It seems that inflammation is a buzzword that’s turning up everywhere these days—the term is being used to describe our diets and the condition is being blamed for ills ranging from arthritis and heart disease to acne and wrinkles.
What is inflammation?
In ideal circumstances, inflammation is actually a good thing. It’s the body’s built-in defense system, providing protection from invading bacteria, viruses and injuries. When the body is under assault, it responds by setting in motion an inflammatory process that sends chemicals from the body’s white blood cells to the area at risk.
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Then, after the infection is licked or the sprained muscle healed, the inflammation is supposed to go away. But sometimes the system gets out of whack, leading to chronic, low levels of inflammation that linger anywhere in the body—within your blood vessels, joints or organs. That can put you at risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and even some cancers.
And when the inflammation is in the skin, which is the body’s largest organ, it can affect not only your health, but also your looks.
Where’s it coming from?
There is no one culprit when it comes to inflammation—and the cause could be coming from within your body or from external, environmental factors. “Stress, lack of sleep, unhealthy diet, pollution, secondhand smoke, sun exposure—these can all lead to skin inflammation,” says Wechsler.
How inflammation from the inside affects beauty on the outside
The skin is an active organ (not just a barrier between your insides and the outside world) that is affected by stress hormones when under assault. The “stress hormone” cortisol elevates during stress, and in the short-term is actually a good thing—it helps your body handle stress. But if you have chronic, constant stress, cortisol backfires and causes inflammation.
Diet is thought to play a role in causing inflammation as well. The foods that are the worst offenders are ones you probably should ditch from your diet anyway—like saturated fats, fried foods, refined sugar and refined carbohydrates.
This internally caused inflammation can take a toll on the skin in a variety of ways—including acne breakouts, rosacea and visible signs of aging (like wrinkles and sagging skin). “The higher the cortisol is, the more wound-healing slows and the more breakdown there is of collagen,” says Wechsler. And that can accelerate the aging process. Collagen is the stuff that keeps skin full, smooth and elastic—as it breaks down, skin starts to sag, wrinkle and generally look less vibrant.
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Acne is also an inflammatory condition—just look at how angry those swollen, red bumps can be! As such, it is exacerbated by stress. Which is why it’s not uncommon to wake up the morning before a big presentation, party or event with a big pimple on your face.
Another skin condition that can get worse when there’s inflammation is rosacea. The redness that shows up on the forehead, nose, cheeks and chin is triggered by inflammation, whether that inflammation comes from stress, sun exposure, food, hormones, or any other cause.
Since stress is one of the main reason for inflammatory skin damage, anything you can do to reduce stress is going to help.
Getting more exercise and better sleep are two ways to combat the situation. “Exercise boosts the release of endorphins, which are anti-inflammatory hormones,” says Wechsler. “And sleep is also key because when you’re sleeping endorphin levels are at their highest and cortisol levels at their lowest.” This gives your skin a chance to heal and repair—which is why it’s called “beauty sleep!”
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Eating a diet that’s rich in anti-inflammatory compounds is another great defensive move. “Consuming omega-3 and omega-6 fats will help reduce the levels of prostaglandins—which are pro-inflammatory—in the skin,” says David Bank, director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery, Mount Kisco, NY. The healthiest way to ingest these is to add flaxseeds and fatty fishes, like salmon and mackerel, to your diet on a regular basis. You can also reap the anti-inflammatory benefits by taking fish oil capsules and drizzling flaxseed oil onto your salads.
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For more skin-healthy nutrition, load your plate with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables (like berries, leafy greens and citrus fruits). Free radicals promote inflammation and damage to the skin, so consuming lots of free radical-fighting antioxidants helps to combat the harm.
How inflammation from the outside affects beauty
Pair inflammation on the inside with assaults from the outside and you’ve got yourself a skin-aging double whammy.Several types of inflammatory reactions can be lumped together under the term “dermatitis.” Irritant dermatitis is—as you would suspect—the result of putting something irritating on the skin. “You can get it by overusing abrasive products like alcohol-based hand sanitizers or a topical cream like Retin A,” explains Joel Cohen, assistant clinical professor of dermatology, University of Colorado. “The skin gets damaged and that sends a signal to the body to release inflammatory cells to the area.”
Contact dermatitis is a localized reaction of the skin to an allergen—such as poison ivy, fragrances or preservatives (in laundry detergents or skincare products) or nickel metal. “The allergen activates the immune system which then produces antibodies toward the allergen,” says Bank. “That in turn directs the body to release histamines that cause an inflammatory reaction such as a rash, red bumps, blisters or hives.”
And then there’s atopic dermatitis, more commonly known as eczema. Eczema flares up as scaly patches that could look like a rash or chronic dry skin. This condition is genetic, so some people are naturally predisposed to it, but flare-ups can be triggered by allergies, cold, dry air, emotional stress and exposure to chemicals from soaps or detergents.
But one of the most damaging external causes of skin inflammation is the sun. Ultra-violet rays generate molecules called free radicals, and once they are released in the skin, they cause inflammation.
“Sunburn itself is an inflammatory reaction to the damage done to the skin by UV rays,” says Cohen.
Whether it’s short-term issues (like hives, a rash or sunburn) or the cumulative effect of chronic assaults, inflammation does take a toll on the skin. “The skin’s barrier function weakens which leads to more trans-epidermal water loss,” explains Bank. “That leaves skin drier and more prone to sensitivity.” So even if you don’t normally have sensitive skin, you could suddenly find yourself getting irritated more easily—even by the same products you have used before without any problems.
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But it’s not only the look of your skin that can suffer from inflammation. The changes it causes can also put the health of your skin at risk. “The sun’s UV rays cause of cascade of reactions within the skin,” says Cohen. “Before your skin even gets red from exposure, the UV rays are suppressing the immune system.” So instead of being able to fight back against the UV assault, your skin cells won’t be as capable of repairing damage, and mutations within the DNA may be created. “Those mutations are how skin cancers form,” warns Cohen. And the inflammation caused by sun exposure also accelerates the breakdown of collagen causing skin to look old before its time.
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If your skin is already irritated, seek out topical products that will help soothe and decrease inflammation. Sunburned skin will feel relief with the application of aloe or a lotion that contains colloidal oatmeal. During an eczema flare-up, try lotions that contain gentle moisturizing ingredients such as ceramides and hyaluronic acid.
Using antioxidants topically can have a protective effect similar to consuming them in your diet. They penetrate into the skin where they can help fight off damaging free radicals. Look for topical lotions and serums that contain antioxidants such as vitamin C, green tea, resveratrol, coffeeberry extract and pomegranate extract.
Sunscreen is the other key element when it comes to protecting skin. “Block the inflammatory pathway that the sun’s UV rays create by wearing a broad spectrum sunscreen every day,” recommends Wechsler. “The fewer hits the skin takes, the better off it will be.”
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