Skin is the unsung hero of the body. And in the UAE, it has a lot to contend with: Sun, humidity, dust, air conditioning, the list goes on.
Even though skin is the largest of our organs, many people are still in the dark as to just how many vital functions it performs. Our dermis and epidermis – the two primary layers that make up human skin – serve as a barrier to infection, protect our muscles, regulate temperature and relay key signals to our brain about everything from moisture and heat to pain and irritation.
For the average adult, this vast organ stretches to approximately 21 square feet and can account for around 15% of our body weight. Yet despite its size and reach, its role in our overall health is often overlooked. A skin condition or irritation is often seen as just that – an affliction of the skin.
But the skin is actually a window to the rest of our bodies and serves as a fantastic indicator of many problems that occur under the surface.
While many skin conditions are fleeting irritations that run no further, it’s worth taking notice of common issues like eczema, rosacea, pimples and so on because your body might just be trying to tell you something.
So let’s take a moment and listen to our skin.
Acne / spots
Here’s one we all know about. Almost everybody has had a spot or pimple at some time in their lives. For some, they disappear soon enough, while others may struggle with acne for many years. Whatever the duration of your outbreak, spots should not necessarily be accepted as a fact of life.
One particularly common underlying cause of facial spots is stress. Our brains and our skin are derived from the same cells and it is this – according to leading dermatologists at the Baylor College of Medicine – that causes us to break out when we are under stress. So if you’re experiencing a particularly stubborn run of spots, the first place to look is your stress levels.
When it comes to more severe cases of acne, it is sometimes our hormones that are to blame. Acne is often a sign of an underlying hormone imbalance – particularly in women where it can be an indicator of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). In these cases, treating the underlying issue usually solves the acne where other treatments have failed. So, if you have tried countless remedies to no avail, it’s worth taking a trip to your doctor to discuss your hormone levels. And not just to improve the quality of your skin but your overall health as well, since hormone imbalance can lead to a variety of more serious medical issues.
To note: Often high insulin levels are the cause of acne, as insulin is the hormone responsible for acne. To counter this, adopt a high-fat, low-carb diet, which will usually clear up the problem within six to eight weeks.
If you’re experiencing a particularly stubborn run of spots, the first place to look is your stress levels.
Itchy / blistered patches
Here we have another common skin complaint that is often written off as simply one of those things. The likelihood is that you or someone you know has experienced small, dry (often red) patches of skin and thought very little of it. If they continue to occur, however, there is a good chance that your skin is trying to tell you something.
These small patches of itchy skin are usually found around the elbows, knees and face. And they are one of the most common symptoms of gluten allergies. In other words, what you see on your skin is essentially an allergic reaction and therefore treating the symptom itself is not enough. So, if you have tried every rash and blister cream under the sun, book an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist to get tested for intolerances.
In fact, cutting gluten out of your diet entirely is a good move for your health all round. The chances are if gluten is taking its toll on your skin, it is already wreaking havoc with the rest of your body. Aside from the damage you can see to your skin, gluten has been linked with a host of autoimmune diseases and can lead to leaky gut syndrome – a condition where the gut lining becomes porous and allows toxins and other substances to absorb into the bloodstream.
Rosacea is one of the most common skin complaints here in the UAE, according to Dr Hossein Yavari, a dermatologist at Emirates Hospital in Abu Dhabi. Moreover, it is often misdiagnosed. This reddening of the skin can be caused by many factors – stress, changes in temperature, alcohol, and humidity among them.
Many skin experts believe rosacea to be caused by abnormalities in the blood vessels of the face. While this would certainly explain the symptoms of flushing and redness, it is still not known exactly what causes these abnormalities in the first place. What the experts agree on is that sun exposure is most definitely a factor as it damages the elasticity of the skin, leading to dilation of the blood vessels.
Needless to say, sun damaged skin sets off all sorts of alarm bells with regard to our overall health as well. That’s why the advice for sufferers is to avoid exposure to the sun as much as possible – easier said than done out here in the UAE.
Other treatments include applying mineral cream to the face daily, or the use of lasers to reduce redness and conceal damaged blood vessels. As there is no known cure, these treatments will only manage symptoms. The real key is to avoid any further damage to skin by the sun.
We all get dry skin from time to time, particularly here in the UAE where it is often caused by dusty conditions and near-constant exposure to air-conditioning. However, if you are struggling with persistent dry patches or your moisturiser isn’t cutting it anymore, it’s time to look deeper.
As with most matters of health, the first place to check is diet. Dry skin can be a sign of a mineral or nutrient deficiency, often a lack of omega-3 which is found in oily fish, nuts, and fruits such as avocado. It strengthens our cell membranes and regulates cell turnover. A lack of it can slow the natural exfoliation cycle, leading to dry and flaky skin (coconut and olive oil are also very good for the skin).
Also look at your water intake. Often dry skin can be an open and shut case: You are simply dehydrated. So ensuring you get plenty of liquids can be enough. If you are experiencing any other symptoms such as fatigue or sudden weight loss then it’s worth consulting your doctor in case these combined symptoms are indicating something more serious.
Dry skin can be a sign of a mineral or nutrient deficiency, often a lack of omega-3 which is found in oily fish, nuts, and fruits such as avocado.
Eczema and psoriasis
Here we have another common skin condition that occurs due to the skin’s inability to retain moisture. It results in red, itchy patches throughout the body. Like the other conditions on this list, eczema is not caused by a single factor. Anything from stress or irritants through to genetics are all thought to play a part. And a 2015 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology pointed to a possible correlation between overweight and obesity and the skin condition.
Let’s also address psoriasis here, which is a more severe eczema. Often revealed as rashes affecting the extensor surfaces (example, the elbows), this is usually a chronic condition and very resistant to the normal cortisone creams used for treatment.
I’ll stress here again the connection between these skin conditions and leaky gut, which I mentioned above. Leaky gut is in fact the major cause of many skin conditions due to autoimmunity. Again, gluten in wheat is a major cause of leaky gut, but so too are excessive use of antibiotics and OTC medicines, high stress levels, excessive alcohol, and lack of sleep. These can all affect our gut, which is home to 100 trillion plus microbes. It is the ecosystem that impacts our skin (and brain) the most.
Just to add one example here from a recent client of mine who is a pilot here in the UAE and was suffering from skin conditions. I suggested he adopt a strict Paleo Diet, and several months into it he is now completely free of psoriasis – something he has suffered from for over nine years (plus he’s dropped eight kilograms!).
What is your skin trying to say?
I think the message is coming through loud and clear: Listen to your skin.
Keep in mind that the state of our skin is really a reflection of what is going on inside our bodies – especially your gut. Therefore, rather than focusing on only looking after our skin, we must safeguard our overall health. As a result, our skin should take care of itself.
How to do that? Well, I imagine many people know exactly what I am about to say next: The first place to start is diet. If we want to look and feel good on the outside, the best place to start is on the inside with a clean diet of fruit, vegetables, lean meats, fish, nuts, and prebiotic foods like onions, garlic, and lots of plant fibres. Fermented foods are also excellent for gut healing.
Oh, and don’t forget to stay well hydrated, cut out smoking, reduce the drinking, and avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Finally, if you are experiencing any of the above issues, be sure to visit your physician, not simply to alleviate the symptoms but to draw out a full picture of your overall health to discover what may lie beneath.