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Keep skin glowing, hair shiny with healthy diet.

by Doris Penner

            North Americans spend millions of dollars a year on cosmetics and grooming aids in an attempt to enhance their beauty. What people sometimes forget is that looking good is as much about taking care of your body from the inside as it is about using products on the outside. Glowing skin, glossy hair, strong nails and clear eyes are outward signs that one's body is basically healthy, achieved by a wholesome well-balanced diet, plenty of exercise and a positive attitude to life. So what in particular should one do to maintain an attractive appearance as the lustre and vitality of youth fades, hormones fluctuate and the body begins to change and sag? Let's consider skin, hair and nails as an example.

            While the fountain of youth is a myth, and there is no “magic” food that can push back the years and the toll they take, diet has a great deal to do with how well your body ages. And it's never too early to pay attention and begin implementing healthy practices. Skin, hair and nails are made up of keratin, collagen and elastin—proteins that form building blocks, and provide strength and elasticity. Thus it stands to reason that eating high-quality protein every day is in order to help keep skin from aging prematurely; when collagen and elastin are lost for example, facial wrinkles form and nails and hair become brittle and prone to breaking. Your daily meals should include at least one serving of lean meat, seafood, eggs or legumes and two servings of low-fat dairy products. Take note that more protein is not better since the “extra” will be stored as fat.

Zinc plays a role

            An interesting accessory to protein formation is the mineral zinc which plays a role in maintaining connective tissues of skin, nails and hair. A condition known as alopecia which results in hair loss is sometimes due to a zinc deficiency. The mineral is found in green beans, cashews, soybeans and lean meats.

            Contrary to what some consumers believe, the body needs fat for a number of roles including the maintenance of healthy skin. However, not all fat is created equal—we're not talking saturated animal fat, but rather essential omega-3 and omega-6 fat found in fish, nuts, flax and whole grains. In balance with omega-3, omega 6 fats are essential for healthy skin, keeping it flexible and moisturized. In other words if your skin is dry and itchy (occurring especially in the scalp), you may not being getting enough of the essential fatty acids. Omega-3 is also responsible to help maintain the lustre of hair.

            Several vitamins and minerals are particularly important for skin, hair and nail health. The B vitamins—plentiful in whole grains, nuts and meat products—come to mind immediately, particularly riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3) and B6 which are sometimes called “skin vitamins” because a deficiency often shows up as itchy dry skin. Biotin (B7), the “beauty vitamin”supports the health of hair, skin and nails.

Making collagen

            Vitamin C is essential in making collagen, the fibrous material that plumps up skin and gives it shape and support. As one ages, the skin loses collagen and begins to sag. Vitamin C along with vitamin E and beta-carotene (vitamin A) are powerful antioxidants, helping to protect the skin against harmful oxidation reactions (such as sun burn). Vitamin A is also important in keeping hair moisturized and is sometimes used to treat acne. The three vitamins are found in many common foods, with fruits and vegetables being excellent sources. Look for vitamin C especially in citrus fruits and kiwi and vitamin A in bright orange produce such as carrots, sweet potatoes, apricots and cantaloupes.

            Two minerals one can pull out as playing a role in skin, hair and nail health are iron—the best source is red meat—and silica, found in whole grains, iceberg lettuce and carrots. Flagging energy is often a sign of iron deficiency, as is dry, dull hair, brittle nails or dry skin. Silica is a trace mineral and even though the body doesn't need much of it, it plays a role in stimulating blood flow which helps keep skin and scalp healthy and is a necessary component in the skin's connective tissue, helping to strengthen bones, nails and hair.

            So in addition to eating a well-balanced diet, how can you help maintain shiny thick hair and strong nails? Make sure you are drinking plenty of water to keep your skin, nails and hair hydrated. One supplement you might consider is silica in capsule or gel form. The gel may be used externally by dabbing on cracked or abrasive skin (or on small cuts) or around nails. It may also be taken internally mixed in water or a smoothie, for example. If you think you are not getting an adequate amount of iron or vitamin C, you might consider a supplement. As with all major changes in diet or when starting a supplement, talk to your physician to make sure it will not adversely affect other health conditions or play havoc with medications you are taking.