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Do not free the radicals.

MAINTAINING healthy, beautiful skin requires an understanding of the body's metabolism as well as an effective strategy to combat the factors that contribute to aging and cell damage. In the rich and mysterious interplay among every single cell in your body, there is a constant battle between good and bad forces.

To join the resistance, first it is necessary to know your enemy: the oxygen-free radical. We need oxygen to live, but it turns out that oxygen has a dark side. At the molecular level, during chemical reactions, oxygen molecules become electrically charged. They are called oxygen-free radicals. Some serve beneficial purposes. For instance, the immune system depends on them to help destroy bacteria but, when free radicals abound in excess, they are toxic. They cause damage to cells' DNA, membranes, proteins, and other vital structures.

This tissue injury (oxidative damage) builds up over time and eventually can contribute to a host of serious diseases, including skin cancer. It also is responsible for many of the visual changes in our appearance as we age, such as wrinkles and loose, sagging skin. In addition to natural processes such as aging, this "radicalization" of oxygen comes about from exposure to external sources such as UV rays from sun exposure; tobacco smoke; excess alcohol consumption; certain foods; and chemicals in the environment or in your skin-care products.

If your body is under siege from free radicals, your skin will reflect the struggle. We all have seen people whose skin has been ravaged by these unhealthy behaviors, and it is not pretty. So, how do you fight free radicals? Ever since 1956, when the theory that free radicals contribute to aging first was proposed, scientists have been coming up with ways to prevent free radicals and oxidative damage.

Good news: you do not need a prescription, just a shopping cart, as some of those preventive ingredients are found at the grocery store in many common foods you already may enjoy eating. Others are available in topical skincare products. The secret weapon that these foods and products have in common is antioxidants. Antioxidants are chemical substances--vitamins and nutrients that you likely have heard about before--that neutralize free radicals and prevent them from causing further damage.

Antioxidants act to counter the effects of free radicals that form due to aging, sun damage, and other external factors. How do you prevent the formation of excess free radicals before they start? First, never tan--ever. We know for certain that prolonged exposure of unprotected skin to the sun creates free radicals and damages DNA. Damaged DNA leads to mutations, which lead to skin cancer. We also know that free radicals from sun exposure damage elastin fibers--your skin's "rubber bands"--and damaged elastin fibers make your skin loose and droopy. Also, UV rays increase free radicals in your skin that directly destroy collagen, weakening the skin's structural support. The skin appears thin and transparent. Wrinkles check in and refuse to check out. Preventing UV damage keeps oxidative skin damage to a minimum, and that preserves your skin's health and beauty.

Second, never smoke--ever. Smoking has been shown to increase free radicals and oxidative stress in the skin. A Surgeon General report notes that "massive amounts of free radicals in cigarette smoke cause inflammation and oxidative stress, which damages cells, tissues, and organs." The report concludes that "there is no safe level of exposure to cigarette smoke."

Go easy on the alcohol. Like some foods, alcoholic beverages cause oxidative stress by increasing free radicals in the body. They also cause indirect oxidative stress by damaging your liver, which filters free radicals and other toxins. Alcohol harms the liver and impairs your body's internal defense mechanism against flee radicals. Alcohol also reduces the levels of antioxidants in your body and interferes with other important elements and molecules in your bloodstream that participate in the oxidation process. So, think twice before you order that second or third drink.

Now, about those skin creams with potentially harmful additives: topically applied products that contain high levels of allergens can increase free radical damage in your skin. These additives literally "rev up" your immune system and recruit inflammatory cells to your skin that act to fight off the offending agent. The immune cells release toxic chemicals the same chemicals released to fight off bacteria or a virus--and these toxic chemicals increase oxidative stress. The additives themselves also are directly toxic to skin cells.

Certain foods contribute to high levels of free radicals in the body. Many of these are processed foods that have been changed from their original form before they reach your table. These "processes" typically include adding some nutrients while removing others and adding preservatives to sustain the freshness factor:

Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame in "diet" products and high-fructose corn syrup in most sodas, sweets, and carbohydrate products.

Relined sugar is common table sugar extracted from sugar cane and stripped of its natural ingredients.

While flour is found in many cakes, cookies, pastas, white breads, bagels, muffins, pretzels, and crackers.

Hydrogenated oils have transfatty acids added to prolong shelf life, and are found in margarine and many baked goods.

High-fat foods such as ice cream, butter, cheese, chips, most desserts, and red meat.

"Enriched" foods with artificial vitamins and nutrients added, such as many cereals, breads, pastas, and white rice.

Fried foods and those cooked in oil at high temperatures.

Making better food choices to decrease oxidative stress and inflammation is not difficult. For instance, switch to raw sugars (such as turbinado), long-acting complex carbohydrate sweeteners (such as brown rice syrup), or natural sweeteners with no potentially harmful synthetic ingredients (such as agave nectar or stevia). Whole-grain carbohydrate products such as oatmeal, brown rice, and flourless, sprouted breads are easy to find--and tasty, too. Extra virgin olive oil, a potent free radical scavenger, and nonhydrogenated oils are "good" fats that promote health and beauty. Olive oil, high oleic expeller-pressed sunflower oil, and expeller-pressed safflower oil contain linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid that is crucial for maintaining moisture in the skin.

Other sources of good fats are fish, nuts, and avocados, which contain omega-3 fatty acids. These exhibit potent anti-inflammatory properties and, like omega-6s, are essential fats for maintaining moisture in skin cells. Grill, steam, or bake when cooking, and look for foods on the menu prepared the same way when dining out. For optimum nutrition, the zealous prefer not to cook at all, and consume foods raw.

However, regardless of how strictly you adhere to these guidelines, you inevitably will be exposed to flee radicals and oxidative reactions that occur due to aging and other normal processes in your body. That is where antioxidants come into play. Certain foods, deemed "super foods," are thought to have exceptional free radical-fighting capacity. The following can be incorporated into your diet easily:

Chocolate. Cocoa dark chocolate and cocoa powders are filled with antioxidants called flavonoids. Cocoa ranks highest in antioxidant potency among foods that fight free radicals. Remember, milk chocolate with sugar, caramel, or other high-fat, high-glycemic ingredients do not count. Look for dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa and low-sugar content or unsweetened (preferably).

Berries. Acai berries, blackberries, blueberries, raspbemes, strawberries--all of these are loaded with antioxidant plant nutrients called anthocyanidins.

Tea. When hot water meets green or white tea leaves, antioxidant polyphenols are released.

Pomegranate. This ruby red fruit boasts nearly three times the polyphenols as green tea.

Reel wine. The skins of grapes contain resveratrol, a potent free radical scavenger. Red wine also has grapeseed extract. Remember, keep your consumption to a minimum to avoid counteracting the benefits with the detrimental effects of excess alcohol consumption.

Wild salmon. This fish is high in astaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids.

Flax seeds. Even a small amount is packed with omega-3 fatty acids.

Chia seeds. They possess more omega-3s than flax, more antioxidants, a number of minerals, and have the advantage of easier absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.

Grape seeds. They have oligomeric proanthocyanidins, a class of flavonoid complexes that, according to some studies, helps stabilize and maintain collagen.

Sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Excellent sources of Vitamin E.

Curcumin/turmeric. They contain potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, UV-protective, and wound-healing properties.

Mixing and matching

Ideally, you would include these healthy foods in your diet every day, mixing and matching them based on your appetite and culinary interests. Here are some easy ways to get started. A morning cup of coffee easily can be replaced with a spot of tea, green or white. Instead of a midday snack of chips or candy, look for Wail mix at the health food store made with raw nuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, or dried berries. For dessert, rather than indulge in sweets made with high-fructose corn syrup or processed sugars that actually may contribute to free radical formation, opt for one or two small pieces of unsweetened dark chocolate or a bowl of fresh berries. If you like to decompress at the end of the week with vodka and tonic, pour a glass of red wine instead for a healthy jolt of resveratrol. The zealous, of course, will want to avoid alcohol consumption entirely.

"If I eat salmon and blueberries every day, will it make my wrinkles disappear?" No. This is not about getting rid of existing wrinkles. This is about prevention and maintenance. Having antioxidants in your arsenal will prevent damage from free radicals and maintain your beauty. Potentially, over time, using antioxidants may help reverse previous cell damage and reverse some skin changes that are due to aging.

You can apply some antioxidants directly to your skin. Look for products that include the following:

Vitamin C. Studies show that topically applying it boosts collagen production and reduces pigmentation caused by sun damage.

Vitamin E. Studies suggest that topically applied Vitamin E possesses strong protective properties against UV rays, especially when combined with Vitamin C.

EGTTM (L-ergothioneine). Known as "The Intelligent Antioxidant," EGTTM is the only one with a known, dedicated, intracellular transport system that is built into the human DNA code. This transportation system allows EGT to enter the cell and mitochondria, where it neutralizes harmful free radicals, making it arguably one of the most potent antioxidants ever discovered.

Ferulic acid. It helps stabilize other antioxidants that fight skin damage, plus research suggests that, when added to skin creams that contain Vitamins C and E, it greatly enhances UV protection.

CO-enzyme (CO-Q10). An important enzyme cofactor and antioxidant with potent free radical-fighting capacity. Look for CO-Q10's synthetic equivalent Idebenone, which penetrates the skin and has been shown to be effective in topical form at reducing fine lines and wrinkles and also improving skin texture.

Alpha-lipoic acid (Al.A). Because it is soluble in water and oil, this antioxidant is ideal for penetrating skin cells. Some studies suggest that alpha-lipoic acid is effective in preventing some of the visual signs of sun damage and aging as well as protecting against skin cancer.

Green tea. Topical products containing green tea have been shown to protect your skin from UV damage. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, green tea in creams may improve skin conditions such as rosacea and ache. It also reduces some signs of aging, such as blotchy pigmentation.

Coffee berry. Also known as coffee cherries, this fruit of the coffee plant, long advocated by Native Americans as healthy, is rich in phenolic acids. Scientists first studied the extract because people who pick and harvest coffee cherries have soft, smooth skin on their hands and arms--in spite of being exposed to the blazing sun while working.

Rasveratrol. Some studies show that creams featuring this antioxidant prevent UV damage.

So, now you know exactly what you need in your armory to fight free radicals: knowledge of the enemy, ways to prevent oxidative damage, super foods that will help you in the battle against aging, and topical creams and serums that also are standing by as comrades-in-arms. The science of skin care has come a long way, and the work continues. Many scientists agree that skin care products enhanced with antioxidants will make great strides in the next decade. Who stands to win? You--and your skin.

Tony Nakhla is medical director of OC Skin Institute Dermatology Centers, Orange County, Calif., and author of The Skin Commandments: 10 Rules to Healthy, Beautiful Skin.
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Title Annotation:Medicine & Health
Author:Nakhla, Tony
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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