Even if you've never heard of the integumentary system, it's likely that you devote quite a bit of time to its care. This system of the body comprises your hair, skin, and nails, and while lotions, conditioners, scrubs, and salves certainly have a role to play in keeping the exterior of your body looking and feeling great, it's also important to pay attention to key nutrients for hair, skin, and nails, especially as you get older. Providing your body with the right vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, can help your skin glow without the aid of cosmetics, and can help your hair and nails to stay strong and healthy. The natural health products that do this are called nutraceuticals (which provide specific medical benefits) and nutricosmetics (which are formulated for beauty purposes) and include: Antioxidant vitamins and minerals B vitamins Collagen Omega-3 Green tea and grapeseed extracts
Key Nutrients for Hair, Skin, and Nails as We Age
Some nutrients, such as collagen and calcium, provide the building blocks for hair, skin, and nails. Others help to guard against free radicals that damage these tissues. And some nutrients, such as vitamin C and lysine, support the synthesis of collagen, elastin, and keratin, the major proteins that make up your skin, hair, and nails. As we age, there is a decline in our ability to synthesise collagen and other key proteins in the integumentary system. This, in part, contributes to age-related changes in our appearance, such as sagging skin, weak nails, brittle hair, and fine lines and wrinkles. We also accumulate damage to these tissues as we get older, from pollution, sun exposure, and trauma. Changes in hormone balance also affects our appearance as we age.
Nutrition for Skin
Nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin C, resveratrol, and others have been found to support antioxidant activity in the skin and to help reduce photoaging (from sun exposure), which contributes to 80-90% of aging. Ultraviolet light exposure reduces collagen levels and causes collagen fibres to become disorganised and fragmented, leading to skin laxity and other changes. Providing the body with ready-made collagen peptides can help keep skin firm, hydrated, and looking youthful for longer.
Nutrition for Hair
Age affects hair growth by changing how long each hair follicle stays in each of three stages: anagen (active growth), catagen (transition phase followed by the death of the hair), and telogen (a resting phase). Around 80-90% of hair is in the anagen phase at any given time, and this can last from two to eight years. The catagen phase lasts four to six weeks, and the telogen phase about two to three months, during which the hair is easier to pull out or is shed naturally as a new anagen phase begins. As you might suspect, age decreases the time each hair follicle spends in the anagen phase, which means it is harder to grow long, healthy hair. Additionally, age can extend the telogen phase, which slows down the growth of new hair. Together, these changes can cause thinning hair. Age also leads to a decrease in the diameter of each individual hair and a decrease in the strength of hair, meaning that it has less volume and breaks more easily. And we haven't even mentioned the loss of hair pigment as we age, which is caused by a decline in cells called melanocytes that are particularly sensitive to oxidative damage.
Nutrition for Nails
Many of the changes that affect hair and skin also affect nail growth. After the age of 25, nail growth begins to decline, with thinning, ridging, yellowing, and brittleness more likely. These changes may be related to specific diseases or conditions, or insufficiencies in certain nutrients, such as iron, folate, other B vitamins, or protein. Often, though, nail changes are simply a result of altered metabolism and deposition of fatty acids and sterols.
Nutrition Supplements and How They Can Help
Plenty of nutricosmetics make claims to have you looking younger within hours or days, but is it really that easy? Not quite. But… there are plenty of nutrients that, when taken regularly, could offer protection against UV light and photodamage, reduce damage by free radicals, improve the health of the skin's lipid barrier, and support even skin tone and brightness. Collagen, for instance, has been seen to improve resistance to UV skin damage, while improving skin elasticity and hydration. It has also been associated with a significant reduction in eye wrinkles after just four weeks (Deshmukh et al., 2016). Omega-3 may also help protect the skin against UV damage and sunburn, largely because they modulate inflammatory processes in the skin (as well as the rest of the body). Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, such as docosahexanoic acid (DHA) which is found in algal oil and fish oil, has also been associated with improvements in antioxidant activity that helps protect the skin (Kendall et al., 2017). Other beneficial nutrients include green tea, which may offer some protection against sun damage and help support sebum (skin oil) levels to improve acne management (Saric & Sivamani, 2016; Saric et al., 2016). Green tea is found in Sea and Land Nutritional Greens alongside spirulina, chlorella, and artichoke, which provide a bounty of nutrients, including protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support healthy skin, hair, and nails. Grape seed extract also enhances antioxidant defences, and, let's not forget vitamin E, beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, all of which are lipid-soluble antioxidants that support healthy cell structure for healthy skin (Katsuda et al., 2015). In addition to acting as an antioxidant, vitamin C is also necessary for collagen synthesis and research suggests that levels of antioxidants nutrients such as vitamins C, E, and glutathione are significantly reduced (by up to 70%!) in older, wrinkled skin. Minerals such as zinc, copper, and selenium are also important for skin, hair, and nails as they support antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD). Low levels of SOD have been detected in people with alopecia (Prie et al., 2016).
A Note on Nutrients for Nails and Hair
When it comes to nail health, few nutrients can have as much of a dramatic impact as biotin. This water-soluble nutrient is part of the B vitamin complex and has long been associated with nail health thanks to numerous trials done in the 1990s (Lipner & Scher, 2017). These studies found that people with brittle nails that split easily had significant improvements in nail growth, thickness, and strength after taking 2.5-5mg of biotin for 5-15 months. Biotin also supports healthy hair growth and skin health, and supplementation with B vitamins and L-cysteine has been associated with improvements in hair quality after four months (Budde et al., 1993). There is no evidence of benefit, however, from shampoos that contain pantothenic acid or biotin, despite their popularity.
Whew. What a rapid ride through basic nutrition for skin, hair, and nails. Here's hoping that you now have a better understanding of some of the important nutrients for the integumentary system, and what to look out for when choosing natural health products that claim to support healthy skin, hair, and nails.
References Budde, J., Tronnier, H., Rahlfs, V.W., et al. (1993). Systemic therapy of diffuse effluvium and hair structure damage. Hautarzt, Jun;44(6):380-4. Deshmukh, S.N., Dive, A.M., Moharil, R., & Munde, P. (2016). Enigmatic insight into collagen. J Oral Maxillofac Pathol, May-Aug;20(2):276-83. Katsuda, Y., Niwano, Y., Nakashima, T., et al. (2015). Cytoprotective effects of grape seed extract on human gingival fibroblasts in relation to its antioxidant potential. PLoS One, Aug 10;10(8):e0134704. Kendall, A.C., Kiezel-Tsugunova, M., Brownbridge, L.C., et al. (2017). Lipid functions in skin: Differential effects of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on cutaneous ceramides, in a human skin organ culture model. Biochim Biophys Acta, Sep;1859(9 Pt B):1679-1689. Lipner, S.R., & Scher, R.K. (2017). Biotin for the treatment of nail disease: what is the evidence? J Dermatolog Treat, Nov 9:1-4. Prie, B.E., Iosif, L., Tivig, I., et al. (2016). Oxidative stress in androgenetic alopecia. J Med Life, Jan-Mar;9(1):79-83. Saric, S., & Sivamani, R.K. (2016). Polyphenols and Sunburn. Int J Mol Sci, Sep 9;17(9). pii: E1521. Saric, S., Notay, M., & Sivamani, R.K. (2016). Green Tea and Other Tea Polyphenols: Effects on Sebum Production and Acne Vulgaris. Antioxidants (Basel), Dec 29;6(1). pii: E2.