It’s that time of year–the kids are out of school and are (hopefully) spending lots of time outside playing, swimming, or just being. I’ve enjoyed sitting out in our yard on a blanket with a book while the kids practice lacrosse, and we’ve also been leash-training our bearded dragons, Fifi and Sprite. Yes you read that right.
I bring it up for a valid reason–not just because I’ve become a bit obsessed with them. That reason is that bearded dragons are desert reptiles which require large amounts of heat and direct UV-B light to be healthy in captivity. Of course their tanks are fully equipped with a high temperature basking spot and a separate light that emits UV-B radiation, but our holistic reptile vet (yes they exist) suggested having them outdoors in real sunlight on leashes as often as possible.
While humans aren’t cold-blooded desert animals like Fifi and Sprite, many of us do live lives in captivity with artificial light, temperature regulation, and restricted movement. One of the reasons reptiles and humans need sunlight is the same–it helps us naturally produce Vitamin D. And though we must enjoy the sun responsibly to avoid skin cancer and wrinkle-causing free radical damage, there’s a lot we can do internally–in addition to proper use of topical sunscreens and protective clothing–to strengthen our skin’s ability to resist UV damage.
Antioxidants can help.
There are many nutrients that can help boost the body’s natural defenses against the sun’s harmful rays. Today, we’ll focus on antioxidants. Antioxidants are chemicals (good ones, not bad ones) found naturally in fresh, whole foods that do many things–but the most important is that they neutralize free radicals from the sun, environmental pollutants, pesticides, and other toxins. I’ve written in-depth articles about both antioxidants and free radicals which you can read HERE and HERE in case these terms are new to you.
Sun damage occurs at the cellular level antioxidants provide protection at the cellular level. I always advocate getting your antioxidants from whole food sources because they’re more bioavailable and are accompanied by other nutrients that work synergistically with the antioxidants (meaning each nutrient is benefited by the presence of the other nutrient) to increase protection and overall health. However, if sun protection is your goal, you might want to also add high quality, whole foods-based antioxidant supplements to your diet.
2 must-have antioxidants for healthy summer skin:
I want to first point out that there are WAY more than two antioxidants that will benefit the skin in the summertime! What I’m showing you today isn’t isolated antioxidants but actually the two main families of antioxidants that contain lots of antioxidant family members that are known to be protective of the skin. They are:
Carotenoids are often known for their pigment, as they are responsible for the yellow, orange, pink, and in some cases, red pigment in fruits, vegetables, and some seafood; though they are also found in dark leafy and cruciferous greens. Carotenoids have several “family members” known to benefit the skin including beta carotene, astaxanthin, xanthophylls, and lycopene. These antioxidants are also precursors to Vitamin A, which is essential for healthy skin (when taken with food–I don’t recommend using it topically when in the sun because it increases photosensitivity).
According to Dr. Frank Lipman’s website, plants use these pigments to protect themselves from sun damage, and can activate melanin (the pigment that gives our skin color and that protects us from sun damage) in humans. Some great whole food sources of carotenoids are tomatoes, peppers, carrots, mangoes, guava, papaya, peaches, nectarines, sweet potatoes, beets, kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and wild-caught Pacific salmon. Carotenoids can also be found in chlorella and spiralina which are easily found in powdered or supplement form.
Though all carotenoids are beneficial, one superstar carotenoid has emerged in the research as being extremely protective of the skin against sun damage: astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is found primarily in salmon, and in smaller quantities in crabs, shrimp, and lobster–however, one would have to eat quite a lot of these foods in order to get enough to provide this type of protection–therefore a high quality supplement might be a good idea. Some good ones are Nutrex Hawaii’s Bioastin Hawaiian Astaxanthin and Dr. Mercola’s Astaxanthin with ALA.
Polyphenols are another large family of antioxidants that are known to provide photo-protective qualities to the skin. Some family members include catechins, anthocyanins, lignans, and stilbenes. Common whole-food sources include most fresh fruits like apples, pears, plums, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, currants, grapes, and pomegranates. However, coffee, dark chocolate, red wine, and tea also contain high amounts of several of these family members–I know I was happy to hear that!
Green and black tea, in particular, have been studied for their ability to inhibit the growth of tumors in the skin, in addition to other skin-protective benefits. While it’s fine to enjoy your tea chilled or iced during the warm months, skip the added sugar and flavored versions–even the “naturally” flavored versions contain ingredients that you might not want to consume and won’t be listed on the labels. Processed ingredients, additives, and sugar actually have the reverse effect on skin and might actually make it more photosensitive. Just brew your own and either infuse some fresh fruit or mint, or gently sweeten with raw honey or pure stevia extract.
Fortunately, most of these antioxidant-rich whole foods naturally grow when the weather is warmer, so it’s easier to get them locally–funny how Mother Nature worked that out for us, isn’t it?
I know I listed lots of delicious summer fruits and even some decadent little treats that contain high amounts of skin-protective antioxidants. What’s your favorite? Tell me in the comments below.
*Image 4 by Chris Gladis from Osaka, Japan (Nanzenji green tea) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons