Caring for our skin is no small feat. It is an organ after all positioned on the outside of our bodies exposed to all sorts of daily wear and tear. We can cleanse and moisturize it all we want, but if we're not properly feeding it the nutrients it needs (like all organs) it will suffer. Feeding our skin system—which runs deep below the surface—helps the constantly renewing skin cells to become more vibrant and healthy.
Amino acids play a key function in skin health, repairing and stimulating new skin growth. We wanted to learn more about how amino acids affect skin health, so we caught up with one of the leading experts on the subject, Dr. Habib Ur Rehman. He's been practicing dermatology for nearly three decades with a focus on cosmetic dermatology. He is an international fellow of American Academy of Dermatology and has conducted academic and clinical research at prestigious research institutions like Johns Hopkins University. During the course of his career, Dr. Rehman developed a passion to uncover the role of nutrition in aging.
OA: What are essential amino acids?
DR: There are 8 amino acids that are Essential. These amino acids cannot be synthesized in the human body on its own and must be taken as part of the diet. All proteins are not created equal. Quality of proteins is determined by the body’s ability–or lack of ability–to make use of them. There are eight essential amino acids needed to form a human protein molecule. Without each of them, a human protein molecule cannot be constructed. Even if only one of the amino acids is missing and all others are present in great quantity, protein construction is impossible in a human body. One amino acid cannot be substituted for another and the human body is incapable of manufacturing essential amino acids on its own. It is imperative that all of these eight protein molecules be brought in through food. The 8 essential amino acids are Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine.
OA: Why are essential amino acids important for healthy skin?
DR: Skin cells renew themselves every month and just like other cells in the body, they are made from proteins. The skin needs these essential amino acids in the right ratios to generate these skin cells. These essential amino acids stimulate the buildup of collagen. If somebody is deficient in these amino acids, skin will be thinner and it will not be able to retain water.
OA: How does the quality of food and nutrients affect the regeneration of collagen and elastin?
DR: Collagen and elastin are secreted by fibroblasts in the layer of the skin called dermis. Amongst other things, amino acids are an essential part of this synthesis. When the supply of amino acids is reduced, it affects the renewal of these cells which causes, in particular the thinning of dermis.
OA: Why is collagen and elastin regeneration key to wrinkle prevention?
DR: First, it is important to understand that wrinkles develop in the dermis, the layer below the epidermis. Collagen and to some extent elastin are the main part of the dermis and subcutaneous layer. They give bulk and elasticity to this layer and keep the overall skin tissue firm. The regeneration of these cells by fibroblasts weakens as you get older, making this layer of the skin thinner causing wrinkles to appear. If collagen and elastin regeneration could be stimulated, it would slow the appearance of signs of aging. This effect is modified by the rejuvenation process used in lasers which stimulate collagen synthesis. Heat in lasers does this.
OA: Does collagen and elastin contain essential amino acids?
DR: Yes, they do.
OA: Are essential amino acids necessary to stimulate collagen and elastin production in human skin?
DR: Yes, they are very important. Without these essential amino acids, collagen and elastin synthesis cannot take place.
OA: How does the consumption of essential amino acids stimulate collagen production in the skin thereby reducing fine lines and wrinkles?
DR: With age, fibroblasts don’t perform at the same level as they used to. Proper intake of amino acids in the right ratios helps in jump starting these fibroblasts and encouraging new ones.
OA: What foods contain essential amino acids?
DR: Generally meats and dairy sources are considered to be of highest quality amino acids. However, some plant sources also provide fairly good amounts of amino acids like legumes: lentils, beans, nuts: almonds, pistachios, vegetables: broccoli, asparagus.
OA: How much do we need to consume of essential amino acids to maintain healthy skin?
DR: Generally recommended of 0.45 g of protein per lb. of body is recommended. However, getting the appropriate grams of proteins is not sufficient by itself. It is very important to ensure that the essential amino acids are present in the right ratios.
OA: How does one ensure they are getting the right ratios of amino acids? And how do we know what ratios of amino acids we need?
DR: Amino acid requirements can vary based on a number of factors. However, very roughly speaking, since amino acid needs vary due to many factors, for every pound of body weight, humans need 9 mg of Isoleucine, 18 mg of Leucine, 14 mg of Lysine, 7 mg of Methionine and Cysteine, 11 mg of Phenylalanine and Tyrosine, 7mg of Threonine, 2 mg of Tryptophan, 12 mg of Valine. The best way to ensure is to find out the amino acid profiles of protein sources being used by the individual.
OA: Can expensive topical skin care creams stimulate collagen production in the same way as essential amino acids can to prevent and reduce fine lines and wrinkles?
DR: No. topical absorption of collagen is very difficult and not reliable. That’s why most of the expensive creams and lotions that are available in the market don’t work. Collagen can be injected intra-dermally but it is a rather expensive procedure.
Dr. Habib Ur Rehman.
Top image: Aaron_S.