Summer is just around the corner and most of us are more than ready to shed the hats, gloves and coats and trade them for tank tops and running shorts. Although the heat is a welcome relief after several months of hibernation, it does bring with it a number of potential insults to our skin. This is particularly true for athlete who not only spends more time outside, but also wears less protective clothing and may rapidly sweat off sun-screen.
The skin is the largest organ in the body by weight and surface area. In fact, the skin comprises 16% of the total body weight of an average adult, this being equal to 1.5 to 2 meters of skin. That is a lot of skin to expose to the sun!!!
The purpose of the skin is to separate the body’s internal world from the external environment, including bacteria, dirt and inflammatory insults such as free radicals, molecules that can damage and mutate the DNA within our cells. The skin also provides a barrier to prevent of dehydration and helps to regulate body temperature.
The skin consists of three main layers. The epidermis, which comprises the layers directly exposed to the environment. Here cells continually divide, mature and migrate to the surface where they die leaving a tough, protective topcoat. Below this is the dermis, rich in collagen and elastin to provide strength and flexibility and finally the hypodermis, containing fatty tissue for shock absorption and insulation.
There are two main summer factors that cause damage to the skin. By far the most important is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, but dehydration can also be detrimental.
Types of UV Radiation
- UVA Originally thought to have only a minor effect on the skin, UVA is now thought to be a major contributor to skin damage. It penetrates deeper than UVB and its intensity is more constant during the day. It is not filtered by plain glass.
- UVB Affects the outer layers of the skin and is the primary cause of sunburn. Intensity is highest during the summer and between 10am and 2pm. It is filtered by plain glass.
- UVC Absorbed by the ozone layer and does not affect skin.
UV Skin Damage
UVA and UVB damage the skin resulting in wrinkles, aging, skin cancers and reduced immunity. UV radiation bombards the oxygen atoms in skin cells resulting in the loss of an electro and creating a very unstable reactive oxygen species (ROS). The ROS attempts to regain its electrical balance by stealing one or more electrons from neighboring atoms, which creates another electron deficient atom that then steals from another. The result is a chain reaction in which atoms are changing their structures and forming bonds that would not otherwise occur. The net effect of this chaos is damage to cell DNA with potential to cause cancer, degradation of collagen and elastin molecules and the activation of enzymes that break down collagen, leading to aging and wrinkles.
UV radiation damages collagen and elastin through a process called glycation, which involves the attachment of glucose and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to these long chain protein molecules. The resultant Advanced Glycosylation Endpoints (AGE’s) are highly reactive and induce collagen cross-linking, an irreversible process responsible for deep wrinkles. AGE’s are a universal feature of aging and one of the leading causes of inflammation in the skin, lungs, blood vessels and organs.
Finally, UV radiation induces the release of chemicals that impair the ability of immune cells in the dermis to function, increasing susceptibility to infection and cancer. There is also evidence that it prevents severely damaged cells from dying (a process called apoptosis), allowing them to continue to divide with potential for cancerous change.
Dehydration not only affects the skin’s appearance in the short term. Prolonged periods with inadequate fluid intake may affect the quality of the matrix that maintains elasticity and smoothness in the lower skin layers.
Protect Your Skin!
First of all, dress appropriately. Wear a hat such as a baseball cap, long-sleeved, breathable tops (especially those that provide UV protection) and sunglasses. Use a good quality sunscreen that limits the absorption of both UVA and UVB. Ensure that it is waterproof and sweat proof. If you sweat excessively, and tend to wipe your face and skin during your sport, bring a small amount of sunscreen with you to reapply during training.
Keep well hydrated at all times. Take water with you and remember to adjust your intake dependant on weather and training intensity. Most athletes drink far too little to replace their losses!
Excess sugar in the blood increase formation of damaging AGE’s, so maintain a stable blood sugar level throughout the day by combining protein with your carbohydrates at every meal and reduce the ingestion of simple carbohydrates. Adequate protein is also required to help rebuild skin and other tissues and may need to be increased with vigorous training. Proline, glycine and lysine are amino acids (break down products of protein) that are essential, in a specific ratio, for the production of new cells and collagen in the skin, essential in building strength and resistance to prevent damage from environmental elements.
Hyaluronic acid (HA), used topically or taken internally in supplement form is vital to the health of our skin. HA is one of the main building blocks of the matrix that fills the collagen/elastin framework – think of the matrix as the cement and collagen as the reinforcing rods in a new building. The matrix holds water, essential for fullness and elasticity and vital for the transport of nutrients. In addition, HA prevents collagen breakdown and stimulates immunity.
Anti-oxidants such as R-alpha Lipoic Acid, CoQ10 and vitamin C protects the skin, as well as increasing oxygen delivery throughout the body and reducing levels of inflammation. R-alpha lipioic acid is an anti-oxidant that decreases the production of inflammatory immune cytokines known as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukins (IL’s) that also degrade collagen in the skin upon UV or free radical contact. In addition, R-alpha lipoic acid decreases glycation and the formation of UV-induced AGE’s.
CoQ10 protects the outside membrane barrier of every cell, maintaining its strength and integrity and helping fight damaging free radicals. It is also essential for the efficient formation of energy within mitochondria (the cell’s “powerhouses”).
Finally, vitamin-C is required to stimulate the enzymes that convert immature pro-collagen into collagen. Thus it is essential in the formation and maintenance of cells and matrix. A severe deficiency results in scurvy!
These are several easy ways to protect your skin from the elements when exercising outdoors. These suggestions can reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, minimize the onset and development of wrinkles and maintain that healthy glow to your skin. Remember that the skin is a protective barrier to your tissues inside. If you weaken this barrier, you can allow further damage, inflammation and increase the onset of disease. So you don’t have to shy away from that glorious feeling of sun on your skin, just protect your body first!