Let’s get right to the nitty gritty. There are several very well documented causes of premature aging and good science beyond what we all can do to stop, or even reverse those effects. You’ll notice that a lot of these overlap. I’m not going into detail, but tobacco use and excess alcohol can both be major contributors to premature aging of the skin.
Too Much Sun
A little sun is great and allows our bodies to produce much needed Vitamin D. Over time, too much sun exposure can lead to premature aging in several ways. The primary way is by damaging collagen (firmness) and elastin (elasticity). It does this by increasing an enzyme responsible for degrading collagen called matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). If that’s not enough, it can increase inflammation, damage DNA, damage keratinocytes, and increase oxidative stress by decreasing antioxidant levels in the skin.
Too Much Sugar
Ok, so you already knew about the sun, but have you ever heard of glycation? Diets high in sugar can cause problems that our bodies could handle just fine otherwise. It’s not that sugar is bad, it’s that too much sugar is very bad. Glycation occurs when circulating sugar attaches on to collagen or elastin which changes their structures, creating what is called advanced glycation end (AGE). I’m not making this up, they’re really called AGE for short. Then these AGE critters cross-link with other proteins creating strong bridges. We go from firm and elastic to weak and brittle. As with too much sun exposure, glycation can increase MMPs enzymes and oxidative stress. There is even research that shows once it’s started, AGE can perpetuate without the need for sugar.
Not Enough Sleep
A recent study published just this summer showed that inadequate sleep accelerates skin aging and decreases the skin’s ability to recover from sun exposure. Science isn’t sure why just yet, but our bodies do a lot repair work while we sleep, especially during deep sleep (delta wave sleep).
What’s enough sleep? It varies from person to person, but generally between 7 and 9 hours of quality sleep. Hint: if you rely on an alarm clock and have to drag yourself out of bed, then you’re not getting enough.
Omega-3 competes with omega-6 for the attention of the same enzymes in the inflammation pathway… omega-3 reduces inflammation, and omega-6 produces it. For that reason, we need to get enough omega-3 in our diet AND reduce the amount of omega-6. A good diet consists of a 2:1 or 4:1 ratio of 6 to 3, but typical American diet are 10:1 on a good day. It’s currently recommended that we all get at least 500mg of Omega-3 (EPA + DHA).
Omega-3 is also an important part of our cell membranes. When there isn’t enough available, it affects the cells’ structure, and their ability to function normally decreases. Studies have shown that both normal aging and oxidative stress can reduce the amount of omega-3 in our skin.
Free radicals are nasty little molecules that love to cause trouble. In our skin, free radicals like to damage DNA, promote inflammation, destroy collagen, and even change the rate cells are renewed. The total free radical load on your body at any given time is your oxidative stress. In addition to the ones mentioned above, other things that can ramp-up free radical production include: tobacco, prescription drugs, processed foods, exercise, air pollution, and emotional stress.
Antioxidants are the heros in this story… they run around and neutralize those little trouble makers. Vitamin C, vitamin E, resveratrol (red wine), lutein (tomatoes), catechins (green tea), genistein (soy), and astaxanthin (my favorite) have all been clinically shown to be great antioxidants for our skin.
muffin photo by radical_vamsi (flickr creative commons)