For maximum benefits to skin, hair and nails at development and growth stages we need to ensure optimum nutrition. The annual spend on topical applications for health and beauty is exceptional especially when we consider that external areas to which we apply products are classified as dead ‘keratinised’ surfaces.
The nutritional requirements for hair, nails and skin are more easily understood if we look briefly at the anatomy of our skin and the cell formation for hair and nails. In this article we subsequently detail a range of vitamins, minerals and natural nutrients which play a specific and beneficial role in supporting the structure, quality, growth and condition of our hair, skin and nails.
The skin on our body has three main layers; the epidermis, the dermis and the subcutaneous layers.
The epidermis which is the uppermost layer of our skin serves as a barrier of defense and varies in thickness according to location with the thickest on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The epidermis is composed of multiple layers of cells termed ‘stratified kerantinised squamous epithelum’.
The surface layer of the epidermis consists of flat, thin dead cells in which the cytoplasm (basically the substance, or contents, that fills the cell – between the nucleus and the cell membrane) has been replaced by the fibrous protein keratin. These cells are continually changing with a complete replacement of the epidermis taking approximately forty days.
The dermis is the ‘second’ layer of skin situated between the epidermis and the subcutaneous tissue. The subcutaneous layer is the third of the three layers of the skin and contains fat and connective tissue.
The dermis is formed from connective tissue with the matrix containing collagen fibres interlaced with elastic fibres. Collagen fibres bind water and give skin its tensile strength; contained within these layers are glands (e.g. sweat and sebaceous glands), hair follicles, blood vessels and part of the nail.
The dermis is also referred to as ‘the true skin’ because most of the vital functions of the skin are performed or housed here, for example providing energy and nutrition. Although the visible layer of our skin is the epidermis it is largely ‘dead’ whilst the dermis is the sensitive layer containing nerve endings, sweat and sebaceous glands, and blood and lymph vessels.
Hair formation, growth and shedding occurs over three ‘phases’ and actually can take many years. All hair follicles are formed during fetal development, and then new hair is generated in the hair follicle by continually undergoing phases of recession, rest, and growth throughout life.
Hair growth begins with what is termed the ‘anagen’ phase. This period can typically last from two to six years on the scalp (and sometimes more). During this phase the cells at the root of the hair are multiplying rapidly and pushing upward.
The second phase is the ‘catagen’ phase which only lasts around two to four weeks. It signals the end of the active growth of a hair as the hair follicle is moving upward toward the skin’s surface to prepare the hair for shedding.
The third and final phase is the ‘telogen’ phase where shedding of the old hair and preparation for re-growth of a new follicle occurs. In the telogen stage the hair follicle is finally a dead and fully keratinized hair.
We most commonly associate nails with the ‘nail plate’ which consists of hard, horny keratin plate that is derived from the same cells as the epidermis and hair. The structure of the nail comprises the actual nail itself (the nail plate) and the surrounding tissues involved with the growth and development of the nail plate.
Nail growth relies upon the ‘matrix’ which supplies the nail with a good blood supply and is situated underneath the nail contained in an area of dense fibrous tissue called the mantle. The nail plate is the main body and hard part of the nail, made of translucent keratin protein. The nail plate effects a pink colour due to the blood supply underneath, but this colour may vary (e.g. a bluish or whit hue) due to physical conditions or outside influences such as temperature.
Toenails grow much more slowly than fingernails. Nails grow all the time, but their rate of growth slows down with age. If you are unwell your nails may suffer just like your skin and hair; this is often due to your blood supply concentrating on other parts of the body which need more help at times of illness. Chronic poor circulation is likely to affect the quality of your nails.
Damage to Hair, Nails and Skin – Signs and Symptoms
Hair Damage – Signs and Symptoms
We damage our hair by over exposure to sunlight, pollutants, applied chemicals, over brushing, drying, curling and straightening. The predominant damage in these circumstances is to the outer cuticle of the hair leading to splitting and breakage which exposes the inner hair with the result of dry, dull and coarse feeling hair.
Excessive hair loss can occur due to poor diet, physical trauma to the hair, emotional trauma, surgery, crash diets, thyroid problems and post childbirth; in most cases hair will quickly re-grow. Hormonal related hair loss impacts on both men and women, with male pattern baldness tending towards genetic links.
Immune related conditions where the immune system attacks hair follicles can result in small patches of hair loss developing on the skull and this is known as alopecia areata. In some occurrences total baldness develops and occasionally the loss of all of the hairs on the entire body, called alopecia universalis.
A range of prescribed medications are known to be associated with hair loss including the commonly used hormonal contraceptives and menopausal drugs.
Grey hair is usually associated with aging with early greying sometimes seen occurring through the generations in some families. Health issues such as anaemia, thyroid, vitamin B12 deficiency, and vitiligo can lead to premature greying.
Nail Damage – Signs and Symptoms
The most common problem affecting nails are caused by fungal nail infections with a white or yellow discolouration leading to crumbling and destruction of the nail. This problem occurs in both fingers and toes but more commonly the toenails are affected.
White spots on the nails are known as leukonychia and considered a sign of a previous and minor injury to the base of the nail. The white spots are often thought to be associated with zinc or calcium deficiencies however it is unlikely that this is a symptom of a nutritional deficiency.
Iron deficiency and anemia can manifest as a pale or white nail and in extreme deficiencies the nail with become concave (spoon shaped). Horizontal marks in the nails are associated with previous illness or infection and pitting of the nail surface is often associated with condition such as psoriasis.
Vertical marks on the nails are seen as a normal feature of the nails as we age; the marks can also be due to an overgrowth of keratin OR damage resulting from physical trauma particularly where hands are frequently exposed to water and household chemicals.
Our nails can reflect some serious health concerns and total nail discolouration or colour changes of the nail(s) not associated with bruising and injury should be referred to a medical practitioner for diagnosis.
Skin Damage – Signs and Symptoms
Damage predominantly occurs to our skin from physical trauma as in wounds, rashes and fungal infections whilst inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis can lead to long-term symptoms. Acne afflicts many and whilst considered a minor problem for some people in some cases it can be severe and lead to permanent scarring and emotional problems.
Visible skin aging is a concern for many and skin is considered to age due to the thinning of the dermis layer with our skin becoming more vulnerable to injury and slower to heal. Environmental factors including smoking and long term excessive exposure to sunlight and sun-beds are seen as detrimental to skin and are likely to promote accelerated aging.
The Ultraviolet radiation (UV) coming from the sun accelerates collagen breakdown and degradation in the skin leading to the formation of wrinkles; it is also responsible for an increase in ‘free radical’ formation in our body. The body has a number of control mechanisms to deal with free radicals by regulating their generation and repairing damage they might cause. When these safety mechanism fail, oxidative damage occurs, damaging cells, releasing destructive enzymes and triggering an inflammatory response. To combat this we need to ensure our diet provides optimum nutrition together with an increased intake of anti-oxidants.
Protection for Skin, Hair and Nails
Cleansing and moisturising with topical applications to maintain a healthy, supple skin are an essential part of a daily health and beauty regime; skin care products are now enriched with a wide range of ingredients to revive, moisturise and reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles. Natural ingredients including antioxidants and vitamins are often present for their ability to protect your skin from free radicals, stimulate cell regeneration and the production of collagen.
Nails and hair can benefit from topical application to counter the effects of drying from sunlight and central heating and exposure to cleaning products both personal and household. A number of herbal preparations have historical evidence of being beneficial for skin with topical application; Aloe Vera gel is an often overlooked topical application with well recorded benefits for skin in terms of both soothing and healing skin irritations and wounds.
Protection From Within
Ensuring your diet provides nutrients we know to be essential for maintaining healthy skin, hair and nails would be a logical addition to topical applications whilst addressing a balanced nutritional approach will also provide overall health promoting benefits. Good for you and your skin are:
- A healthy, unprocessed diet
- Adequate and quality sleep
- Drinking plenty of water
- Regular exercise
- Stop smoking (if you do) and keep alcohol to a minimum
- Protect your skin and avoid excessive exposure to sunlight
The Mediterranean diet has long been considered an example of a healthy diet, with research supporting this for a wide number of health conditions. The Mediterranean diet is associated with an increased intake of fresh fruit and vegetables and a diet rich in olive oil, nuts, seeds, pulses and beans with wholegrains, white meat, fish and seafood adding to the nutritional balance. Processed foods and refined foods such as refined white four, saturated fats and high intakes of red meat are not a traditional feature of this diet.
Research for the Mediterranean diet has demonstrated a reduced incidence of some cancers. In particular the reported decreased risk for most epithelial cancers – which decreased with an increasing vegetable consumption. The Mediterranean diet provides the healthy mono-unsaturated fats from olive oil and omega essential fats from fish, nuts and seeds. These foods, together with the unprocessed and unrefined foods in the diet, provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Fruit and vegetables, a source of vitamins and minerals, also provide flavonoids and carotenoids, the natural plant protectors which we now understand can pass on some of this valuable protection when we include these in our diet.
Protecting and Supporting your Repair Mechanisms
Whilst an unhealthy diet, cigarette smoking and sun exposure would be considered pro–oxidants and responsible for the formation of free radicals, a healthy diet and a number of specific nutrients are considered anti-oxidants and protective against the damaging free radicals. Specific nutrients are also identified as important for the growth and development of healthy tissue and protective of the destructive enzymes considered responsible for skin aging. We detail the main ones identified as beneficial for hair, skin and nail health as follows:
Selenium is an important mineral and antioxidant, with confirmed health benefits for selenium including contributing to the maintenance of normal hair and nails and to the protection of cells from oxidative stress.
Selenium, Vitamin E and carotenoids have also shown to be beneficial for improvements in skin texture. Intake of oral selenium plus copper is also associated with protective factors in respect of sunburn cell formation in human skin3. Higher serum selenium concentrations have also been associated with an approximately 60% decrease in incidence of both basal cell and squamous cell tumours4.
Vitamin C is an important vitamin and antioxidant with a wide range of health benefits. Vitamin C contributes to collagen formation; the normal function of blood vessels and skin; and to the protection of cells from oxidative stress.
Zinc has a variety of functions in human health including a role in the process of cell division. Zinc also contributes to the maintenance of normal hair, nails and skin and to the protection of cells from oxidative stress.
Biotin is a water soluble B-complex vitamin, an important co-enzyme and essential nutrient that contributes to the maintenance of normal hair and skin.
Copper is an important enzyme cofactor essential as a modulator in the inflammatory process as it is required for the cross-linking of collagen and elastin which are essential for the formation of strong and flexible connective tissue. Copper is essential for the formation of the pigment melanin which plays a role in the pigmentation of the hair, skin, and eyes. Early studies indicate copper and selenium provide protective factors against sunburn cell formation. Copper contributes to maintenance of normal connective tissues, normal hair and skin pigmentation and to the protection of cells from oxidative stress. Intake of oral selenium plus copper is also associated with protective factors in respect of sunburn cell formation in human skin.
MSM (methyl sulphonyl methane) is an organic form of sulphur; sulphur is available in a number of common foods and essential for the human body. High levels of sulphur are found in the muscles, skin and bones as well as concentrated amounts in the hair and nails.
Sulphur is a component of keratin, the main protein of hair and nails and is vital for the formation of keratin, collagen and elastin which provides flexibility, tone and strength to muscles, bones, joints, skin, hair and nails.
Silica extract is important for the human body with its role in the normal formation, growth and development of bone, connective tissues and cartilage. Silica is concentrated in all connective tissue including nails, hair and skin, where it contributes to collagen formation.
Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5) is a water-soluble vitamin used as a cofactor in many important biochemical reactions. Pantothenic acid is a constituent of coenzyme A and hence it plays a key role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats and is important for the maintenance and repair of all cells and tissue.
Pantothenic acid is involved in reactions that supply energy; in the synthesis of such vital compounds including sterols, hormones (growth, stress and sex hormones) and phospholipids. It is considered beneficial in the maintenance of healthy skin, muscles and nerves with reported benefits for pantothenic acid and acne appearing very promising. Benefits to the use of pantothenic acid and hormone development together with lipid metabolism and production of sebum in the skin were first highlighted in 1997 links.
Pine Bark Extract is a natural plant extract rich in the flavonoid procyanidins and considered to provide beneficial antioxidants which research has confirmed as inhibitory to the damaging free radicals and hence beneficial to skin.8 Pine bark extract has also shown clinically significant improvement in photo-damaged skin. A significant decrease in clinical grading of skin photo-aging scores were observed following oral supplementation with a significant reduction in the pigmentation of age spots also noted.9
Calcium as well as having a function toward skeletal health plays a regulatory role in a number of specialised functions in the body including muscle contraction, cardiac muscle contraction, neurotransmitter secretion, digestion, enzyme regulation, membrane permeability and blood coagulation. Calcium also plays a recognised part in the process of cell division and specialisation. There are several forms of calcium available, natural wholefood calcium sourced from seaweed is our preferred source.
If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.