The Largest Organ of Our Body - The SKIN
Our skin is a window to our eating habits, reflecting how well we feed our bodies. In other words, skin condition depends very much on our diet. Often, when we talk about ways to obtain youthful and radiant skin, dietary intake of fats and oils, especially Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), is always missing from the spotlight. In fact, nourishing the skin from within the body is as important as pampering it from the outside!
Skin Problem and Food IntakeSkin problems such as acne, blackheads, whiteheads and greasy skin are related to hard fats, chemically altered fats, and excessive sugar intake. Examples of hard fats are fats found in cheese, pizza, ice-cream and fried foods while chemically altered fats include margarines and shortenings. These fats clog narrow pores and channels in our skin, leading to potential bacterial infection. On the other hand, eczema may result from the lack of EFAs or allergic to food or environmental allergens. Introducing EFA-rich oil into diet may treat symptoms of eczema that is caused by EFAs deficiency.
What is ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS (EFAs)?
Linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are EFAs, which are also the parent fats of Omega 6 and Omega 3 respectively. They cannot be produced by our body, hence the name “essential” and MUST be taken in from diet. LA and ALA are called the parent fats because they give rise to other long-chain fatty acid derivatives. For example, Omega 6 GLA and AA are derived from LA, while Omega 3 EPA and DHA are derived from ALA. These fatty acids are extremely important for structural maintenance and immunological balance of the skin.
EFAs Intake: Insufficient & Imbalanced
Research shows that intake of EFAs among Malaysians is far from desirable as we fail to meet the requirements. Studies also indicate that modern diet nowadays has high Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio (20:1). Insufficient intake of EFAs as well as imbalance of Omega 6:3 ratio not only affect our cardiovascular health, but may also result in skin problems such as dryness, dandruff, eczema, psoriasis-like inflammatory skin conditions, acne, high risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
Roles of EFAs in Skin Function
The major function of the skin is to form a barrier to protect our body from hostile external environment. EFAs are critical structural components to form a strong barrier. Researches demonstrate that EFAs deficiency will upset the permeability barrier function of the skin, which is why EFAs are essential to healthy skin and help in healing diseased skin. In general, Omega 3 and 6 are safe adjunctive treatments for many skin disorders, including atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, acne vulgaris, systemic lupus erythematosus and more.
EFAs are abundant in the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. There is where EFAs help to form protective barrier in the skin which protect us from from ultraviolet light, chemicals, mechanical insults, bacteria, water and electrolytes loss. Within this fatty barrier, Omega 6 LA is especially important to prevent dehydration by locking in the moisture, keeping our skin moisturised from inside out. Now you know, EFAs are perfect moisturizers by nature!
Omega 3 (especially EPA) is a natural sunblock, which functions to protect the skin against UV light damage, increase the sunburn threshold and reduce the signs of photoageing like wrinkles, reduced elasticity and uneven pigmentation. In animal studies, Omega 3 ALA are also found to protect against UV inflammation. Additionally, Omega 3 (EPA and DHA) helps to modulate skin inflammation, hence improves skin disorder such as psoriasis and acne vulgaris.
We can generally summarize how EFAs and their derivatives work for skin health in 3 points: First, they ensure healthy structure of the skin to form strong protective barrier. Second, Omega 6 helps the skin to maintain hydration. Third, Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory and helps to reduce inflammatory skin conditions.
C.L. Ng, Dietitian
PgD in Dietetics
BSc in Human Ecology
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