Having clear, glowing skin is a outward sign of good health, and something most of us probably strive for. But really great skin is made from the inside out, and requiring a nutrient-dense diet and other healthy habits. A wide range of issues can cause skin to be less-than-optimal, including: acne, rashes, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, puffiness, redness and more. Certainly, food allergies and sensitivities can be at play for some people, in which case removal of these foods for a time or forever may do the trick. For many, however, the key to better skin lies in what is missing in the diet. While all having varying root causes, all of these come down to three basic issues that can be fixed with a more traditional diet: inflammation, hormones, and the microbiome. Here are some nutrients and foods to include to help improve these three key ares, especially if you are looking to achieve clearer, better looking skin.
Fat-soluble Vitamins: Fat-soluble vitamins, which need plenty of fat for proper absorption, are essential for robust hormone health. The fat-soluble vitamins A and E not only help with improving hormone balance, but also act as antioxidants to protect skin from damage, including from the sun, and from inflammation. Vitamin A helps keep skin moist and smooth, and vitamin E is needed for healthy cell membranes, protecting skin from the outside world. All of the fat-soluble vitamins, especially A and E, from traditional foods are a must in any skin care regimen.
Foods to include for fat-soluble vitamins: liver from pastured animals and extra virgin or fermented cod liver oil for vitamin A; eggs for vitamin A and cholesterol; nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocado for vitamin E
Healthy fats and Cholesterol: Skin issues are often linked to an imbalance in reproductive hormones, all of which are built on a backbone of cholesterol. Other fatty acids also help with decreasing inflammation, as well as ensuring adequate of the vitamins mentioned above. EPA and DHA are omega 3 fatty acids that promote healthy skin and decrease inflammation, which arachidonic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid, is needed to prevent eczema and other inflammation in the skin. A low fat diet is not going to bring you the best skin possible, but healthy, traditional fats certainly will!
Foods to include for cholesterol and healthy fats: eggs yolks, pastured meat and wild-caught shellfish for cholesterol; wild-caught fatty fish like sardines or salmon, as well as cod liver oil for omega 3 fatty acids; eggs, dairy, and animal fat such as tallow or lard for arachidonic acid.
Address the gut and the microbiome: Much of what comes out in our skin starts in the gut, so keeping our microbiome diverse and balanced, teeming with beneficial microbes will help us break down and digest our food better, prevent inflammation, and keep skin happy. Including plenty of fermented foods and probiotic supplements adds to the beneficial bacteria in the body, while soluble fiber acts as prebiotics, feeding those bacteria to thrive and grow. If your gut is very sensitive and high fiber foods cause GI distress, try adding more fermented foods that aren't vegetables, such as cultured dairy, legumes, or beverages. It is also necessary to include bitter herbs that promote liver detoxification, which not only supports digestion but also helps balance hormones. Of course, removing inflammatory foods like refined flours, oils, and sugars will also help to improve the gut as well.
Foods to include for microbiome: sauerkraut, kim chi, beet kvass, and other fermented vegetables; root vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables, alliums, fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, sprouted or soured grains; yogurt, kefir, and other cultured dairy; raw milk; bitter herbs like dandelion root, sassafras root, burdock, or yellow dock root.
Consider the thyroid: Hypothyroidism, or an under-active thyroid, can be an underlying cause of some skin issues such as acne. If blemishes and other skin problems persist for you, consider having your thyroid checked by your doctor. To promote healthy thyroid hormone production, be sure to include adequate amounts of iodine, selenium, magnesium, vitamin D, B vitamins, and zinc in the diet. Stress also impacts the thyroid, so this may be another area to address along with diet if your thyroid is not functioning optimally.
Foods to include for thyroid health: wild-caught fish and seafood, and seaweed for iodine; fish, shellfish, nuts, seeds, and beans for selenium; meat, organ meats, whole grains, and fresh produce for B vitamins; green leafy vegetables, properly-prepared grains and legumes for magnesium; sprouted seeds, red meat, liver and oysters for zinc; and wild-caught seafood, pastured pork, full-fat dairy, and plenty of sunshine for vitamin D.
Collagen-rich foods: Skin and connective tissue all need collagen to be strong and supple, so including plenty of collagen-rich foods is essential for healthy, youthful skin that is more resistant to wrinkles, aging, stretch marks and more. Traditional diets that include all parts of the animal are the best way to get in these foods. Our bodies can also synthesize some collagen as well, which we make from vitamin C. Nose-to-tail eating and plenty of fresh produce ensures you get the collagen you need to have radiant, youthful skin.
Collagen-rich foods to include: Bone broth, organ meats, meat or fish with skin and bones present; berries, cabbage, citrus, peppers, cherries, and other fresh fruits and vegetables for vitamin C.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin): One of the main symptoms of a vitamin B3 deficiency (also known as pellagra) is dermatitis, which can be as mild as a rash or can become more severe with a prolonged deficiency. There are many risk factors for insufficient B3 in the diet, s be sure you are getting enough of this vitamin or consider testing if you experience frequent rashes, painful, itchy, swollen or red skin. A supplement may be needed if the deficiency is severe, in which case consulting a healthcare provider is the best course of action.
Niacin-rich foods to include: Fatty fish like sardines or salmon, liver, nutritional yeast, peanuts and other nuts and seeds, pastured meat, fresh vegetables.
Water: It is a no-brainer that adequate water intake is needed for good looking skin. When skin is well-hydrated, it looks more supple and is less likely to dry or crack. Get enough water to meet your body's needs without over-hydrating. Start with at least 64 ounces of water or other beverages per day to see if your skin doesn't start to look better. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages don't count toward your 64 ounces, but herbal tea, mineral water, or kombucha will all count, helping keeping you hydrated.
Beverages to include: At least 64 ounces daily of spring water or purified water, mineral water, herbal tea, kombucha, or water kefir
Topical considerations: While healthy, clear skin begins by improving the diet and decreasing inflammation, some topical treatments can be helpful for improving symptoms while your body heals from the inside out. If you have sensitive skin, or if the skin is irritated or broken out in anyway, don’t clean with soap or cleansers. Simply rinse with water and pat dry, which helps keep your body's natural oils in place to act as a barrier for the skin. If you must use soap, try to find one containing tallow as the main fat source for the best moisture barrier.
If acne is present, you can use clay masks or occasional gentle scrubs, but only if you see improvement after using them and they don't cause further irritation. For almost any skin condition, a topical probiotic spray or cream can help, by improving the microbiome of the skin. Products like Mother Dirt are great for providing balance to the skin while you consume probiotics in the diet as well. Avoid lotions or creams with any petroleum-based products in them, such as mineral oil. Animal fats are the preferred type of oil for human skin, as we are animals, too! If you need a soothing topical application, consider beef tallow or emu-oil containing balms and salves, which are much more nourishing for the skin than plant-based oils. Vintage Traditions and Texas Tallow are two tallow balm brands I have tried and enjoyed, and Montana Emu Ranch makes really nice emu oil-based products. The only plant oils that I would recommend are cocoa butter or shea butter due to their fatty acid makeup, and products containing jojoba in combination with animal fats will also work well.
Other lifestyle factors to consider: Whether increasing inflammation, affecting hormone balance, or influencing the body's natural detoxification processes, there are other health habits that can impact skin health besides diet. Of course, always look at nutrition to start, but also consider these other areas if diet alone does not improve your symptoms, which is a very likely possibility. Other areas to address for better skin include: sleep, stress, sweat, and sun.
Here's the basic breakdown for these factors:
Sleep: more is better
Stress: less is better, of course
Sweat: This helps your body detox and decreases inflammation...passive sweating via sauna or active sweating via exercise are both beneficial here
Sun: adequate sun exposure not only provides vitamin D for hormone health, but the UV light can actually improve some conditions, such as eczema, and UV light therapy is even used by some dermatologists
This may be a lot of information to digest, so I will whittle it down to a list of ten essential foods to include if you are looking to improve your general skin health and appearance, or to address specific conditions. Of course, there are many things to consider, including allergies, environment and other health conditions, as well as the four lifestyle factors mentioned above. But, adding these foods in is a great place to start. I didn't include water here, so just drink more of it, ok?
Top 10 foods for Skin Health:
1. Liver: Eat 3-4 ounces of liver from any pastured animal, once or twice a week to get the nutrients you need. This is basically a multivitamin all by itself. Liver provides vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin D, zinc and copper, and supports methylation. If you aren't down with liver, consider adding in a freeze-dried liver supplement, such as those made by Ancestral Supplements.
2. Eggs: Eat 2 pastured eggs or just the egg yolks per day. These provide vitamins A and E, B vitamins, arachidonic acid and cholesterol for hormone health.
3. Fatty fish: Just two servings of fatty fish or other seafood will give you plenty of EPA and DHA, essential omega 3 fatty acids. These foods also provide collagen if the skin and bones present, such as in canned sardines or salmon. Fish also provides B vitamins, protein, iodine and selenium for thyroid health. Be sure to get wild-caught instead of farm-raised. If you aren't able to get fish in the diet regularly, consider supplementing with an extra virgin or fermented cod liver oil to provide the omega 3's you might be lacking.
4. Extra virgin olive oil: Real, good quality olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fat and vitamin E for healthy skin and hormones, and it provides antioxidants such as polyphenols to decrease inflammation. Use it in dressings, dips, sauces and more, but be sure what you're buying is the real deal to actually get the nutritional benefits EVOO offers. Avocado oil is a good substitute, especially if using in a recipe where you want a more neutral-tasting oil.
5. Fermented vegetables: I love and recommend all fermented foods, but for the skin, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kim chi, and lacto-fermented pickles give you so much of what you need. Because they are fermented, they are full of probiotics, but are also prebiotic, feeding those good bacteria with their fiber, and they also are a good source of vitamin C for collagen production.
6. Bitter Greens: The bitter compounds in foods, including vegetables like arugula, collards, mustard greens, radicchio, and frisee, promote liver detoxification and digestive health. They are also rich inf fiber for the gut microbiome, and are good sources of magnesium and folate as well. Toss these with some olive oil and lemon, and you have a skin-healing side dish ready to go.
7. Bone broth: What healthy, traditional food list would not include bone broth? It is one of the best sources of collagen for supple, youthful skin, and it is healing for the gut and decreases inflammation. Broth provides glycine for methylation, as well as minerals and B vitamins for hormone health. If you have something going on with your skin you would like to improve, see if adding at least one cup of bone broth (sub meat stock cooked for less time if your gut is super sensitive) per day doesn't start to make improvements.
8. Raw and/or Fermented Dairy (full-fat): Raw milk is superior to pasteurized milk, as its B vitamins and minerals like potassium are undamaged and still intact. Along with B vitamins, raw milk is also a good source of vitamin A and healthy fats for your hormones. Raw or fermented, both forms of dairy will provide gut-healing probiotics as well. For the dairy sensitive, substitute cultured coconut milk, such as yogurt or kefir, or try dairy from animals other than cows, such as sheep or goat instead.
9. Pumpkin Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are rich in fiber for the gut, vitamin E, B vitamins, healthy fats, and are a great source of zinc, all needed for skin health. Any nut or seed, especially when soaked or sprouted, are important to include, but pumpkin seeds are particularly good. If you are allergic to nuts or seeds, oysters are an even better source of zinc; just be sure to include more beans and legumes to get plenty of soluble fiber if nuts are out for you.
10. Beef tallow or Lard: Rendered animal fats are superior to processed industrial seed oils like soybean or canola in so many ways. Seed oils are pro-inflammatory, not something we want for skin health, while tallow and lard are nutrient-dense and unprocessed. These provide arachidonic acid, which is needed to prevent issues like eczema, as well as saturated fat and cholesterol for nutrient absorption and hormone health. Plus, beef tallow is commonly used as a topical remedy, making it great for skin both internally and externally.
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.