Our skin is the largest organ in the body, and is the first line of defence against a multitude of microorganisms. It also protects us from the environment and regulates our body temperature. Hair is part of the skin structure – it’s actually a modified type of skin. It is often said that a healthy head of hair and glowing skin reflects good overall health, and to a large extent this is true. There are many factors that determine how healthy your skin and hair is, and these include genetics, the amount of sun exposure, lifestyle factors (such as smoking and excessive alcohol), exercise and a healthy, well-balanced diet.
The following eight essential nutrients are what you need in your diet to ensure that your skin and hair stay healthy and strong.
Our skin and hair are mainly made up of proteins, such as keratin, collagen and elastin. The hair and nails are made up mostly of keratin, while collagen and elastin provide strength and support for the skin. Wrinkling and an aged appearance can become more obvious when there is excessive collagen and elastin breakdown.
Good sources of protein include lean meats, chicken, fish and eggs. Plant-based proteins include legumes – such as lentils, beans, peas and soybeans – and nuts.
Iron deficiency can result from a poor diet or chronic blood loss. When iron levels drop, anaemia can develop and the patient can feel tired and lacking in energy. Low iron levels can cause the skin to look pale and unhealthy and cause itching. Iron deficiency is also a common cause of hair loss.
Red meat is the best source of iron. Iron can also be found in legumes and whole grains, as well as spinach.
Zinc is a trace mineral that is required for wound healing and a healthy immune system.
Animal proteins such as beef, lamb, pork and fish are the best sources of zinc. Nuts, whole grains and legumes are also good sources.
Biotin is also known as vitamin H and is part of the B complex group of vitamins. Most people get enough biotin in their regular diet, and it is uncommon to develop biotin deficiency, which can cause brittle nails and hair fall.
Eggs are a good source of biotin. Other good sources include almonds, whole grains and milk.
Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 and -6 essential fatty acids are required for healthy skin. These are incorporated into chemicals and transmitters in our body that affect our immune responses and regulate inflammation and allergic responses.
Oily fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed is another source.
Vitamins A and C
Vitamins A and C are important for healthy skin. Vitamin A is important for cell growth, and vitamin C is required to produce collagen, which is the main supporting structure for the skin.
Carrots, sweet potatoes and leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and lettuce are good sources of vitamin A. Vitamin C is found in oranges, kiwifruit, papayas, berries, tomatoes and broccoli.
Antioxidants are substances that mop up damaging free radicals, which cause skin damage and ageing. Vitamin E is a good antioxidant, as are substances such as beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A).
Beta-carotene is found in papayas, carrots, pumpkin and spinach. Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, and green tea contains a powerful antioxidant known as polyphenol.
Lastly, do not forget to take enough water. After all, our body is two-thirds water. There are no benefits, however, from drinking excessive amounts of water, and people with dry skin should not expect to correct this condition by simply drinking more water. They would need to use moisturisers to lock in the natural moisture in the skin.
Remember that maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet goes a long way to having beautiful skin and hair. Always check with your doctor or nutritionist before you embark on any dietary plan, and seek professional advice when in doubt.