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Aging and the Immune System

By Howard Murad, MD
Posted: April 14, 2008, from the December 2007 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Editor’s Note: Skin Inc. magazine recommends that all clients should seek medical advice when appropriate.

As I travel around the world speaking at conferences, and working with estheticians and spa therapists, I often ask them, “Do you treat blood pressure?” The response is generally “No.” However, the truth is that you do treat blood pressure. When clients enter the spa, it is common for them to feel rushed as a result of their daily schedule. If you took their blood pressure before their service and then after, you would see a decrease because you have induced a relaxed state solely by touch. The esthetician is the healthcare provider of the future. When you treat the skin, you are improving the health of your clients’ whole being, so it is important for you to educate yourself as much as possible about nutrition and health in order to provide expert services for clients.

     Each day there are new discoveries in the field of skin health. I recently presented the connection between immunity and the skin; a topic I’ve been researching for several years. As the largest organ of the body, the skin also represents the largest organ of the immune system. When immunity is working at optimum levels, the body has a biological defense that wards off infection, disease and other unwanted invaders. 
     Treating the skin topically is only one aspect of improving clients’ health and reducing the effects of aging. Providing the best possible services for clients requires an approach that uses high-quality topical care, internal nutrition and lifestyle modifications. There are a variety of ways to improve skin immunity through internal methods by focusing on nutrition.

An internal approach
     Applying topical skin care products will address the epidermis, which comprises approximately 20% of the skin. The remaining 80%, known as the dermis, requires an internal approach—feeding the skin the appropriate nutrients through the consumption of foods and dietary supplements. 
     Adequately nourishing your immune system improves its ability to fight invaders because some foods can help to increase the number of white cells in the immune system. These cells ward off infection and disease. Some of the top nutrients to include in an immune-boosting diet are the following. Please remember, the supplement dosages are suggested due to immune-boosting properties; however, you should always check with your physician before starting a supplement regimen, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking other prescription medications. 

     Vitamin C. Vitamin C increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and expands the levels of interferon, the antibody that coats cell surfaces and prevent the entry of viruses. Vitamin C is readily available through the intake of fruits, vegetables and supplements. Immune-boosting properties can be obtained through 200–500 milligrams of vitamin C daily.

     Carotenoids. Beta carotene increases the number of infection-fighting cells, natural killer cells—which seek out and destroy germs and cancer cells—and helper T cells, which activate and direct other immune cells. It is one of the most familiar carotenoids, but is only one member of a large family. Researchers believe that it is not only beta carotene that produces all these beneficial effects, but all the carotenoids working together. This is why getting carotenoids in food is better than taking supplements alone. The body converts beta carotene into vitamin A, which has anti-cancer properties and immune-boosting functions. Eat foods rich in orange and yellow pigments, such as apricots, carrots, papaya, cantaloupe, yams and mangos. If taking a supplement form of vitamin A, avoid mega doses, which can be toxic. Start with 5,000 international units (IU) per day.

     Vitamin E. Vitamin E stimulates the production of natural killer cells and enhances the production of B cells—immune cells that produce antibodies to destroy bacteria. The ideal amount is 30–60 milligrams a day, which can be obtained from a diet rich in seeds, such as sunflower seeds and raw almonds.