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Reduce your risk of developing skin cancer—from the inside out.

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While there is considerable evidence that what we eat is a major factor in the development of internal cancers such as breast, prostate, colon, and lung cancer, there has been little focus on diet’s role in skin cancer. The irony is that because of the skin’s specialized role as a protective outer layer and its constant need for nutrients, the skin may be even more responsive to dietary strategies to reduce cancer risk than internal tissues. This may be especially true for the more serious forms of skin cancer; evidence shows that dietary factors can play a significant role in preventing these forms of the disease.

In fact, what we eat is extremely important to the health of our skin. It is critical to provide the skin with essential nutrients required for normal function and cell division—virtually every known nutrient is important. And research points to the Mediterranean diet as possibly the best diet for healthy skin and the prevention of skin cancer. This does not mean to simply eat more Italian food. The Mediterranean diet reflects food patterns in the early 1960s typical of Crete, parts of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy. The traditional Mediterranean diet has shown tremendous benefit in fighting heart disease and cancer, as well as diabetes.

It has the following characteristics: 

  • It centers on an abundance of plant food, including fruit, vegetables, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds.
  • Foods are minimally processed and there is a focus on seasonally fresh and locally grown foods.
  • Fresh fruit is the typical daily dessert, with sweets containing concentrated sugars or honey consumed a few times per week at the most.
  • Dairy products, principally cheese and yogurt, are consumed in low-to- moderate amounts.
  • Fish is a consumed on a regular basis.
  • Poultry and eggs are consumed in moderate amounts, about one to four times weekly.
  • Red meat is consumed in small amounts.
  • Olive oil is the principal source of fat.
  • Wine is consumed in low-to-moderate amounts, normally with meals.

The two components of the Mediterranean diet that have received a lot of attention are red wine and olive oil. In terms of skin health, a particularly important component of the Mediterranean diet is the olive itself. Population-based studies have shown a negative correlation between the consumption of olives and wrinkle formation. In other words, a higher intake of olives is associated with fewer wrinkles. One of the key compounds in olives is verbascoside, a polyphenol molecule that is found in the fruit, but not in olive leaves. The polyphenols from olive fruit have also been shown to have good bioavailability and actually increase antioxidant defenses within the skin against sun damage.

Other components in the Mediterranean diet are also important. In a study conducted in Rome, Italy, after controlling for smoking, sun exposure, skin pigmentation, and other factors, researchers found a protective effect for weekly consumption of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (50 percent reduced risk) and high consumption of vegetables (also a 50 percent reduced risk). Consumption of carrots, cruciferous and leafy vegetables, and citrus fruits was also associated with a near 50 percent reduction in risk. Other studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acid intake is inversely related to melanoma. In other words, higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a significant reduction in the risk of developing melanoma.

Dietary factors are not limited to those contained in the Mediterranean diet, however. Studies also indicate that green tea consumption is protective against skin cancer. The beneficial compounds are the polyphenols, similar to those found in olives.

Supplements for Healthy Skin

A healthy diet is important, but so too is proper supplementation. New skin cells are born in the deepest level of the top layer of the skin (epidermis) and migrate upward. By the time they reach the surface they are no longer living. Each day you shed millions of these dead cells through w ashing or abrasion. As you slough them off, new cells rise to take their place. One of the reasons that the health of our cells is so closely tied to our overall nutritional status is this high rate of cellular turnover. Obviously, a deficiency of an essential nutrient, whether it is a
vitamin, mineral, fatty acid, or protein, can result in impaired manufacture
of healthy new skin cells and a greater susceptibility to damage or faulty repair.

My recommendations are to take a high- potency multiple vitamin and mineral formula to insure adequate intake of all essential micronutrients. I also recommend taking 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil each day and enough of a high-quality fish oil to provide 1,000 mg EPA and DHA, the key omega-3 fatty acids.

Lastly, there is some evidence that low levels of vitamin D3 are linked to an increased risk for skin cancer. Taking a dosage of 2,000–5,000 IU per day is recommended to provide optimal D3 levels. The dosage level is based upon your typical exposure to sunlight on a large portion of your skin.

Reducing Risk Factors 

The primary prevention of any disease involves staying away from risk factors. In regard to skin cancer, here are the major risk factors:

  • Too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (from sunlight or tanning beds and lamps)
  • Pale skin (easily sunburned, doesn’t tan much or at all, natural red or blonde hair)
  • Exposure of the skin to repeated or large amounts of carcinogens, including coal tar, paraffin, arsenic compounds, or solvents
  • Family history of skin cancers
  • Multiple or unusual moles
  • Severe sunburns in the past
  • Weakened immune system
  • Older age

The last factor, older age, is something we can address through optimal nutrition, but only to a limited extent. As we age, the ability to repair damage to the skin is reduced because the cells are not being replaced by newer cells as rapidly. The typical skin cell turnover rate for a person up to age 20 is roughly 14 days. At age 30, it takes an average of 24 days for cells to turn over and reveal younger, healthier skin. By age 50 it takes about a month and a half.

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Types of Skin Cancer

Skin cancer is by far the most common of all cancers. There are basically three major types: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma (together referred to as nonmelanoma skin cancer), and melanoma. The outer layer of the skin is made up of squamous cells. Basal cells are found below the squamous cells. Melanoma develops from melanocytes—pigment-producing cells located in the deepest layer of the skin. 

About 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, while melanoma account for an additional 70,000-plus cases. Most basal and squamous cell cancers are superficial lesions that develop on sun-exposed areas of the skin, like the face, ears, neck, lips, and the backs of the hands. They usually do not spread if treated early. Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes—the cells that make the brown skin pigment known as melanin, which gives the skin its color. Melanin helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from the harmful effects of the sun. One of the interesting things about melanomas is that they can start on nearly any part of the skin, even in places that are not normally exposed to the sun, and they can also start in other parts of the body, such as in the eyes or mouth. 

If a melanoma is not treated early, it can spread to other parts of the body. It is responsible for nearly 10,000 of the more than 13,000 skin cancer deaths each year.