As a person ages, skin cells divide more slowly, and the inner skin, or dermis, starts to thin. Fat cells beneath the dermis begin to atrophy, and the underlying network of elastin and collagen fibers, which provides the foundation for the surface layers, loosens and unravels. Skin loses its elasticity; when pressed, it no longer springs back to its initial position but instead sags and forms furrows. The skin’s ability to retain moisture diminishes; the sweat- and oil-secreting glands atrophy, depriving the skin of their protective water-lipid emulsions.
As a consequence, the skin becomes dry and scaly. In addition, the ability of the skin to repair itself diminishes with age, so wounds are slower to heal. Frown lines (those between the eyebrows) and crow’s feet (lines that radiate from the corners of the eyes) develop because of permanent small muscle contractions. Habitual facial expressions also form characteristic lines, and gravity accelerates the situation, contributing to the formation of jowls and drooping eyelids.
The skin can also age prematurely as a result of prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiations from the sun. Other environmental factors, including cigarette smoke and pollution, particularly ozone, may hasten aging by producing oxygen-free radicals. These are particles produced by many of the body’s normal chemical processes. In excessive amounts they can damage cell membranes, possibly contributing to the development of a number of skin disorders, including wrinkles and even skin cancer. Rapid weight loss can also cause wrinkles by reducing the volume of fat cells that cushion the face.
The effects of aging start sooner than what we might think. We age along a continuum, rather than all of a sudden. The age-related nutrition issues, from osteoporosis to heart disease, begin in the early adult years.
Aging and skin cancer
Much of the so-called aging of the skin is really a result of long-term exposure to sun, pollution and ozone. Environmental pollutants generate highly damaging oxygen fragments, the free radicals that erode skin, much like water rusts metal. Free radicals also damage collagen, the protein latticework that maintains the skin’s firmness and suppleness. The result is dryness of the skin, loss of elasticity, and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Free radicals, generated by sun exposure, also damage the genetic structure of skin cells, which contributes to the development of cancer. Antioxidant nutrients, including vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, slow down the rate of free-radical damage to the skin. People who consume five or more antioxidant-rich foods daily — spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, grapefruit, and carrots — stock these health-enhancing nutrients in their tissues and are protected from skin cancer.
We are what we eat
The foods that we may or may not be eating could be laying the foundation for our health, or lack of it, during our senior years. Of course, eating well is a difficult choice with the ever-present temptations of fast food and junk food. But take a look at what these foods are doing to you. Mayonnaise filled burgers and grease-soaked fries lead to artery-clogging plaques. And forgoing milk for sugary sodas only encourages the onset of osteoporosis and tooth decay. Add decades of smoking, an inactive lifestyle, stress and other environmental factors and one will age — early and quickly.
The alternate scenario is much more attractive. Minerals from calcium-rich dairy foods and greens can strengthen the bones. Fiber from whole grains helps to keep bowel movements regular. And the antioxidants from fruits and vegetables help to prevent cancer from developing by fighting off the free radicals.
A simple approach
How do we incorporate more healthy foods into the meals? The easiest way is to add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to the daily menu. Most have no fat, cholesterol, or sodium; and they’re low in calories. What one gets is a lot of fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamins, which play a part in keeping our body functioning at its best.
Researchers are proving it, too. It is reported that people who ate diets high in fruits, vegetables, grains and white meats were 30% less likely to die of any cause than those who ate red meats, refined cereals and less salads. What was concluded was that heart attacks, osteoporosis, and other signs of aging take years to develop; and eating healthy foods slows that development.
The skin is the outer reflection of our inner health. Moist, clear, glowing skin is a sign of a good diet, while dry, pale, scaly or oily skin results when the diet is not up to par. Fortunately, the eating habits that work best for staying healthy are also the best elixir for our skin.
Just about every nutrient has a role in maintaining healthy skin. Vitamin C helps build collagen, the ‘glue’ that holds the body’s cells together. Poor intake of this vitamin can cause bruising, loss of skin elasticity, poor healing of cuts and scrapes and dry skin. Just one glass of orange juice or lime juice daily supplies all the vitamin C required. Healthy skin also needs the B vitamins found in whole grains and milk to help speed wound healing and prevent dry, flaky or oily skin. Vitamin A in red, orange or dark green vegetables and fruits helps to prevent premature wrinkling. Zinc in peas, beans and pulses aids in the healing of cuts and scrapes. Water keeps the skin moist and regulates normal function of the oil glands.
Our skin needs a constant supply of water and oxygen. Supplying these and other nutrients to the skin and removing waste products requires a healthy blood supply. Nutrients required for building and maintaining healthy red blood cells and other blood factors include protein, iron and copper, plus folic acid, other B vitamins and vitamins C and E. A deficiency in any of these, especially iron, reduces the oxygencarrying capacity of the blood, suffocating the skin and leaving it pale and drawn.
Some nutrients directly affect the health of our skin. Repairing damaged skin requires protein, zinc and vitamins A, C and K. Linoleic acid is a fat in vegetable oil that helps restore damaged skin and maintain smooth, moist skin.
The dietary guidelines for staying youthful are simple:
Consume at least 1200 calories of minimally processed foods daily, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain cereals and pulses, with two to three servings of skimmed milk.
Include several servings daily of antioxidant-rich foods, such as citrus fruits for vitamin C, dark green leafy vegetables for beta-carotene, and wheat germ or yeast for vitamin.
Include one linoleic acid-rich food in your daily diet, such as safflower oil.
Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water daily.
Avoid repeated bouts of weight loss and regain, since weight cycling can result in premature sagging, stretch marks and wrinkling.
Being careful about our eating habits certainly goes a long way, and should begin sooner than later – as goes a popular saying that “the ruins of a building indicate the strength of its foundation”!
Sunita Pant Bansal hails from the Kumaon hills of the Himalayas, a region well-known for its crop of litterateurs. Her forte is decoding Hindu scriptures to show their relevance and application in today’s times. In her four decades of writing career, Sunita has authored hundreds of books for children and young adults on folk literature and mythology. For adults, her genres cover body, mind and soul.