In fact, this is not only true with regard to skin conditions, but is also true of a myriad of degenerative diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease. Before we get into the specifics of how inflammation affects the skin and what we can do about it, let us examine what it is.
Throughout the ages, inflammation has been known to be associated with pain. The ancient Greeks described it as “internal fire.” Some time later, a Roman physician called Celsus defined inflammation as redness (rubor), swelling (tumor), heat (color), and pain (dolor.) His description remains accurate centuries later. In February of 2004, Time magazine did a cover story on inflammation and the role it is believed to play in aging and disease. Since that time, there has been a marked increase in the buzz about this topic, including how to stave off its cumulative effects. Many popular and even bestselling books (with and without prescribed diets and recipes included) have been written to aid us in translating the conclusions of this research into a lifestyle change that promises to promote better health.
What Causes Inflammation?
Inflammation can be an invaluable ally to the body in terms of defense, healing, and repair. It provides effective protection against invaders such as viruses and bacteria that cause infectious diseases. Inflammation as a response to trauma is critical to the body’s healing process and allows it to repair itself. As the body begins to heal, inflammation retreats from the attack and normal processes resume. There are times, however, when this inflammatory response does not respond to the signal to shut down, and inflammation becomes chronic rather than just “on call” and available to spring into action when necessary. This can either be caused by genetic factors, or other conditions such as high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity. Whatever the cause, this underlying, often painless and persistent inflammation is thought to be at the root of multiple ills.
This is food for thought to those of us who are interested in health, longevity, and the prevention of illnesses, but you may be wondering exactly how persistent inflammation can affect the skin and what we can do about it.
Among the many causes of aging is the widely accepted “Free Radical Theory.” Free radicals are atoms, molecules, or ions with unpaired electrons, which causes them to be highly unstable. In addition to being produced as a normal part of cell metabolism, free radicals are generated by many things including UV exposure, environmental toxins, improper diet, and smoking. (Taking one puff from a cigarette will trigger the production of more than one trillion free radicals in the lungs.) These incomplete molecules steal electrons from nearby molecules, causing them to become free radicals. This sets up a chain reaction that severely damages every molecule involved in the process.
Under normal circumstances the body uses antioxidants to combat free radicals. However, when the exposure to environmental stressors is extreme and the body’s antioxidant supply is low, cellular damage will occur. This is referred to as oxidative stress. When cells undergo oxidative stress, a chemical reaction occurs which ultimately leads to the production of collagenase, the enzyme that digests collagen.
Cellular damage resulting from oxidative stress is also believed to affect the efficiency of the cells, including their ability to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a compound necessary for the production of collagen and elastin. Collagen, which accounts for approximately 85 percent of the total dermal ECM (extracellular matrix) protein content, provides structure and support to the skin. Elastin is responsible for the skin’s elasticity or “spring.” When the ability to build these proteins is diminished, and existing collagen is being destroyed by collagenase, the result is aging skin.
What is the Connection Between Free Radicals and Inflammation?
Cells respond to free radicals in much the same way they react to bacteria and viruses. They are considered invaders that cause damage. When cells are damaged by free radicals, the body attempts to clear them away by activating various inflammatory pathways. Cells like neutrophils and macrophages are sent to the location of the damage. They move in between the linings of blood vessels to reach the site of the problem; these cells are called phagocytes. They engulf and digest the pathogen and stimulate lymphocytes and other immune cells to join the battle. They then release certain chemicals that cause inflammation. Not only does this inflammation destroy the damaged tissue, it can also affect the surrounding healthy tissue. The upshot with regard to aging is that inflammation triggers cell damage, which impairs the cells ability to produce collagen.
What Can we do to Counteract These Effects?
- Sun Protection: Sun protection is critical to the defense against free radical and inflammatory damage. Using and reapplying sunscreen in addition to wearing protective clothing when necessary is essential to protecting yourself. You may choose to use and recommend a moisturizer that includes SPF. Make sure your clients understand that an SPF of 75 does not mean that they need not reapply, and it may in fact be giving them a false sense of security about being exposed to UV rays for a prolonged period of time. Suggest using a mineral powder foundation that includes a sunscreen on top of their combination moisturizer and sunscreen. This makes it easy to reapply throughout the day if you are wearing makeup.
- Antioxidants: In order to neutralize free radicals, avoid excessive cell damage, and reduce inflammation; the body needs a consistent and generous supply of antioxidants. (Remember, oxidative stress occurs when the body is being bombarded by free radicals and does not have the antioxidant supply to defend itself.) A variety of antioxidant rich foods such as berries, kale, beans, and pecans are a good place to start. Instead of ordering that vanilla latte (which is loaded with sugar and offers virtually no nutritional benefits) consider green tea instead. Green tea contains polyphenols, thought to be responsible for its potent antioxidant properties. Supplements are useful, but be aware that of ingested antioxidants, only about 1 percent reach the surface of the skin.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These fatty acids are considered champions in the war against inflammation. Foods like salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed contain Omega-3s that block chemicals known to cause inflammation in the body.
- Topical Serums: Do not underestimate the importance of topical antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, particularly those in the form of serums that are of a smaller molecular structure that allows them to be more readily absorbed. Look for products that contain both antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Examples of topical ingredients known to be antioxidants are; ascorbic acid (vitamin C), tocopherol (vitamin E), glutathione, and beta-carotene. Some of the most effective anti-inflammatory ingredients include, resveratrol (from red grape skins), bisabolol (from chamomile), cucumber, lemongrass, licorice root, and figwort extracts. Ingredients known to have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties include EGCG (from green tea), azulene, and rosemary extracts as well as phytosterols (from rice bran.)
- LED Light Therapy: Why not enlist technology into the battle against inflammation? Certain wavelengths of light emitted by LEDs have been proven effective in the reduction of inflammation by down-regulating interleukin, a pro-inflammatory cytokine. Cytokines are inflammatory peptides produced by lymphocytes in response to free radicals and other offenders. LED also provides energy to increase cellular function and ATP production. As mentioned earlier, cellular efficiency is diminished as a result of oxidative stress. Using this technology in conjunction with cosmeceuticals or serums that contain both anti-inflammatories and antioxidants allows professionals to offer a specific treatment to combat the cumulative damage to the skin that results from chronic inflammation. Regular treatment in the salon or office to maintain healthy skin by increasing cell turnover, providing exfoliation, and protecting the skin’s extracellular matrix will promote better results from the use of hand-held LED light therapy and topical serums at home.
- Water Consumption: Dehydration is thought to promote the development of inflammatory compounds. There is no question that adequate hydration is necessary for proper cell function and metabolism. If you do not enjoy drinking water, try adding lemon or cucumber slices to your glass. You may find it more refreshing, and could also benefit from the nutritional and skin soothing benefits from these simple additions. You may even wish to have a pitcher available to offer your clients.
- Exercise: The right kind of exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect on the cells. Because it alleviates insulin resistance, exercise can also help reduce visceral fat. This is important since visceral fat triggers the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Just remember – do not overdo it. Too much or the wrong kind of exercise can cause injury which will trigger an inflammatory response.
Understanding more about how we can assist the body with its innate instinct to heal itself can only make us better at what we do. Putting this knowledge into practice may help us enjoy healthier, more productive lives while we are doing it.