Why Fats Are Essential for Healthy Skin

By Lisa Petty, BA, RNCP

If you've struggled with problem skin, it's possible you think of it more as an irritation than a serious health concern - but that's far from the truth. Healthy, moist, and intact skin acts as a protective barrier to the outside world. Breaks in the armour can lead to invasion by pathogens and other irritants, whose reach extends deep under your skin.

For example, bacteria like staphylococcus aureus (staph) are present on the skin of 20 to 30% of healthy adults, but damage to the skin may allow the bacteria to enter the body. Toxins produced in the body by staph are known superantigens, powerful agents that stimulate T lymphocytes (immune cells). And for some reason, these bacteria have an affinity for eczematic skin. Research shows that staph is present on the skin of 76% of those with dermatitis/eczema. More alarming, this study showed staph was evident in 100% of acute, weeping eczema lesions. Research published in 2008 also determined toxins produced by staph are a factor in psoriasis. The importance of healthy skin becomes evident when you consider that secondary infections caused by staph include pneumonia and infection of the heart valves. Unfortunately, staph is one of many bacteria that have become antibiotic-resistant.

Other research makes a connection between abraded skin and systemic allergies. Repeated barrier disruption (damage) stimulates inflammation and may allow the entry of allergens, which can cause the primary systemic sensitization for food allergy and respiratory allergic disease. British researchers concluded that impaired skin barrier function leads to allergic rhinitis, bronchial asthma, or aggravation of dermatitis.

How EFAs Help

To keep the body's outer most "barrier" moist, healthy, and intact, skin needs essential fatty acids or EFAs. EFAs are a type of fat, including omega-3s and 6s, that cannot be manufactured by the body, making it necessary to eat foods that contain them. The important component of the omega-6s is linoleic acid (LA), which the body converts to the anti-inflammatory gamma linolenic acid (GLA) through a pathway involving the delta-6-desaturase (D6D) enzyme. But certain factors can reduce the effectiveness of the D6D enzyme, including smoking, aging, and a diet high in saturated fat. Allergy-related eczema is a sure sign of inefficient conversion of the omega-6s to GLA.

Through another conversion pathway, however, LA leads to the production of arachidonic acid (AA), which is associated with rapid cell division and inflammation, making AA a factor in psoriasis and other skin conditions. Because most of us get plenty of LA from sunflower and safflower oil, you may opt to supplement with GLA directly. Borage oil and evening primrose oil are the best sources, but be aware that evening primrose contains high levels of LA along with GLA.

When discussing omega-3 fats, we're referring to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found naturally in soybeans, walnuts, and flax seeds. In the body, ALA converts to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DHA). The same D6D enzyme that works for the omega-6s is at play in this conversion and, for the same reasons mentioned above, problems with the D6D enzyme can cause a breakdown in the process. Problem skin is evidence of impaired conversion. To address a possible conversion issue, it's best to supplement directly with EPA and DHA. The most reliable source of these omega-3s is fish oil from cold-water fatty fish like anchovies, sardines, and Arctic cod. Choose fish oils in natural triglyceride form, which the body can naturally identify and easily assimilate.

Resolving Inflammation

Along with providing your cells with the lipids required to create and maintain healthy cell membranes, numerous studies support the use of EPA and DHA to tame the inflammation associated with skin conditions. Some research suggests that these omega-3s displace inflammatory AA from the cell membrane. Other studies have found that EPA blocks activity of delta-5-desaturase, the terminal step in the synthesis of AA. Exciting new research has isolated components called EPA resolvens E series and DHA resolvens D series, aptly named for their part in resolving inflammation. Resolvens work by helping with the removal of inflammatory cells and with restoration of tissue balance.

A Natural Skin Prescription

Aim for a minimum of 1000 mg EPA and DHA from fish oils twice daily to rebalance your EFAs for several months, and then reduce to 1000 mg daily for maintenance. For a nice blend of Omega-3s and 6s, I've had good results with Nordic Naturals' Omega Woman and Complete Omega 3-6-9. Ultimate Omega, another product from Nordic Naturals, is great for serious rebalancing. If you're taking your fish oil and GLA supplements and aren't seeing results, there could be absorption issues. Digestive enzymes with lipase could help with absorption issues.