With summertime comes longer days, sunshine and warm weather. It’s a time for spending lazy days at the beach, BBQing with friends and being outdoors as much as possible. Let’s be honest, it really is the best time of the year but all that sun can take a toll on your skin.
By now you probably already know the basics of protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, but did you know that your nutrition can also play a role in defending your skin from the sun?
Let’s first start out by saying that there is no replacement for the tried and true methods of protecting yourself from UV rays. It’s always best to use a skin block, wear protective clothing and stay out of the sun during peak hours as your first line of defense. However, there are studies that show certain elements in our food can protect our skin from UV associated skin damage.
Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) plays an vital role in your skin’s overall health as it is involved with the production of collagen, a structural protein that is part of skin, tendons, bone, and other connective tissues. Damage to this collagen by UV rays leads to premature aging. When the body is vitamin C deficient, wounds heal slowly and skin quality is poor. In its antioxidant role, vitamin C reduces free radical damage caused by UV rays. Laboratory studies show mice fed diets rich in vitamin C had less tumours after exposure to UV radiation. In humans, observational data suggests vitamin C rich diets are associated with lower skin cancer rates. Studies have been unable to show supplementation of vitamin C alone is beneficial in reducing UV damage. However, there are some studies that show vitamin C works in combination with vitamin E to protect the skin against UV damage.
The great thing about dietary vitamin C is that is easy to obtain and can be found in a number of fruits and vegetables. The recommended daily allowance (RDA), or the amount needed each day, for vitamin C is 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men.
Vitamin E, and in particular the alpha-tocopherol form of the vitamin, is the main antioxidant in the membrane of skin cells where it serves to repair free radical damage. Studies show mixed results with vitamin E supplementation and UV protection. One study found that giving healthy adults vitamin E supplements showed no reduction of UV damage to the skin, however, when supplemented in combination with either vitamin C or carotinoids, a reduction in UV damage has been noted.
Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin found in a number of nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and cooking oils. The RDA for vitamin E is 15 mg (22.4 IU) for both adult men and women.
Looking for ways to boost your vitamin E intake?
- Rosemary Roasted Almonds
- Lemon Sunflower Pesto Pasta
- Sardine Avocado Toast
- Kale, Hazelnut, and Basil Pesto
- Smashed Green Pea Guacamole with Cilantro, Ginger and Lime
Carotenoids are thought to provide the skin with some degree of protection against the sun. Like both vitamins C and E, the carotenoids alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin are antioxidants that work to repair cellular damage and prevent UV related inflammation.
Carotenoids can be found within the layers of the skin and data suggests that higher skin concentrations provide a higher level of sun protection. One study found that supplementation with lycopene-rich tomato paste in conjunction with olive oil reduced sunburn by 40%. Another similar study found that supplementing a mixture of carotenoids together with vitamin E produced an even greater reduction in UV related damage than with carotenoid supplements alone.
The carotenoids alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin are converted to vitamin A, while lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin have no vitamin A activity. The RDA for vitamin A is 700 micrograms for women and 900 micrograms for men. There isn’t an actual RDA for carotenoids but the conversion ratio between the carotenoid precursors to active vitamin A is known. The conversion ratio of alpha- and beta-carotene to vitamin A is 12:1 while the ratio from beta-cryptoxanthin to vitamin A is 24:1.
Carotenoids provide the red, yellow, and orange pigments in your fruits and veggies and because of this they are easy to spot in the grocery store. And while you're grabbing for the brightly coloured produce don’t overlook the dark green ones, either. Dark leafy greens are a good source of the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin.
Looking for ways to boost your carotenoids?
- Curried Pumpkin and Coconut Soup
- Roasted Carrots with Thyme
- Grilled Cinnamon Sweet Potatoes
- Berry Cantaloupe Salad
- Summer Tomato Salad
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are well known for their cardiovascular benefits and anti inflammatory properties. Their sun protective role, on the other hand, is not as well publicized. A 2011 literature review found that there is sufficient evidence that omega-3 fats, in particular the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) form, play a protective role against UV related inflammation, as well as may defend against skin cancer formation.
There are two main groups of omega-3 fats. The first group provides EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and is found exclusively in marine life. These omega-3 fats do not need to be converted in the body and, therefore, are able to be used as is. The second group provides alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and is found in nuts, seeds, cooking oils, and in a small number of vegetables. ALA must first be converted to EPA or DHA to be used by the body.
The current recommendation for ALA is 1.1 g for women and 1.6 g for men. At this time there are no official intake guidelines specific to EPA and DHA but the World Health Organization recommends 300-500 mg of EPA and/or DHA per day.
Looking for ways to boost your omega-3 fats?
- Crunchy Walnut Crusted Salmon
- Jerk Mackerel with Papaya Salad
- Herring with Dill Pesto and Lemon Butter
- Chia Pudding
- Quick Roasted Carrots and Cauliflower with Walnuts
Yup, you read it correctly. Chocolate, and more specifically the flavanols found in cocoa beans may have sun protective qualities. It is believed that in addition to their antioxidant traits, flavanols boost blood flow to the skin, thereby improving skin hydration and density.
German researchers found that after consuming a flavanol-rich cocoa drink for 12 weeks, UV-induced sunburn decreased by 25%. The amount of daily flavanols that appeared to be sun protective in this study was equal to the quantity in 100 g (or 500 kcal) of dark chocolate. Another study found sun protective results after providing subjects with only 20 g of specially produced high-flavanol, dark chocolate. Unfortunately, the same study did not find UV protection in commercially processed dark chocolate as it appears that some methods of chocolate processing may decrease flavanol concentration. Don’t fear though, there is at least one company that claims to be using flavanol preserved cocoa beans for their chocolate. Another option is to give the minimally processed cocoa nibs a try as they are probably the closest one can get to an unprocessed cocoa bean, without having access cocoa trees. While admittedly, the evidence is mixed on whether or not the flavanols in cocoa are beneficial, it can’t hurt to enjoy a little dark chocolate or cocoa nibs once and a while.
Looking for ways to boost your cocoa derived flavanols?
Green tea polyphenols, a group of phytochemicals related to the flavanols found in cocoa beans, have also been studied for their photoprotective role. In laboratory studies, UV exposed mice given green tea polyphenols exhibited less skin cancer tumours, and when tumours did occur, tumour size was smaller with less metastasis.
In humans, UV related sunburns decreased by 25% after taking green tea polyphenols for 4 months. In addition to minimized UV damage, these subjects had improved skin elasticity, texture, and hydration due to increased blood flow and oxygenation. In this study, subjects were given 1402 mg of polyphenols which is roughly equivalent to 5-7 cups of green tea each day. Now realistically, that’s a lot of tea for one person to drink. However, just because this study used this amount doesn’t mean that smaller amounts of green tea are not beneficial in some way. Another option for getting a larger dose of green tea polyphenols is by drinking matcha green tea, which has been shown to provide up to 137 times more green tea polyphenols than commercially available green teas.
Looking for ways to boost your green tea polyphenols?
- Matcha Mint Iced Tea
- Matcha Mango and Ginger Smoothie
- Avocado and Green Tea Popsicles
- Lemon Lime Iced Green Tea
- Refreshing Mojito Iced Green Tea
Although relying on nutrition should never be your first line of defense against UV rays, the elements in your diet can give some degree of sun protection. A diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish will help boost your body’s defenses to protect against UV damage and has shown to be related to lower rates of skin cancer.
Now, you may be wondering if you should be taking antioxidant supplements to better protect your skin. The answer to this question is no. Food should be prioritized over supplements as there are a number of studies that show high doses of antioxidants supplements can be harmful to your health. We can learn from these studies using supplements but in real life, it's always best to obtain nutrients from food. After all, it's very hard to overdose on nutrients when they come in food form.
Now, go ahead and enjoy yourself this summer. Play at the beach, swim in the lake and laze around in a park on a sunny day. And don't forget to fill your tummy with some delicious, antioxidant-rich, sun protective foods.