As a dermatologist, I’m always asked if there are any new products that people can use to make their skin look younger, healthier and more beautiful. So, I try to stay current on new products or nutritional information that helps achieve these ends and pass it on to my patients and, you, my readers. Lately, I came across some research about a common fatty acid that kind of raises a “rock and a hard place” issue that puts the youthful beauty of your skin in opposition to the strength of your muscles. Let me explain the controversy to you…
Ceramides: Youthful Skin or Weak Muscles?
Youthful-looking skin results from how much moisture is retained in the skin layers internally. Optimal internal skin moisture is what gives young skin that plump, smooth look. Younger skin has an abundance of a fatty molecule called ceramide. Ceramides are found naturally in the top, upper layer of your skin. They are essential to the functioning of your natural skin barrier and play a big role in maintaining moisture in your skin. Older skin has lost much of its ceramide and that’s why it is drier, less taut, and has lost that plump young look.
There are external moisturizers available on the market, which contain “phytoceramides” (from plants, namely wheat) that can help fight dryness and slackness in the top layer. They’ve been research proven to help xerosis – a dryness condition associated with age. Topically applied ceramides have even been shown in research to improve eczema. They have been shown to improve the skin’s natural barrier against environmental irritants as well.
About 16 years ago, in 1997, French researchers had the idea to boost internal moisture by boosting dietary ceramide content. They discovered a way to put wheat-based ceramides into supplement form. The product was a big hit in Japan and these powdered “beauty drinks” are still popularly consumed there today. There are other dietary supplemental forms of ceramides made from konjac as well with user testimonials stating that their skin has improved and looks more youthful. Clinical studies done on women taking ceramide products reported significant improvement in whole body skin hydration – especially arms and legs – with reduced redness, and itching along with increased suppleness.
Sounds like great news for your skin right? Yes, but here comes some, recently reported, not so great news about ceramides.
Tufts University’s Jean Mayer Nutrition Research Center on Aging has revealed that, in studies involving muscle weakness, a build up of ceramide fatty acids were found in muscles. And that likely these ceramide build-ups were responsible for muscle deterioration in older adults. This was true whether the study participants were obese or of normal weight. The study showed that two types of ceramide fatty acids were predominantly found to be both 156% and 30% higher in older men.
While it’s been well known for awhile that muscle mass decreases as you get older and is replaced by fat – it’s felt that ceramide-type fat may be more damaging than other types. The researchers concluded that more studies on the association of ceramide deposits and muscle loss needed to be done on both women and men. And, that dietary intervention to fight muscle loss may be developed from these findings. Meaning, you may need to alter your diet to exclude, or decrease, dietary intake of ceramides. Without taking ceramide skin supplements, natural dietary food sources of ceramides are found in fairly large amounts in dairy products, eggs, soybean, and good amounts in wheat flour, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, walnut oil, to name a few.
While the Tufts University study on ceramides is just 1 study – it may be wise to just use topical ceramide products on your skin rather than take ceramide supplements, until further research findings are in. As you get older, the last thing you want is weaker muscles – you want to keep them strong. You might want to decrease your intake of dairy, egg and soybean, to occasional intake. You can find the calcium you seek in dairy in other plant sources. In addition, the best way to keep your muscles strong is to use them. Resistance exercise (free weights, your own body weight) at least 3 times a week, coupled with a higher protein diet, can help prevent muscle weakness and loss.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.