We are all familiar with the sting of sunburn, but did you know that UV radiation, affects the immune system? Ultraviolet radiation, especially UVB, creates inflammation which leads to reactive oxygen species, which most of us know as free radicals. These free radicals play a central role in accelerating aging, causing loss of firmness and elasticity of our cells. These scavengers leave skin appearing rough, leathery, wrinkled, with uneven pigmentation and at worst skin cancer.
Enter antioxidants. Plentiful in whole, unprocessed foods, antioxidants are believed to protect the skin in multiple ways. Eating tomato paste, which is high in lutein increases tolerance to UV radiation thus reducing sunburn. When Vitamin E is combined with Vitamin C, these nutrients provide protection by increasing sunburn threshold. Polyphenols are found in cocoa, tea, and citrus fruits. They act as enzyme inhibitors, reducing inflammation that may enhance skin cancers. Over a decade ago, Wang et al reported that rats fed green tea polyphenols, experienced fewer UVB related skin tumors (Carcinogenesis 1991, 12:1527-30.)
Having a diet high in the wrong kind of fat may also encourage skin cancers. Diets high in omega 6 fatty acids have been associated with higher rates of squamous cell carcinoma. In a study by Rhodes, et al, receiving high doses of the essential omega 3 fatty acid, EPA (ecosapentaenoic acid) doubled the time before skin became burned (Carcinogenesis, 2003; 24:919-25). Unfortunately, our diets are largely out of balance when it comes to healthy fats. Our modern diets provide a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 10:1. To achieve a healthy 4:1 ratio, reduce the amount of snack and prepared foods that contain canola, soy, sunflower, corn, and safflower oils which are high in omega 6 fats. Replace them with foods high in omega 3 such as nuts, fish, olive oil and avocado and use only use grape seed and olive oils in the kitchen.
Unfortunately you can’t get this phyto-protection overnight. Your diet must be rich in these nutrients for at least eight to ten weeks to receive the benefits, and of course, diet alone is not your best defense. A topical sunscreen is imperative to adequate sun protection, and some contain green tea or beta carotene which benefits the skin topically as well as inside the body. But for the time when sunscreen fails, or you just push the sun time a bit longer than you should, it’s nice knowing you have the backup of an antioxidant rich diet providing powerful damage control.