The skin is the largest organ in the body and the skin of an adult actually covers an area of about 22 square feet and weighs 4.5-5kg. The skin is so complex that just one portion, the size of a thumbnail, has 3 feet of blood vessels, 25 nerve endings, 100 sweat glands and over 3 million cells.
This large organ is comprised of three main layers. The lower layer consists of subcutaneous tissue, consisting of muscle and fat that acts as insulation to the body and gives the skin tone and firmness. The middle layer is called the dermis, which contains collagen, a type of intracellular glue, providing the skin with strength and elasticity plus blood vessels, sebaceous glands, sweat glands, fat cells and nerve endings. The upper layer of the skin is called the epidermis, which partly consists of flat dead cells, which are continuously shed at an estimated 10 billion cells every 24 hours. This upper layer of the skin replaces every 30 days with cells manufactured within the deeper layers of the epidermis.
The skin, however, is not just a covering and protective organ; it is also involved in respiration like the lungs, movement of fluid like the kidneys and excretion of toxins like the liver, large intestine, kidneys and lungs. If the lungs, liver, large intestine or kidneys are stressed, and unable to process the body's waste efficiently, the skin takes over their roles by clearing the toxins through evaporation and perspiration. This may produce changes to the quality and appearance of the skin, with resulting symptoms of rashes, eczema, pimples, boils etc.
To a great extent the skin mirrors our internal health. For example, if the skin is dry and flaky it may indicate nutritional deficiencies of vitamins A and B and essential fatty acids; hair loss and slow healing may be a predictor of zinc deficiency; and bleeding gums is a sign of vitamin C deficiency. Oversensitive skin can result from a poorly functioning digestive system; and swellings, painful lymph nodes and itchy skin are usually early indicators of potential, internal, health problems. And, as we are all aware, excessive sweating and blushing are symptoms of inner turmoil.
In Chinese medicine the skin is a major health predictor, and particular consideration is given to the colouration around or under the eyes. A greenish line shows liver and gall bladder problems, dark circles indicate stress, puffiness reveals water and kidney imbalance, white colouration is implicated in colon congestion and puffy dark circles suggests allergies.
As the skin is such a complex and important organ, reflecting internal disharmony, any abnormalities should be treated seriously. There are six main considerations in healing skin problems, which are correct nutrients through foods and supplements, eradicating toxicity, strengthening the functions of the internal organs, topical preparations, exercise and stress management.
Correct nutrients can be obtained through foods and supplements. In general the types of foods which are beneficial are those high in vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables; high-fibre carbohydrates found in brown rice, quinoa, potatoes and couscous; proteins found in lean meats, fish, pulses and grains; and essential fatty acids found in safflower and sunflower oils, linseeds and oily fish. Specific 'superfoods' for skin include carrots, watercress, pumpkin seeds, cucumbers, melon, avocado, chicory, dandelions, millet, strawberries, oats, almonds, honey and sprouted seeds. Foods which are not beneficial or which may make existing conditions worse include citrus fruit, dairy products, strong spices, sugar, salt, fats, alcohol coffee, chocolate and all processed foods.
The most important nutrients for the skin are: B vitamins, which help to rejuvenate the skin and improve nerve function, energy and stress; vitamin C, which is essential for the production of collagen; vitamin E, which prevents free radical damage; and vitamin A, which controls the rate of keratin accumulation in the skin, preventing dry, rough skin. Also glucosamine, containing hyaluronic acid, keeps the skin moist, as do the essential fatty acids, and alphahydroxy acid stimulates the growth of collagen.
Accumulated toxins can be eliminated through cleansing diets, skin brushing, saunas, and dealing with anxiety and depression. Avoiding chemicals in skin preparations, excess exposure to the sun, environmental pollution and self-pollutants such as alcohol, drugs and smoking can also reduce toxicity. Smoking is particularly detrimental to skin health as it depletes the body of B vitamins and vitamin C, increases body acidity and carries irritants and carcinogens into the lungs. It is difficult to regenerate cells when smoking and once stopped the body needs vitamins C, B6 and B3 to counteract the internal damage.
It is important that the whole body is supported, as malfunctioning of any of the systems and organs can contribute to skin problems.
Particular attention needs to be given to the digestive, eliminative, hormone, immune and circulatory systems and to the liver, large intestine, kidneys and lungs. Herbs are particularly helpful in supporting these systems and organs. Dandelion is a blood detoxifier, comfrey leaf and root strengthen the tissues, liquorice root aids digestion and adrenal function, garlic purifies the blood, chaparell cleanses the system, echinacea provides immune support, chlorophyll stimulates the growth of new tissue and calendula heals infections. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is one of the most interesting herbs providing silica, which supports cellular tissue, particularly collagen formation, as well as immune function. Silica is also found in avocados, apples and honey.[4-5]
Other important areas to consider are skin care, exercise and relaxation. Natural, topical, skin preparations without chemicals should be used to rehydrate, relubricate and protect the skin. Regular exercises help to keep the skin clear by speeding up the circulatory and lymphatic systems and twenty minutes of relaxation each day can ease dry and wrinkled skin caused by tension and stress.
Skin problems have to be dealt with on an individual basis and next month I would like to share three case histories with you about sufferers of eczema, acne and dull, lifeless skin.
1. Tortora GJ and Grabowski SR. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0-471-36692-7. 1999.
2. Kenton Leslie. The New Joy of Beauty. Vermilion. ISBN 0-09-182609-8. 2000.
3. Butlin June. Regenerate and Revitalize. Positive Health. 30. July 1998.
4. Bartram Thomas. Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Robinson Publishing. ISBN-1-85487-586-8. 1998.
5. Christopher John. School of Natural Healing. Christopher Publications. ISBN 1-879436-01-9. 1996.
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