Skin care—and the business of maintaining a youthful appearance—is a massive industry and is growing each day. Every inch of you, from the delicate skin around your eyes to the heels of your feet, has been analysed, scrutinized, and studied by scientists in search of better ways to smooth lines, erase imperfections, and brighten complexions. In recent years we’ve seen alpha and beta hydroxyl acids—the new “miracle” cures—added to nearly every brand of over-the-counter skincare product on the shelves. Even mild chemical facial peels are now as quick and painless as a lunch-hour manicure. The never-ending challenge to alter our appearance has been around forever. Cleopatra lined her eyes with dark kohl crayons. In the 1970s women found a way to bronze our skin with bottles of “sunless tanning” lotion. And today, major facelift surgeries are an everyday affair. It’s anyone’s guess what tomorrow will bring, but one thing is for certain: This army of researchers, testers, and marketers in a multibillion-dollar industry produces cosmetic changes that are only skin deep. They alter only the thinnest surface of your biology. Scalpels and lasers can temporarily transform our contours, but they can’t get to the root of the aging process. Does anyone know what makes those lines creep up around our eyes or why our skin becomes discoloured over time? And why do these changes come so fast and furiously for some and much more slowly for others? What if, long before you’d heard about collagen injections or dermabrasion, you discovered more about how people age? If you could “see” what’s really going on under your skin’s surface, you would be able to strengthen your beauty and vitality from the inside out—repairing, rebuilding, and even preventing the signs of wear and tear from showing up too soon. You could see what causes weight to come on so insidiously, why veins break into unsightly tattoos, and why our bones weaken as women slump into old age. You would take into your own hands a new measure of control. If you were able to look deep inside the cells of your body, you would see how they vary greatly in size and shape, and how their unique design allows each one to carry out a specific job. Muscle cells allow you to move as they contract and relax. Nerve cells transmit messages. Liver cells eliminate toxins and regulate body chemistry. Red blood cells transport oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. Pancreas cells make and replace hormones. It’s a complex, ever-changing universe. Despite its particular task, however, each cell is constructed according to the same basic pattern. Underneath a protective membrane lies a jellylike substance called cytoplasm, which houses the cell’s nucleus and all of your chromosomes, each composed of the DNA blueprint that makes you who you are. As hormones, fuel, and nutrients move in and out of the porous cell membrane, all the vital chemical reactions that build and maintain your body take place. A look inside this intricate world would show you just how fragile your cells are and, more important, how nearly everything you do affects their functioning. You would see how they are assaulted by pollutants you breathe in; how they are defended by certain vitamins and minerals; how they stand up to cigarette smoke and alcohol; and, most important, why some cells deteriorate and others thrive, maintaining their youthful robustness. What does this have to do with how you look? Understanding what makes a cell flourish gives you the power to make it happen, and your body is more receptive than you probably think. Your eyes, your cheeks, your neck—every part of your body—show the care you’ve taken to hold the aging process at arm’s length.
Gather Your Defences
Luckily, your body is extremely efficient at defending its precious resources—as long as it has the right ammunition. The area in need of the most focused protection is your cell membrane—the scaffolding material that gives each of your cells the strength to stand tall and strong. When even one molecule in a cell membrane is damaged, a chain reaction can take place, killing the entire cell. As one cell after another dies, wrinkles and other signs of aging are inevitable. Cells with the best chance of surviving the ravages of time are the ones sufficiently packed with special protective nutrients. Found plentifully in vegetables, fruits, grains (bread, pasta, cereal, rice, oats, and corn), and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), these nutrients pack a mighty punch. As we’ll see, some of their natural biochemical defences actually wedge themselves into protective positions inside your cell membranes, while others unfurl to guard the bloodstream. All of them are strengthened by certain foods you can easily bring into your routine.
Know Your Enemy
Your main adversary in the aging game is the free radical, the molecular piranha that takes bites out of your cells, eventually destroying them. You can’t see free radicals—only the damage they leave behind. But as you start to visualize how they operate, you’ll learn to protect yourself against their harmful effects. Their modus operandi is this: Free radicals first arrive in your body as benevolent, life-giving oxygen molecules (the ordinary oxygen that keeps each cell alive), but some of these molecules get damaged during various chemical reactions. As you might imagine, oxygen is used in thousands of reactions within your body—building new cells, burning fuel for energy, and endless others, so it is easy for these molecules to be altered in the process. They take on extra electrons or develop unstable electron orbits of their own. As free radicals, the potential of these unstable oxygen molecules to wreak havoc is enormous. In a lightning-quick fraction of a second, they can demolish any other molecules that get in their way, including your DNA. This never-ending process destroys minuscule amounts of your body over time, much like crashing waves hitting rocks along a coastline. Whether your body holds up like granite or crumbles like clay depends greatly on what materials you have used in your own cellular construction.
Major Cell Protectors
A certain amount of free radical damage is just a natural part of being alive. When you breathe, when you sleep, and when you eat, free radicals are trying to age you. But you’ve got an army of nutritional allies on your side. The next time you’re thinking of giving yourself a makeover, you may want to start at the grocery store. Each microscopic cell that makes you who you are needs constant nourishment. Here are four cell-protecting powerhouses that will repel free radicals and make your skin, hair, eyes, and whole body thrive.
Selenium. Robust enzymes stand guard over your cell membranes, neutralizing free radicals and stopping destructive chain reactions that have already begun. One of these enzymes requires a special nutrient called selenium to operate properly. Found abundantly in grains, it’s easy to get the recommended 50 to 200 micrograms of selenium each day—unless you’re skipping the whole grains your body needs. Selenium exists naturally in soil and passes into the roots of grains and green veggies and it is responsible for nourishment of the plant as it grows and responsible for your body’s protection after you eat it.
Notice the word whole grains. Four slices of whole wheat bread hold nearly 50 micrograms of selenium. If you choose white bread instead, you’ll cut that figure nearly in half, to a mere 28 micrograms. As grains are refined to produce white flour, the mineral rich outer fibre coating is discarded, along with the selenium that was ready to protect you. So whole grain products are not just more satisfying; they really are much better for you.
Vitamin E. Found in the natural oils of beans, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, as well as in the grains of wheat in your bread, vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that nestles within your cell membranes, lying in wait until free radicals come along to threaten it. Instead of attacking your delicate cells, free radicals end up attacking vitamin E. Like swords hitting sturdy shields, the assault is severe, but the damage is minimal. With all of the positive publicity vitamin E has received in recent years, some people have gotten carried away by taking very high doses of it in supplement form. The truth is, you’ll get all you need by eating a nice variety of the foods listed in the table on page 7. What’s more, vitamin E actually recycles itself. With a little help from your body’s supply of vitamin C, it defends your cells over and over again.
Carotenoids. Think carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and other orange vegetables. Add them to your diet and you’ll gain yet another measure of defence against free-radical damage from beta-carotene—the best-known member of the carotenoid family—and its six hundred or so cousins. Delivered to your bloodstream and then to your cells, beta-carotene cloaks them in a protective layer that helps them live longer. Like vitamin E, beta-carotene takes up its post within the cell membrane, repelling invading free radicals. While carotenoids are particularly concentrated in orange vegetables, they are also found in green and yellow vegetables. There is a cousin of beta-carotene you should get to know, which is called lycopene. The name is odd, but you have heard of it very well. It is responsible for the red colour in a tomato, just as beta-carotene gives its orange colour to a carrot or a sweet potato. Slice open a watermelon. Guess where that bright red colour comes from? Lycopene may not be as famous as beta-carotene, but it is actually one of the most plentiful carotenoids in your body. It powerfully neutralizes free radicals and has gained popularity among cancer researchers for dramatically cutting cancer risk. Take a fresh look at the produce aisle. You’ll spot nature’s palette that has beta-carotene here, lycopene there—not for looks, but for providing strong protection throughout a plant’s growing process. When you bring these foods into your diet, their protection enters your skin and all your other body tissues.
The beauty of a diet rich in grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes is that it provides your body with a rich supply of nutrients for knocking out free radicals and countless other pollutants— without spending a fortune on supplements or thinking in terms of “milligrams” or “recommended daily allowances.” Whole, natural foods supply a generous bounty of potent vitamins, minerals, and other protectors for vitality and wellness. Think of Mother Nature as the original Avon lady. When it comes to your healthy good looks, she delivers like no one else can.
Vitamin C. When you drink your morning glass of orange juice, you may think only of its cold-fighting power, but there’s a lot more to vitamin C than that. Not only does vitamin C work as a powerful antiaging nutrient, making the collagen that strengthens muscles, bones, and skin, it also helps regulate our moods and psychological functions. All day long, and even at night as you sleep, free radicals form in your bloodstream. Vitamin C is your blood’s number one bodyguard and night watchman, eradicating free radicals with ease. It moves in and out of your cells, joints, brain, spinal cord, and even into your eyes to seek out and destroy free radicals. Eating vitamin C–rich foods such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, grapefruit, strawberries, and, of course, oranges and other citrus fruits, will send free radicals and their aging effects packing. Without vegetables and fruits in your diet each day, your defences will be down. By now you might feel as if you have to be a chemist to understand all these cell-protecting compounds, but it’s actually easier than you think. When you bring home brightly coloured vegetables and fruits, along with whole grain breads and cereals, their vitamin E, beta-carotene, lycopene, and selenium automatically enter your cell membranes, while their vitamin C goes to work patrolling your bloodstream. They will defend you against free radicals, slowing down the toll of time.
Healthy Skin and Hair
Now women are starting to see how our outward appearance is truly a reflection of our inner workings, so it’s not hard to imagine how our food choices can affect the vibrancy of our hair and the suppleness of our skin. Time alone is not the indicator of how well women age. In fact, the main causes of wrinkles and discoloration of the skin have nothing to do with time. The culprits in skin damage are ultraviolet rays and, not surprisingly, free radicals. But once again, protection is right at our fingertips, not farther than a bottle of sunscreen or any number of cell-nourishing foods. No one is ever happy to hear that those glowing, rosy cheeks women get from a day in the sun are actually signs of skin damage, but unfortunately it’s true. Anytime your skin darkens, it means your epidermis (outermost layer) is trying hard to protect your dermis (innermost layer) from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The dermis contains collagen protein strands and elastic fibres that give your skin resiliency and strength. When these strands and fibres are damaged and weakened, skin begins to sag. It’s something women all wish women had heard more about in our teenage years— not that women would have been likely to listen. When sunlight hits your skin, 90 to 95 percent of it is absorbed. Your epidermis compensates for this invasion by shedding its outer layer to reveal fresh skin. And, as our skin “tans,” another change is going on: Skin cells and protein fibres deep inside your skin are also being damaged. And you need not stand in direct sunlight for this to occur. Ultraviolet rays bounce off of the ground and diffuse through the sky before they reach you.
Protect Your Skin—Outside
Regardless of your age, it’s never too late to stop sun damage in its tracks. Many facial moisturizers and foundations now have an added sun-protection factor (SPF). This is good news because most people don’t think about sun protection unless they plan to spend a day at the pool or the beach. But daily sun exposures from strolling to lunch, sitting in the park, or walking your dog really add up over time. Used daily, an SPF of 15 or higher will help prevent wrinkles, depigmentation, and little brown “age spots” as well as precancerous skin changes. It’s a good idea to stay out of the midday sun; take advantage of the protection that clothing, sunglasses, and hats provide; and avoid tanning beds, as the ultraviolet A rays they emit penetrate the skin deeply. This is not to say that you should avoid the sun entirely, because the sun provides benefits as well. Fifteen minutes of sunlight each day on any part of your body is necessary for normal vitamin D metabolism, and the sun has an uncanny ability to elevate our moods. Like many other things, it’s good in small doses, but can turn harmful in excess.
Protect Your Skin—Inside
People with darker skin tone have better built-in protection from UV rays than people who have light skin tone, simply because darker skin produces more melanin. But, no matter what shade of skin women have inherited, our body’s own SPF can be improved internally, with our chosen food. Eating carrots, sweet potatoes, and other orange or green vegetables sends a dose of protective beta-carotene to our cells and bloodstream. This phytochemical is our best internal defender against excess ultraviolet radiation. Some plants contain so much beta-carotene that they are able to withstand endless hours in direct sunlight, neutralizing free radicals. When you eat beta-carotene-rich foods, you are packing these same powerful nutrients into your cell membranes, defending yourself from excess sun exposure and free-radical damage. You’ve likely heard about the effects of excessive beta-carotene consumption—people turning themselves a pale shade of orange. While this is a harmless (and temporary) side effect of overdoing a good thing, the invisible antioxidant and immune-boosting actions taking place inside you are quite effective. Having said that, you will still want to be cautious in the sun. Even the world’s best diet is no match for hours of baking under summer rays. Use the internal protection of a beta-carotene-rich diet along with external protection, not in place of it.
Remember when your parents said you would keep your good eyesight if only you’d finish your carrots? Well, there’s truth to what probably seemed like a bit of parental bribery. A diet that includes carrots, or any other vegetables and fruits, sends beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and many other antioxidants into your eyes, neutralizing harmful free radicals stimulated by the daily sunlight exposure most of us receive. The carotenoids in orange, yellow, and green vegetables help discourage macular degeneration, a loss of function of the retina found in older adults. Avoiding tobacco and excess dietary iron, and, of course, wearing sunglasses all help keep your eyes healthy. You may never have heard of macular degeneration, but sooner or later you’ll hear more about it than you ever wanted. It is the most common major assault on vision that occurs as the years go by. You’ll learn of a friend or a relative who is gradually losing sight, and the deterioration can continue to total blindness. It is worth taking a minute to understand how certain foods protect the tender, paper-thin retina in your eyes, because these foods do exactly the same thing for your skin and every other part of your body. As intense, focused light hits your retina, sparking the production of free radicals, carotenoids are front and centre to knock them out. Researchers from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and many other medical centres around the world found that people who get the most carotenoids in their diet had a 43 percent lower risk of macular degeneration compared to people who get the least. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in people over sixty-five. The most powerful sources of carotenoids are spinach and collard greens. Of course, what you don’t eat counts here, too. Steer clear of fatty foods, especially animal fats, to naturally hinder free-radical production, which can slow down blood flow in the eye’s tiny arteries. As a matter of fact, the same people who succumb to heart attacks are also at high risk for macular degeneration, suggesting that the same fatty diets may be partly to blame. Researchers writing in the journal Ophthalmic Epidemiology found that people with macular degeneration had precisely the same risk factors as heart disease patients: a high-fat diet, smoking habits, hypertension, and diabetes. It appears that damage to delicate blood vessels is the root of the trouble. Here is the take-home lesson: The daily beating your eyes take in the line of fire of focused light, minute after minute, is not so different from what happens to your forehead, your temples, your neck, and every other part of your body. Sunlight and other elements can easily assault you, and if you do not protect yourself with the right foods, they will age you at a quickened pace. All parts of your body need the same protection. Drinking milk, which has been indicted in a number of troubling health concerns, also can cause eye problems for some. As milk products are digested, they produce a simple sugar called galactose, which can enter the lens of the eye. Infants who are unable to break the sugar apart develop cataracts, a cloudiness in the lens that impairs vision, within the first year of life. Population studies have shown that adults who live in regions where dairy products are commonly consumed have much higher rates of cataracts than those where dairy products are rarely consumed. Because the troublemaker here is the milk’s sugar and not the fat, using skim variations offers no protection.
Iron—Too Much of a Good Thing?
There is a surprising side to iron—a treacherous and harmful side that accelerates the aging process by encouraging free-radical production. Iron is a very unstable metal. An iron pan can rust rather quickly. In your body, iron oxidizes even faster, producing free radicals along the way. Although iron is an essential nutrient, it is dangerous in excess. But you’d never know it by the way it has been marketed, especially to women. Not so long ago, advertisements promoting iron supplements as a cure for fatigue and all kinds of other difficulties were everywhere. These ads are gone now, and with good reason. In reality, there is rarely a need to add extra iron to your diet and, given the way most of us eat, iron overload is more of a cause for concern than iron deficiency. A trace of iron in your blood (in the form of haemoglobin within your red blood cells) allows the oxygen to be carried by it, a necessary function for human. However, your body system accurately sequesters any surplus, storing it in special molecular containers called ferritin. Each one can hold up to forty-five hundred iron atoms inside its protein shell, safeguarding you from the iron overload that would result if iron were left free to roam in the bloodstream. Ferritin also protects you from iron deficiency that may arise from bleeding or dietary inadequacy, by serving as an emergency reserve. Why does your body work so hard to balance its iron supply? Because it knows that free-floating iron is dangerous. You can safely hold 100 to 300 milligrams of iron in your body, but when levels reach 800 milligrams or so—the amount present in more than half of us—iron hastens the destruction of your body’s tissues. A chain reaction in a cell membrane can destroy it, and the results are wrinkles and aging in other body tissues. Iron overload can accelerate aging in other ways, too. It can make its presence felt in the form of fatigue, arthritis, weakness, impotence, diabetes, shortness of breath, loss of menstrual periods, and neurological problems. Most important, excess iron is a major contributor to heart attacks. The only way to know for sure if your iron level is safe is to have your blood tested at a clinic or your doctor’s office. The tests outlined here are much more accurate than standard haemoglobin or haematocrit blood tests, which are not sufficient.
Plant Iron vs. Animal Iron
The dangers of iron overload are easily avoided when you fill your plate with plant foods. Iron is abundant in beans and lentils and also is found in vegetables and grains. If your body is low in iron, the vitamin C from fruits and vegetables will bolster its absorption. Even premenopausal women who lose blood with each menstrual period can easily replenish their iron requirements with a rather modest amount of beans and vegetables. In fact, premenopausal women are the group most likely to have proper iron balance, while men and postmenopausal women are prone to iron build-up, forcing their bodies to make more and more ferritin to quickly store it away. When you boil, steam, or stir-fry your vegetables, you increase their usable iron even further into the water. It doesn’t matter how many veggies you eat which contains iron, your body can easily handle it, absorbing the amount of iron your body needs. It sounds like a perfect system and it nearly is, until you add red meat, poultry, and fish to your diet. That’s when iron overload begins. Meats contain a form of iron called haem iron, which comes from the haemoglobin in an animal’s red blood cells and other tissues. Quite different from plant iron, it simply doesn’t comply with your body’s own iron-regulating system. Regardless of how much iron you already have stored in your body, haem iron barges through your intestinal wall and into your bloodstream, adding to free-radical activity and damaging your cells. In this case, taking vitamin C supplements can make matters worse by further increasing iron absorption. It is very common for people in Western countries to have excess iron, especially as they reach middle age. If you are one of them, you’ll want to stop the influx of more iron by cutting out meat, poultry, and fish, and relying on vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes to keep your nutrients in better balance. Exercise also reduces iron levels through the excretion of sweat and urine. Believe it or not, you can quickly reduce excess iron levels by giving blood. As your kind donation benefits those in need, you’ll safely reduce the number of harmful free radicals in your body— two reasons to feel good. Those who are unable to donate blood due to infectious illness, low blood pressure, or other reasons should seek the assistance of their physician. People with normal or low iron stores will benefit from adding vitamin C–rich fruits and vegetables to their diet without risk of overdoing it. A true iron deficiency, found by taking the tests above, doesn’t mean that you should add meat to your diet. Vegetables and beans are the healthiest iron sources available. Your doctor also may prescribe supplements for temporary use. Also since dairy products inhibit iron absorption, avoiding them generally helps your body naturally regulate its iron balance.
Ever since fats and oils made the top of the “hazardous to your heart” list, there has been talk of which oils are worst and which are best. The short answer is that all oils, including vegetable and fish oils, can be detrimental to your health in one way or another, whether they are lurking in your stir-fry or are baked into your foods. While there are data to suggest that some people can safely add olive oil to foods, the healthiest dishes are generally made without any added oil. Tropical oils—palm, coconut, and palm kernel—provide a hefty dose of saturated fat. And, just like animal fats, they stimulate your liver to produce more cholesterol. When checking food labels, be wary of oils that are fully or partially hydrogenated. This indicates that the oil has been chemically saturated (solidified) to increase its shelf life; but it also increases your cholesterol. Liquid oils such as peanut, sunflower, and corn oils are better from the standpoint of cholesterol, but they cause problems of their own. If you’ve left liquid oils unrefrigerated for a time, you know they eventually turn rancid. These same molecular changes take place inside your body, creating free radicals and paving the way for the damage they cause. Whether the oils you use are solid or liquid, some part of your body will take a beating when they are in your foods. Liquid vegetable oils are much better than animal fats and tropical oils, but you would do your heart and skin a tremendous advantage by learning to prepare foods with little or no oil. You may be pleasantly surprised to rediscover the zesty flavours of vegetables and other foods so often drowned in heavy sauces and creamy dressings.
The Trouble with Alcohol
While some people say “a little wine is good for you,” evidence is clear that more than a little can do real damage. You can certainly see this in the signs of alcoholism: Skin begins to sag, and eyes look tired and worn out, not to mention the injury an alcohol soaked liver endures. But you don’t have to drink excessively for your cells to suffer. When you drink, alcohol molecules enter your body, rearranging themselves into various forms of harmful free radicals and encouraging more oxygen molecules to do the same. That’s right—alcohol causes free radicals to form. While your inhibitions go down and your pain tolerance goes up as you drink, alcohol-produced free radicals harm the stomach, heart, and other organs. Confusion concerning the pros and cons of moderate alcohol consumption still exists. Wine lovers rejoiced when news reports suggested that drinking red wine protects the heart. After all, heart disease rates appeared to be lower in France, a country famous for its high-fat delicacies. A sobering investigation by the World Health Organization put these statistics in a very different light. It turned out that French death certificates had recorded many heart attacks simply as “sudden death,” while other nations listed them as cardiac deaths. Using the same record-keeping methods, the French have about the same heart disease rates as other Western nations. And since you’ve just learned about the hazards of excess iron, it’s wise to note that red wine is brimming with it. Combined with its alcohol content, which makes iron more absorbable, you’ve got a double whammy in your wineglass. All the while, it is depleting the antioxidants you were so mindful to ingest.
You may have found some of the information in this article surprising. Physicians, nutritionists, and dietitians who specialize in preventive medicine have made great strides in recent years to uncover the keys to remaining youthful and vigorous. Fortunately, for the rest of us, their discoveries are quite simple to implement.