Many people ask me how important their diet is in terms of the health and appearance of their skin. I often share the tips you would expect to hear —exercise, eat a balanced diet, make sure you drink lots of water, and limit the intake of and exposure to chemicals and other unnatural substances. A lot of times, people forget to include essential fatty acids in their diets in order to combat many common skin maladies.
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids are responsible for the regulation of the cell membrane. This means that essential fatty acids help to keep important things like water and vital nutrients within your cells, while allowing bad things (such as cell waste and fats) out. Our bodies aren't able to create essential fatty acids, so it's very important to keep a balanced diet in order to consume enough of them. The two main two kinds of EFAs are Linoleic Acid (Also known as Omega 6 fatty acids) and Alphalinoleic Acid (Omega 3 Fatty Acids).
While omegas do work together to keep your body working like a well oiled machine, they also balance each other. It's possible to overload on one and through your body chemistry out of whack (literally, these babies are essential for various types of hormone production). Today's standard American and European diets tend to be high in Omega-6's and lack enough Omega 3's—but supplementation can also tip the scale in the opposite way so this is definitely one of those “talk to a doctor and get the tests done” kind of supplements.
When Taking Internally, What do Essential Fatty Acids Do for the Skin?
Essential fatty acids are vital to help cells retain water, so a diet rich in them can help to minimize the appearance of aging, cellulite and oily skin. As you age, your body's natural ability to retain moisture within cells diminishes, resulting in skin that appears to loose, wrinkled, or “saggy”—all traits which we can help minimize through our diets. Additionally, EFAs can help reduce the occurrence of cellulite, which happens when waste, water, and fat molecules become trapped below the skin's surface. On top of controlling your intake of EFAs, drinking 8-12 glasses of water will help facilitate the breakdown of cellulite.
Perhaps the most surprising fact about essential fatty acids is that they are able to help in the fight against oily skin. While it has long been assumed that oils and fats are the last thing that oily skinned people should include in their diet, EFAs can actually help. Because a diet rich in EFAs helps the cell transference process (which helps to flush the fats and oils that tend to clog pores) as well as provide a healthy balance of moisture, they can help reduce oiliness.
Where Can I Find Essential Fatty Acids?
Since the body doesn't create essential fatty acids naturally, it is important to make sure you eat plenty of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Some great sources include mustard greens, spinach, kale, flaxseed oil, brazil nuts, avocados, pumpkin seeds, uncooked olive oil, walnuts and (if you aren't vegan or vegetarian) seafood such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, and albacore tuna. I find it interesting (and scary) that most Americans typically get their omega 6 fatty acids from less than ideal sources such as corn, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oils—and often from fried foods. Because high heat oxidizes essential fatty acids, it is better to get your portion from sources such as raw nuts and leafy greens than from cooking oils—two easy ways to do this are to replace chips and other salty snacks with nuts and trail mixes and to replace hydrogenated fats and oils with healthier EFA-based oils when at all possible. You'll be able to have a diet that's better for you and your skin, without feeling overly restricted or deprived.