By DR. COLIN O’BRIEN, ND
Summers in Canada never seem to last long enough. As a result, sometimes we overindulge and spend too much time in the sun without proper sunscreen application or enough skin coverage.
Maybe we’re having a beer or two at the same time. The problem is that this can translate into real health concerns over time by increasing our risk of skin cancer.
Sunscreen and moderation of time spent in direct sunlight are obviously important considerations for skin health, but what about the role of diet for sun protection?
Food choices are rarely acknowledged for their role in sun protection but if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll see that diet deserves some attention.
Let’s revisit that patio beer: excessive alcohol consumption has been correlated with higher rates of sunburn and alcohol consumption speeds up the time for your skin to become red after ultraviolet (UV) exposure.
This happens because alcohol decreases the efficiency of our antioxidant network in the skin, thereby decreasing the protection from UV rays.
In a sense, tanning is just gradual oxidative damage to the skin caused by ultraviolet rays. A sunburn is a more immediate burst of intense oxidative damage to the skin cells.
Our skin is actually darkening to protect against future exposure to these same UV rays. A healthy diet with lots of antioxidants is crucial because this oxidative damage creates an abundance of free radicals that need to be quenched.
Various studies have explored the relationship between antioxidant intake and skin damage from UV exposure.
While the evidence is far from complete, the data collectively suggests that more fruits, vegetables and whole foods are key for enjoying the summer months without the added skin damage.
Here are some research highlights to consider:
One study found that a daily cocoa powder drink led to less redness from UV exposure after just 6 weeks, with improved hydration and circulation of the skin also noted.
Vitamins E and C
Multiple studies have found that the topical application of Vitamin C or oral supplementation of Vitamin C in combination with Vitamin E (sometimes with added selenium, carotenoids or proanthocyanidins) can lessen skin redness and inflammation.
Although some research has found limited or no benefits for sun protection with carotenoids, various studies find that mixed carotenoids allow for greater tolerability of the sun and more time until redness ensues.
One double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 20 women showed that 30mg of beta-carotene per day for 10 weeks led to less skin redness after 13 days of sun exposure.
Another study with positive outcomes combined 24mg of beta-carotene, 8mg of lutein and 8mg of lycopene.
Technically, research has only shown benefits for the topical application of green tea extracts. However, it seems reasonable that regular oral consumption of the anti-oxidant powerhouse tea would be a good idea for the prevention and treatment of sun damage, too.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In a double-blind randomized study, 4 grams/day of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) or 4 grams/day of oleic acid was supplemented for 3 months.
After 3 months of supplementation, those in the EPA group had an 8-fold increase in EPA skin content and, more importantly, significantly reduced sunburn sensitivity and had less DNA damage in the skin.
Preliminary research in the form of animal studies, mechanistic data and case studies suggest that other antioxidants such as astaxanthin, coenzyme Q10, resveratrol, nicotinamide, quercetin and rutin may play a role in UV protection as well.
Clearly, antioxidants play an important role in skin protection and healing, in the same way that destructive pro-oxidants like alcohol and tobacco exacerbate skin damage.
The bottom line is that if you’re headed to the beach, packing the sunscreen is great but also be sure to get your fruits, veggies and healthy fats in!
Dr. Colin O’Brien ND is a practicing doctor at Sprout Wellness Clinic in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON. He has a strong focus on clinical nutrition and nutritional supplementation within a family medicine context. He continues to fulfill his passion for research, writing and education in his role as the Medical Director for Cyto-Matrix.