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Vitamins and minerals: how to recognise deficiencies on your skin

Annalina Jegg
23.10.2022
Translation: Patrik Stainbrook

Taking care of your skin doesn’t simply end with creams and the like. Your diet also influences your largest organ – but not always for the better. If your skin is irritated, a nutrient deficiency could be behind it.

When your skin is talking to you, it’s useful to know how to interpret its signs. Sometimes this isn’t easy, even for experts – plus, they won’t have every possible medical connection on their radar immediately. For example, in early August 2022, dermatologist Yael Adler, author of the German self-help book «Haut nah» posted the following on her Facebook account: «The 33-year-old patient had peeled, slightly red skin. For months, she was being treated for eczema with cortisone creams, then the zinc levels in her blood were measured: too low. One zinc supplement, and three weeks later – clear skin.»

But it doesn’t have to be eczema, even simple symptoms such as cracked mouth corners can have causes other than incorrect creams or dry air. But how does your skin tell you what it’s missing? Time for a dermatological «translator»: Salzburg-based dermatologist Birgitt Hantich-Hladik can help you figure out how to attribute symptoms on your skin to a nutrient deficiency.

Important facts about the skin and its functions

But first you’ll need to take a look at that skin: covering an area of just over two square metres, skin is our largest organ, constantly being renewed. «Skin renewal takes about 28 days, increasing with age or sometimes even doubling. Our skin becomes weaker, so to speak,» says Hantich-Hladik. Then there are those two nasty barriers preventing healthy skin: small chronic areas of inflammation, which you won’t notice in everyday life, often lead to premature skin ageing. The consequences, however, are visible: redness, flaky skin and premature wrinkling. Triggers for such inflammation are most often sugar and the wrong omega-3/omega-6 ratio. This can be counteracted by vitamin C and vitamin A, capsules or omega-3 oils such as linseed oil.

Another factor standing in the way of healthy skin is free radicals. We know that antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta carotene (vitamin A), vitamin C and selenium help against free radicals. But beware to anyone who now thinks supplements will save them completely. Studies indicate that antioxidant supplements may increase risk of mortality. As always: don’t supplement on your own, have your blood values checked first by your doctor.

Skin doesn’t just renew itself continuously, it’s also connected to your other organs via blood vessels and fulfils various functions: it’s an important sensory organ, protects the body from dehydration and pathogens, serves as a sunscreen and converts sunlight into vitamin D. And the many microorganisms on our skin – bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa – form their own microbiome. It serves as a protective barrier against environmental dangers.

Skin, nutrients and your gut

Speaking of microbiomes: there’s also one in your intestine. Our largest organ, the skin, works hand in hand with our gut. «What we eat every day affects the condition and appearance of our skin,» says dermatologist Hantich-Hladik. You could also say skin is a mirror of our nutritional habits. After all, before food reaches our skin in its individual components, it first passes through the intestines. Thus, digestive disorders, excess calories as well as food intolerances and nutrient deficiencies affect our skin. In order to function perfectly and remain healthy, skin needs numerous nutrients in the right quantity.

Acne, for example, can be an indicator that we’re consuming too many B vitamins. «These vitamins can stimulate the growth of acne bacteria,» the dermatologist states.

Macro and micronutrients

Nutrients divide into two groups. Macronutrients, for one: these include carbohydrates, protein, fat, and (at least according to some scientists) water.

And there it is: «Water loss is more dangerous than any nutrient deficiency in our body,» writes dermatologist Yael Adler in, «Haut nah». After all, our bodies are made up of 60 per cent water – and even «a loss of just 0.5 per cent in our water reserves makes us feel thirsty; at around 7 per cent water loss, we become seriously ill and no longer able to function.»

For comparison, fat loss only becomes critical at 90 per cent. So, refill that glass of water and take a big sip right away. If you haven’t drunk enough, tense, itchy skin, pallor and a tired complexion can be the result.

In addition to macronutrients, there are also micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, amino acids, phytochemicals and omega fatty acids. If we suffer from a deficiency in certain micronutrients, this will also be partially reflected in the skin. Now let’s take a look at what micronutrients we need and how our skin shows us that we aren’t consuming enough of them.

Nutrient deficiencies: how to recognise them on our skin

The most important nutrients for our skin are water, zinc, beta carotene (vitamin A), silicon, vitamin B2, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and selenium. They ensure that our skin looks fresh and healthy. Dry, cracked skin and slow wound healing are the first indicators of a deficiency in a particular nutrient.

Now the important bit: only a doctor can determine whether there’s a deficiency at all and which nutrient might be lacking. This applies to any and all signs that might suggest an undersupply of a certain nutrient – none will conclusively point out one specific deficiency. The following list should therefore only be used as a rough guide.

Overview: nutrients and possible symptoms of deficiencies that can be seen on the skin

Vitamin B12

  • Important for cell division and blood formation as well as the function of the nervous system.

  • Found in fish, meat, dairy products and eggs, as well as in small amounts in sauerkraut and beer.

  • Signs of deficiencies include cracked corners of the mouth, greasy eczema on the face or ears, inflamed lips, skin inflammation and rough skin.

  • About 6 to 12% of the Western population suffers from a deficiency.

Vitamin C

  • Protects against infections, acts as a free radical scavenger and strengthens connective tissue, all while being important for collagen formation.

  • Found in rose hips, nettles, sea buckthorn, parsley, various types of cabbage, spinach, kiwis, strawberries, citrus fruit.

  • Signs of deficiencies: slow-healing wounds, bleeding gums, aphthae (painful mucosal damage), increased wrinkling and elastosis (degeneration of collagen connective tissue, the skin thickens).

  • Deficiencies rarely if ever occur in industrialised countries according to the German Society for Nutrition.

Vitamin D

  • Required in cell division and skin renewal, healing wounds, as protection against free radicals and to support the immune system.

  • Isn’t found in sufficient quantities in food; forms in the skin with the help of solar radiation. Vitamin D deficiency can subsequently cause calcium deficiency, as vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption.

  • Signs of deficiencies: thinning skin, hair loss, psoriasis.

In Europe, about 8.3% of the population are affected by a shortage during the summer months, and about 17.7% during winter. Low vitamin D levels are also detectable in 40.4% of individuals. Thus, almost every second person in Europe is undersupplied with vitamin D, which can intensify during dark winter months.

Iron

  • Needed for oxygen transport and storage and for electron transfer.

  • Found in red meat, cocoa powder, sunflower seeds, soya beans, oatmeal, spinach, legumes, wholemeal bread. Importantly: vitamin C improves iron absorption, while dairy products, coffee or black tea inhibit it.

  • Signs of deficiencies: paleness, cracked corners of the mouth.

  • Deficiency is more common in women than in men due to menstruation and lower meat consumption on average; overall in Europe, about 5 to 10% of people are affected, in women of childbearing age this increases to about 20%.

Zinc

  • Important for cell growth and healing wounds, plays a key role in sugar, fat and protein metabolism, is involved in the formation of genetic material and dampens excessive defence reactions of the immune system.

  • Present in: red meat, cheese, oat bran/flakes, walnuts, pecans, malted wheat, sunflower seeds, mushrooms, yeast.

  • Signs of deficiencies: hair loss, cracked corners of the mouth, wound healing disorders, acne flare-ups, scaly skin.

  • In Europe, deficiencies are rare.

Vitamin K

  • Plays an important role in blood clotting.

  • Present in: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, full leaf lettuce, chives, legumes, milk, carrots, soya beans, seaweed and vegetable oils.

  • Signs of deficiencies: increased bleeding when injured, increased bruising that disappears only slowly – even from very small bumps.

  • Deficiencies are rare in people who consume a balanced diet.

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Annalina Jegg
Autorin von customize mediahouse

The adjectives that describe me? Open-minded, pensive, curious, agnostic, solitude-loving, ironic and, of course, breathtaking.
Writing is my calling. I wrote fairytales age 8. «Supercool» song lyrics nobody ever got to hear age 15 and a travel blog in
my mid-20s. Today, I’m dedicated to poems and writing the best articles of all time. 


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