There is more and more discussion these days surrounding the skin barrier and the role that disruption of these complex tissues plays in inflammatory skin conditions. This connection between barrier and skin health at large has been recognized in literature for decades now. The thing we aren’t talking about enough is that just as we know it’s ideal to manage skin disharmony with both internal and external healing paradigms so does the story go for that of our skins outer protective layer. When it comes to skin barrier repair we want to optimize the availability of nutritional building blocks like lipids to form the lipid matrix of the skin’s outer layer and other components of strong structural barrier integrity.
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier functions just as it sound and much more, it protects the sensitive living tissue of our epidermis from external stressor or ‘cutaneous invaders’ such as toxins, allergens, irritants, UV radiation and microbes like harmful bacteria in the outside environment. When the skin barrier is structurally damaged these cutaneous invaders activate immune cells causing inflammation and sensitization of the skin.
The skin barrier is also responsible for maintaining epidermal water content or hydration, providing protection from oxidation or in simple terms inflammation and aging, through innate antioxidant systems and providing immune protection through antimicrobial peptides protecting against a myriad of problematic organisms. The skin barrier lipids also maintain a healthy acid mantle or PH (acid balance) on your skins surface. This is really important for both external immune protection and fostering growth of positive, skin health promoting bacterial species on the skins surface. All this essentially comes down to if your skin barrier is damaged your skin won’t appear, feel or heal how you would like it to.
How do you know if your skin barrier needs some love?
Signs of a compromised skin barrier include dry, flaky or red skin, sensitive or itchy skin and skin that feels overly tight. Skin conditions that present with a disordered barrier include all types of dermatitis and eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, acne and premature aging. Combination or oily skin can also be due to barrier disorders where the stratum corneum isn’t holding onto lipids or hydrating oils, as it should. I know that sounds like every possible skin condition and that’s because it is. Things that damage our skin barrier are over washing especially with harsh foaming agents, over exfoliating, overuse of acids, continued washing with water that’s too hot, sun damage, stress, nutritional deficiencies, lack of sleep, external damage from scratching, poor thyroid function and digestive issues especially where intestinal hyper-permeability is involved or as they say on the street ‘leaky gut’.
Nutrition for Skin Barrier Support
We can’t talk about skin barrier healing without talking about fats or lipids. Ceramides and phospholipids are key players in both the lipid membrane and lipid matrix of the stratum corneum. Ceramides can be found in supplemental form or in the diet in wheat germ (contains gluten), eggs, sweet potatoes, non-GMO or organic soybeans and brown rice. Where phospholipids can be sourced in dietary supplemental form from sunflowers and soy or from dietary sources including animal meats, fish such as salmon and tuna, sunflower seeds, peanuts, lemon, oranges, eggs or non-GMO soy lecithin.
Essential fatty acids are great for skin barrier repair and not components our bodies are capable of synthesizing themselves. Here we want to increase intake of GLA from omega-6 and Omega-3 rich in EPA. These powerful anti-inflammatory fats help to moisturize and seal our skin barrier keeping hydration in and irritants out. Omega-3 is vitally important for the quality of our sebum which creates the acid mantle or protective fatty layer that maintains our skins PH, this is a major barrier booster for acne prone skin especially. GLA from healthy omega-6 is a wonderful anti-inflammatory fat for cell membrane and skin barrier function, particularly in dry skin or dermatitis sufferers. I finds these are best sourced in supplemental forms to get therapeutic dosing. However wild caught cold-water fish and a selection of nuts and seeds especially raw walnuts, ground chia, brown flax and hemp in the diet are great supportive therapies.
Calcium is key in keratinocyte (skin cell) formation and calcium homeostasis is needed for healthy skin barrier formation as well as the maintenance of skin barrier health and longevity. As calcium requirements increase in women at menopausal age as well as in pregnancy this is an important nutrient to watch for aging and barrier function in these periods especially. However Calcium supplementation can benefit barrier repair and function at any age. Avoid Calcium carbonate as it’s not very bioavailable. Seeds, leafy greens, broccoli, non GMO or organic soybeans and sardines or other very small fish are particularly good sources when moving away from dairy.
This is a specific form of B3 and it’s wonderful for skin on many levels. In this case we are focusing on its ability to stimulate ceramide and other healthy stratum corneum lipid biosynthesis by skin cells, nourishing and reinforcing skin barrier function. Niacinamide also offers antioxidant protection against UV, further guarding the skin barrier from damage. It’s best to supplement with or use in a serum for this function.
Other things to consider
If you have dietary allergies, sensitivities or intolerances or are unaware of specific food offenders but have skin issues and other allergy symptoms or gut issues it is important to either stay away from offending foods or ascertain offending foods or gut microbiome imbalances to further skin barrier healing. As mentioned earlier intestinal barrier issues and gut microbiome balance can affect the skin barrier. If the idea of this over whelms you it’s a good idea to look for a practitioner to guide you through this process.