are liquid at room temperature, including oils of olive, avocado, cashew, salmon, and halibut. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also liquid at room temperature but have a different molecular structure; they include oils of walnut, flax, safflower, sunflower, and corn. Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are vitamin-like substances that have a protective effect on the body. Your body cannot manufacture them, but you must obtain them from the food you eat. As little as 2 to 3 teaspoons per day will provide you with the EFAs you need. Omega-3 fatty acids are the super stars we hear so much about, and truly, with their potent anti-inflammatory abilities and superior healing qualities, these are an essential addition to our diets. Cold-water fish such as bluefish, salmon, mackerel, and tuna, as well as freshly ground flax, walnuts, and brazil nuts are all good sources. Omega 3’s provide wound-healing, arthritis relief and relief of other inflammatory conditions, healing for eczema and psoriasis, and assistance in balancing sebum production. We need them! Of course some fats are bad, but the only fats that I consider bad are the hydrogenated oils that dominate our processed food supply. Avoid those processed and ‘fast’ foods as much as possible, and you’ll be avoiding so-called ‘bad fats’ too.
Now that you have this information, what can you do with it? While a multi-vitamin is often touted as a good idea in theory, it is much better to get your nutrients from natural sources, preferably whole foods, herbal infusions, and if necessary, bio-available liquid extracts. Most pill-shaped supplements are hardly bio-available at all, and most people don’t take the multi- vitamin with the necessary fat that would provide absorption of many fat-soluble vitamins in the first place. Do your best to consume whole, unprocessed sources, of which there are myriad; many on-line sources identify superior sources of all the nutrients outlined above. Super-food supplements like spirulina, blue-green algae, dulse flakes, and bee pollen are a great addition to juices and smoothies. Nutrient rich herbal tonics—intended for regular, long-term use—are an even more wonderful choice for bio-available nourishment.
Remember that your skin basically shows what it takes in. The more refined sugars, ‘bad’ hydrogenated fats, caffeine, alcohol, pharmaceutical or narcotic drugs you ingest, the worse your skin will look. It goes the same for lack of sleep! When you don’t get your ‘beauty rest’, your skin will show it first with break-outs, bags under the eyes, or tired, dull skin tone. Check out the recipes below for boosting your body’s nutrition and contributing to healthy, vitalized skin. A regular smoothie, a multi-grain omega-rich muffin, fresh local plain yoghurt sprinkled with ground golden flax, or a bowl of pre-soaked, cooked oatmeal sprinkled with fresh, raw almonds or walnuts and plump goji or blueberries are all ways to boost your nutritional intake alongside your daily herbal infusion. Try the recipes below to begin to move towards creating healthy skin from the inside out:
Skin Food Smoothie
• 1 banana
• 1 cup strawberries or other berries, frozen or fresh
• 2 cups milk
• 2 teaspoons blackstrap molasses, rich in iron
• 2 teaspoons golden flax seeds, freshly ground
• 10 raw almonds, preferably blanched and skin removed
• 10 raw walnuts
• ¼ cup cooked oatmeal, pre-soaked,
• 2 teaspoons honey, preferably raw and locally sourced
• ¼ teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 2 to 3 ice cubes (if not using frozen fruit)
1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth for 30 to 60 seconds.
2. Drink throughout the morning or drink half in the morning and half for a snack later on. Makes approximately two 1½ cup (375 ml) servings.
*Inspired by Stephanie Tourles’ Skin-So-Smoothie (Tourles, 1999)
Fantastic Skin Herbal Tonic
You can try this yummy infusion using tablespoons to measure each herb, but it’s even better to measure in ounces, store in a covered container and use for medicinal infusions consistently, over time. True medicinal-strength infusions use a lot of dried herb combined with a long steeping time to achieve optimum extraction of vitamins and minerals.
• 1 tablespoon nettle leaf
• 1 tablespoon oatstraw
• 1 tablespoon alfalfa
• 1 tablespoon dandelion leaf
• 1 tablespoon red raspberry leaf
• 1 tablespoon rose petals
• ½ tablespoon rosehips
• ¼ tablespoon cinnamon chips, not the powder (or substitute 1 part spearmint)
1. Measure 5 to 6 tablespoons of the mix into a glass, heat-proof mason jar or similar container with a tight-fitting lid.
2. Pour boiling water over the herbs and steep 4 -8 hrs or overnight.
3. Strain herbs and drink infusion either throughout the day or in 1 cup amounts. An infusion will last 3 days when kept refrigerated.
Herbal Sources: Mountain Rose Herbs or Pacific Botanicals. For more on making herbal infusions, pop on by my blog at http://lilithsapothecary.wordpress.com/2008/11/05/herbal-infusions-part-ii.
References: Tourles, Stephanie (1999). Naturally Healthy Skin: Tips and Techniques for a Lifetime of Radiant Skin. MA: Publishing .