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An essential guide to skin: The largest organ in the body

Skin is the largest organ in the human body, estimated to have a total surface area of around 20 square feet. It is said to be the window to our inside and can be a key indicator of the state of our internal health, reflecting any imbalances or inflammation. You may notice that when you are in good health and feel your best, your skin will most likely appear clear, radiant and glowing. However, when we are unwell, our skin can become congested, dry and irritated.

Skin structure and function

The skin’s role stretches far beyond aesthetics. It is our first line of defence, acting as a natural barrier to our external environment and protecting against bacteria, viruses, pollution, UV rays and other chemical substances. It helps to maintain hydration and regulate our body temperature while giving us the sensation of touch and temperature.

The skin is made up of only three layers: the outer layer is the epidermis, the second, an inner layer of soft tissue called the dermis, and a base layer called the subcutis. 

The subcutis is made up of fat, working as an insulator  and protecting us from minor injury. The epidermis layer is constantly growing and repairing itself. In fact, we  shed dead skin cells and regenerate new ones daily and all the skin cells are fully renewed every 28-31 days. This means it is quick to show any internal imbalances or deficiencies, and is also why if we do make positive changes to our diet, we might not see the benefit to our skin for around four weeks.

Integumentary system organs

Although many organ systems are involved in the health of our skin, there are three main ones that are most important to focus on:

The lymphatic system 

Our lymphatic system is a network of vessels, nodes and organs that run through our entire body. This system is vital for our body to be able to detoxify, nourish, regenerate tissue and filter out metabolic waste, acting like our personal drainage system.

An even more important function of the lymphatic system is its connection to our immune system. Lymphatic vessels lie underneath our skin throughout the body, but they are especially present beneath the skin on our face. Fluids that contain lymphocytes which fight bacteria and infection flow within our lymphatic vessels.  

Lymphatic nodules are found in places within the body where there is high risk of infection, areas such as your mouth, nose, ears, and digestive system. Any foreign invader, such as bacteria or a virus, will be filtered into the lymphatics and cleared out of the body. If you have inflamed skin along the jaw or t-zone, this may be linked to toxins overflowing from those lymph nodes.

The lymphatic system does not have a muscle to pump and circulate its fluid around the body, unlike the circulatory system, which has the heart to pump blood around the body. Movement of fluid in the lymphatic system is dependent on a combination of filtration pressure, breathing, gentle movement and pulsation of nearby blood vessels within the circulatory system. Exercise is one of the best ways to keep our lymphatic system moving. 

The gut

When we eat, we are constantly exposing our digestive system to molecules that our body either identifies as food or as ‘foreign invaders’. These are commonly molecules in foods that we are intolerant to and tend to include inflammatory food groups such as gluten and dairy.

When our body tags a molecule as a foreign invader, our immune system is activated and will set out to attack it, trying to clear it from the body. When this happens, the invaders are sent to the lymphatic system where they will then be eliminated from the body as toxins.

If the lymphatic system is unable to process these toxins completely, it may try to eliminate them through the skin as the skin is the body’s second route for detoxification. This then causes many common skin conditions, such as acne, eczema and psoriasis. 

Stress is another major factor when it comes to gut health. Stress can make your gut more permeable, meaning that molecules can leak through the walls of your gut and enter directly into the bloodstream. This can lead to you reacting to a wide variety of foods you have eaten, especially food you eat regularly. This is seen when skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis flare up under periods of stress.

The liver

While our lymphatic system plays a big part in detoxification, it is actually our liver that is the master detoxification centre in our body.

Our liver is constantly working to detoxify molecules in the body and make them safe for excretion. The level of exposure we have to toxins depends on how hard the liver has to work. It is not only toxins that the liver is responsible for processing, it has to continually process hormones and molecules made by the body that are no longer needed. The liver will prioritise the breakdown of toxins over our hormones, which can lead to a build up of excess hormones in the body. This can cause a very common hormonal imbalance, dominance. The excess of circulating oestrogen can be toxic and cause health problems like painful, heavy menstruation and poor skin health. 
 
In today’s modern world, we are constantly exposed to harsh chemicals, toxins and plastics, which means that our liver is under a huge amount of additional stress. When the liver becomes overloaded, it can result in excess toxins being eliminated through the skin, the same way the lymphatic system does when under too much pressure. A good example of this is if your skin breaks out after a night of heavy drinking or a time of indulgence. This shows that your liver is struggling to eliminate excess toxins and attempting to eliminate them through the skin.

Common skin disorders

Acne

Acne is a very common skin condition, caused by blocked skin follicles that lead to oil, bacteria and dead skin build up in pores. Pimples appear mostly on the face, forehead, chest, shoulders and upper back. Acne is largely a hormonal condition that is driven by androgen hormones, which usually become active during the teenage and young adult years, although it can occur at any age. Other causes include genetics, stress, high humidity and using oily or greasy personal care products. 

Alopecia areata

Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that attacks the body's hair follicles, causing hair loss. Anyone can develop alopecia, however, your chances of having alopecia are slightly higher if you have a relative with the condition. Alopecia areata also occurs more often among people who have family members with other autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, lupus or thyroid disease.

Atopic dermatitis (eczema)

Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is a non contagious skin condition that causes dry, itchy and red skin. Eczema can damage the skin barrier function, making your skin more sensitive and more prone to infection and dryness. Eczema affects males and females equally and is more common in people who have a personal or family history of asthma, environmental allergies and/or food allergies. This condition is caused by a combination of immune system activation, genetics, environmental triggers and stress.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes red, itchy scaly patches, covered with white or silvery scales, most commonly on the knees, elbows, torso and scalp. Psoriasis tends to go through cycles, flaring for a few weeks or months, then subsiding for a while or going into remission. Psoriasis usually starts in early adulthood, though it can begin later in life. People of any age, gender or race can get psoriasis. It can get better and worse throughout your life.

Raynaud’s phenomenon

Also called Raynaud’s disease or Raynaud’s syndrome, is a disorder that affects the blood vessels in the fingers and toes, periodically reducing blood flow and causing numbness or skin colour change. Blood vessels in the nose, lips or ear lobes may also be affected. The constriction of the small blood vessels mostly occurs in response to temperature extremes, certain occupational exposures, or excitement. With Raynaud’s, the skin on the affected areas becomes white or bluish and cold or numb.

Rosacea

Rosacea is a common skin disorder that primarily affects facial skin. It causes redness on the nose, chin, cheeks and forehead, but can also appear on the chest, ears, neck or scalp. Over time, the redness can become more intense, and small blood vessels may become visible.
 
People who have fair skin and who tend to blush easily might be at a higher risk for the disorder. 

The cause of rosacea is unknown, but it could be due to an overactive immune system, heredity, environmental factors or a combination of these. Rosacea is not caused by poor hygiene and it's not contagious. Flare-ups might be triggered by hot drinks and spicy foods.

Vitiligo

Vitiligo is a skin disorder that causes the skin to lose its colour. Smooth white areas appear on the skin, and if you have vitiligo in a place that has hair, the hair on your body may also turn white.

The condition occurs when melanocytes (the skin cells that produce melanin, the chemical that gives skin its colour) are destroyed by the body’s immune system. Vitiligo  triggers include autoimmune disease, neurogenic factors, genetics, sunburn, stress and chemical exposure. 

How to look after your skin

Reduce inflammation in the gut

Try to reduce, or if possible eliminate inflammatory foods such as alcohol, sugar, caffeine, gluten and highly processed foods from your diet. Focus on increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory foods including extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, turmeric, and ginger.

Drink plenty of filtered water

Water is actually the best detoxification agent. If your body is dehydrated, your detox systems will not be able to perform at their best. Water is key for keeping the digestive system moving and for optimal function and filtration in the lymphatic system, liver and kidneys.  

Movement

Exercise and movement is the best way to activate the lymphatic system and help with detoxification. It also clears the liver by removing fats and sugars out of the blood stream.

Eat a balanced diet

Eating a balanced diet that includes adequate protein, fats and carbohydrates as well as a variety of skin loving micronutrients and polyphenols including zinc, vitamin C and omega 3, from colourful fruits and vegetables is important for balancing blood sugar levels and optimal skin health. Protein is also vital for providing our liver with the fuel needed for detoxification.

Stress management

Minimising stress is vital to skin health. Not only can stress lead to our guts becoming permeable (leaky gut), and the overreaction of our immune system to food, but it can also increase androgen levels, which in turn leads to increased oily skin and blemishes.

Support the liver

The best way to do this is by reducing the load of toxins on the liver. Minimise caffeine and alcohol and eat plenty of cruciferous vegetables like Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli. Also try to minimise your exposure to environmental toxins and chemicals.

Go makeup free

Your skin needs time to breathe, so try to have a makeup free day once or twice a week. Makeup can also contain a lot of chemicals and toxins which get absorbed into the skin. This can clog up your skin and create  extra work for the liver to remove them.

Supplementing to optimise nutrient status

Nutrients are important to assist with the repair and regeneration of skin cells. Nutrients that are particularly important for skin health include: 

  • Collagen: Collagen is an essential component of your skin. It plays a role in strengthening skin, plus may benefit elasticity and hydration. As you age, your body produces less collagen, leading to dry skin and the formation of wrinkles (8). Several studies have shown that collagen peptides or supplements containing collagen may help slow the ageing of your skin by reducing wrinkles and dryness (9) (10) (11) (12).
  • Vitamin C: This vitamin plays a key role in supporting the body’s natural collagen production, which is a major component of your skin. It is also a powerful antioxidant, protecting you from free radicals (2).
  • Omega 3: Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of polyunsaturated fat, which your body can't make but needs to build cell walls. They also block a chemical that lets skin cancer grow and spread, and they may lower inflammation (5) (6) (7).
  • Vitamin A: Both the upper and lower layers of skin need vitamin A. Vitamin A helps to prevent sun damage by interrupting the process that breaks down collagen. It is also an antioxidant, which may help to give your skin some protection against sunburn (3).
  • Vitamin E: This antioxidant and anti-inflammatory can absorb the energy from UV light, protecting skin cells from damage which can lead to wrinkles, sagging, and skin cancer. It works with vitamin C to strengthen cell walls (4).
  • Zinc is needed for healthy cell structure and division. It helps to maintain the integrity of skin, and plays a key role in wound healing (1).

References

  1. Zinc

  2. Vitamin C

  3. Vitamin A Antagonizes Decreased Cell Growth and Elevated Collagen-Degrading Matrix Metalloproteinases and Stimulates Collagen Accumulation in Naturally Aged Human Skin

  4. Vitamin E in dermatology

  5. Tumor targeting by conjugation of DHA to paclitaxel

  6. Effect of marine-derived n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on C-reactive protein, interleukin 6 and tumor necrosis factor α: a meta-analysis

  7. A protective effect of the Mediterranean diet for cutaneous melanoma

  8. Skin anti-aging strategies

  9. Oral Intake of Specific Bioactive Collagen Peptides Reduces Skin Wrinkles and Increases Dermal Matrix Synthesis

  10. Effects of a nutritional supplement containing collagen peptides on skin elasticity, hydration and wrinkles https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23949208/

  11. Daily consumption of the collagen supplement Pure Gold Collagen® reduces visible signs of aging

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