Here’s a fact that most people are not aware of… the skin is the largest organ of the body. People don’t generally think of their skin as an organ at all. The skin has several functions that are vital to survival as well as physical and emotional health. It works to maintain fluid and mineral balance. It also plays a major role in regulating body temperature, which we all experience as perspiration on hot days. Nerve endings enable us to gather information from our environment through pain and thermal receptors that are located on our skin. It also enables us to enjoy the pleasure of touch experienced in a massage or the hug of a close friend. Without the skin, our bodies would not have a barrier to the outside world… it protects us against toxins in the environment and prevents harmful microorganisms from entering the body. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the skin is an organ of elimination, as are the liver, kidneys and lungs.
The skin is composed of two main layers: the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis, the outer layer, is further divided into 4 or 5 layers, depending on location on the body. Generally speaking, skin cells work their way up from the deeper layers to the surface, as they die, only to be sloughed off and replaced by newer cells from underneath. The rate of new skin cell production is directly related to the rate of dead cell loss from the uppermost layer. This is why facial scrubs seem to be effective at promoting younger appearing skin. The dermis is the deepest layer of skin. It contains the various glands and a micro vascular system to help regulate the skin’s function. The sebaceous glands secrete oil, sebum, that keeps the hair supple and skin soft. Sebum protects the skin from heat and water loss. The sweat glands help to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance and also regulate heat loss. The dermis also contains hair follicles, sensory nerve endings and a capillary system for bringing nutrients and oxygen to the tissues.
The condition of the skin can be affected by external and internal factors, and this understanding is key to finding the best way to treat various skin disorders. Allopathic medicine views such skin disorders as psoriasis or eczema as isolated conditions of the skin. To the typical “Western” practitioner, these problems are easily treated with topical steroid creams. Often, this approach will help in the short term, but when treatment stops, and even as treatment continues over longer periods of time, the condition comes back, and usually worsens. A holistic approach is to see these skin disorders as “symptoms” of a deeper problem originating in the internal tissues of the body. For instance, one of the functions of the liver is to clear the body of toxins. If the liver is not functioning properly, or becomes stagnant, then toxins build up in the body. The body then attempts to shed the toxins through an alternate root, and the skin is used for that purpose. The outward symptom of this inward problem can manifest as acne, boils, psoriasis, eczema or a variety of other skin “diseases.” Alternately, eczema and psoriasis may be a symptom of a lack of essential fatty acids in the diet, which will be discussed later. Lastly, all of the above mentioned skin maladies may actually be symptoms of emotional stress.
A healthy lifestyle is one important factor for maintaining healthy skin. Stress management is key to many aspects of health. Controlling stress and reducing stressful situations can reduce anxiety and tension related health problems. Exercise is one way to reduce stress and increase blood flow to the tissues. A diet of vitamin A rich foods will promote healthy skin. These foods include yellow-orange foods such as carrots and sweet potatoes, and green foods such as spinach. Drinking plenty of clean water keeps the body from becoming dehydrated. Processed foods should be avoided… these foods lack vitamins and minerals that are necessary for health skin and many also contain partially hydrogenated oils that are not recognized by the body as true fatty acids. The high-refined sugar content found in processed foods also stimulates the skin to produce excess oil, which can aggravate acne and other skin problems.
As previously mentioned, a stagnant liver can result in a variety of skin disorders. One of the best treatments for liver dysfunction, or lack of optimal function, is an herb called Milk Thistle. It has been used for centuries to restore the liver’s ability to detoxify the blood. The main active ingredient in Milk Thistle is silymarin. It protects the liver against toxic chemicals and it increases the production of glutathione, one of the key chemicals that the liver uses to break down toxic chemicals. I like to use a standardized Milk Thistle along with Tumeric and Artichoke to enhance liver function.
There are several other herbs that also work to cleanse the body. Burdock root hasbeen used since the Middle Ages to treat skin disorders. It works by purifying the blood of toxins and enhancing lymph drainage. This cleansing reduces the load of toxins that are excreted from the body through the skin. Dandelion, the menace of gardeners in North America, but a salad ingredient to Europeans, has been used for centuries to treat jaundice. It cleanses the liver and flushes the kidneys. Yellow Dock and Red Clover are two more herbs that cleanse the blood and have been used successfully in the treatment of skin disorders.
In addition to the removal of toxins, the skin needs the proper nutrients to maintain optimal functioning. Essential fatty acids (EFAs), fats that must be obtained from the diet, are often forgotten in this “fat free” society. Linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) are also known as omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs. Our bodies cannot produce them. LA deficiency symptoms include eczema, hair loss, liver degeneration, excessive loss of water through the skin, and failure to heal wounds. LNA deficiency symptoms include growth retardation, weakness, and tingling in the extremities.
Having the proper balance of these healthy fats in our diet is vitally important for skin health. Since the 1850s, omega-3 EFA intake has steadily decreased and consumption of omega-6 EFA has skyrocketed. The best way to off set this imbalance is to supplement with omega-3 fats. Flax seed oil is a high quality, cost-effective source of omega-3s. It can be taken in capsule form or as the liquid right off the spoon, or in applesauce, juice, or salad. Heating flax oil will destroy its beneficial properties. I have had patients with 20 year histories of eczema clear their skin completely within 2 months of taking one tablespoonful of flax oil daily! Walnuts are another source of omega-3s. Fish oil contains eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are constituents of our cells and are metabolized from omega-3 fats in our bodies.
Vitamins and minerals are necessary for the health of skin. Vitamin C is needed to form collagen and healthy connective tissue that keeps the skin from wrinkling. It is also a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect the skin from the assaults of environmental toxins and over-exposure to sunlight. Vitamin E fights against free radical damage and slows the aging process. Biotin (vitamin H) is necessary for cell growth and replication. Zinc is needed for the proper healing of wounds and sulfur (the best form to supplement with is MSM) is needed for strong connective tissue. Silica can also be taken to promote healthy skin, hair and nails. Overall, many nutrients play important roles in the function of healthy skin, so instead of grabbing a box of gelatin to improve the skin, a well-balanced multivitamin would be a better choice.
Sun, smoking, environmental toxins and extreme weather conditions also assault the skin on a daily basis. Although the best defense against these is avoidance, thankfully we don’t live in a bubble and there are alternatives. Using a good sun block is important for extended exposure to the sun. A minimum of SPF 15 is required.
For days when the sun gets the better of us, aloe vera is the best remedy. Historically, it has been used to treat burns, whether from the sun, chemicals or fire. It works to fight off infections that can result from invasion through broken skin and also heals the damaged skin and promotes new skin growth. Fresh aloe is the best to use… it is always beneficial to have an aloe plant at home for such occasions. These plants are easy to maintain for those of us that have not-so-green-thumbs
Comfrey has been used historically to treat wounds. It contains a compound called allantoin that promotes cell proliferation and skin repair. Comfrey should not be taken internally because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are toxic to the liver. Because of the possibility of absorption through broken skin, comfrey should not be used topically on open sores.
Calendula and Chamomile are two more herbs used historically to treat skin disorders. Research shows that Calendula has antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. It has been used historically to heal stubborn wounds and ulcers. Chamomile is a potent anti-inflammatory that is used in Europe for many inflammatory conditions.
It is important to keep in mind that the skin is not an isolated organ. The appearance of the skin can reveal signs of too much sun exposure, stress and internal toxic buildup. The best way to treat a skin condition is through a holistic approach. A well-balanced diet, internal cleansing program, stress reduction, exercise and a moisturizing sunscreen will promote healthy skin and an energetic lifestyle.