Why is my skin so angry in the winter?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, dry skin is caused either by exposure to excessive dryness and heat (as in the dry heat produced by HVAC systems or radiators) or a deficiency of blood and fluids within the body. These causes can be seen as mutually interdependent- one can make the other worse. Other symptoms of blood and fluid deficiency include brittle hair and nails, constipation, constant thirst, or even very light or non-existent periods. If you have dry skin year-round or every winter you experience severe symptoms, fluid and blood deficiency are most likely at work, and dietary changes plus both internal and external Chinese herbs can help.
Scientists describe something called the “Dry Skin Cycle”- and it goes like this:
In Phase 1, Triggers like low humidity and frequent hand washing lead to “barrier deterioration”- the loss of water content and flexibility from the top layer of your skin. Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF), a mixture of substances naturally produced by the skin which serves as a waterproof barrier is also damaged. The result of this deterioration is that the skin can’t hold remaining moisture in- and water loss (through simple evaporation) increases even more.
In Phase 2 of the cycle, the skin attempts to repair itself by increasing production of new skin cells and releasing pro-inflammatory substances. While this is a protective mechanism, it leads to thicker, scaly skin that is itchy, inflamed and red. This scaly skin is actually even more susceptible to damage than healthy skin, so the cycle just keeps repeating itself.
You can now see why it’s so hard to get rid of dry skin once it’s taken hold. To truly break the cycle, you need to treat the symptoms (itchiness and dry, scaly appearance) AND repair the skin’s structure so it can once again serve as a healthy barrier to the elements (source).
Healing from the inside out: Foods for skin health
From both eastern and western points of view, what you put in your body as well as what you put on your body are very important. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, foods that nourish the blood and fluids (also called the Yin) include Aduki and black beans, sesame seeds, duck, eggs, nettle and asparagus, just to name a few. Dishes such as asparagus with egg salad and sesame seeds, pork with baked apple, miso soup with tofu and seaweed and fish with coconut milk are all great ideas. To build and nourish the blood, dark leafy greens, beets, avocado, mussels and red meat are recommended. Regarding red meat: it is seen as very strongly tonifying and just a small 2-4 oz. serving once to twice a week is sufficient in most cases.
Scientific research points to several vitamins and fats important for skin health. Most notably, if you are deficient in EFA’s (Essential Fatty Acids) this will lead to scaly, dry skin and very low moisture levels (source). . The body can’t make EFA’s – they must be obtained through food. EFA’s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). You may have heard of Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s: these are both examples of PUFA’s. Dietary sources of PUFA include fish, borage oil, sunflower oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts, to name a few. Although they are beneficial for other reasons, oils such as butter or coconut oil are not classified as PUFAs, and have not been shown to have much effect on skin moisture levels (source). It’s really interesting to me that a lot of the foods considered to be fluid-nourishing in Chinese Medicine are also rich in PUFAs.
Other Tips and Considerations
Jennifer Rasa, owner and esthetician at Pretty Please Skin Care recommends adding 2 drops of moisturizing oil to your everyday lotion. Her favorite is the Facial Recovery Oil by Eminence Organics. Jennifer also recommends eating foods rich in biotin such as avocado and drinking plenty of water, in addition to using a humidifier whenever possible. Avocado can also be used topically by pureeing it, as the natural oils act as an emollient, making for a great homemade hydrating mask.
My Other Tips:
- Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol, as both are quite dehydrating
- Turn your heat or radiator down whenever possible at home-especially while you are sleeping. This will benefit both your skin and your sleep, as the ideal temperature for sleep is between 65 and 72 degrees.
- From a Chinese Medicine perspective, avoiding spicy or bitter foods in excess is also important.
- Get a hand soap that is free of SLS or other detergents, opting instead for gentler vegetable oil based soaps (such as Oregon Soap Company’s foaming hand soap, available here). After washing your hands, gently blot dry or let air dry instead of vigorously towel-drying. Both these tips will help prevent stripping of Natural Moisturizing Factor, which is responsible for protecting your skin’s water levels.
- One of my favorite ways to moisturize is by using pure Cocoa Butter– I recommend getting the wafers, which are solid at room temperature but melt when applied to skin. Cocoa Butter smells like chocolate and feels luxurious and totally non-greasy!
- If your skin is excessively itchy, see me for an herbal lotion or oil which can help moisturize and calm redness and inflammation. There are also Chinese Herbal Teas to drink which can help quite a lot.