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Eat your Way to Glowing Skin – Skin Issues Demystified

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. Today we have Monisha Mahtani. She is a nutritional therapist specialising in digestive wellness, immunity, weight loss, anti-ageing and skin nutrition. She helps clients in today’s busy world to find a balance between minimum effort and maximum results. And that’s the sort of person I like. She has an international clientele for personalised nutrition and workplace wellness. Monisha is based in London and she’s a member of the Naturopathic Nutrition Association. She’s registered with the General Naturopathic Council and Complementary and Natural Health Care Council. She’s also the founder of a skincare brand. And that’s what I thought was so interesting, a nutritionist who specialises in skincare. Here’s one of the gems we’ve learnt about in this chat.

So Monisha, tell me, what is wellness to you?

Monisha Mahtani: So I think wellness to me is having that balance between physical health, mental health, and emotional health, building on healthy habits consistently, and adapting to our environment. So we have to constantly adapt to our environment and whatever we’re facing in life, whether it’s emotional, mental, or physical. I think that’s what real wellness is—having the ability to adapt to those different changes. It’s not just about being physically well; it’s all in balance, really.

AB: And you’re so right about balance because some of us put so much effort into something and then the other side drops off. We put so much effort into maybe our physical appearance, our spiritual side suffers, our emotional side suffers. So you’re right, life is all about balance. So, coming to skin, Monisha, tell me, is skin mainly genetic? Can we change the structure of the skin that we’re born with?

MM: So this is a really interesting question because it’s a very new topic. We get our sort of inherited DNA from our mothers, actually, and then we have about 60% to 85% of genetics that plays an important role in skin health. Yes, there is a genetic element to it, but that doesn’t mean that you overlook the environmental side of it. So as you age, genetics actually decrease it. That sort of aspect of genetics and influence decreases as well. So it’s quite strong when you’re younger, and then as you get older, that effect is reduced, so to speak. There are lots of tests on the market right now that can actually test for risk variants of certain skin health conditions. So for example, there’s a risk variant to test for pigmentation, which is a sign of ageing; wrinkles, which are a sign of ageing; and how well you’re absorbing nutrients as well. So yes, genetics does play a huge factor, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything about it.

AB: Now, you’re a nutritionist by training, right? And what I see is a lot of people use a very external approach to skincare, so they feel if we use these certain creams, it’s going to sort out our skin completely. So tell me, would you say that nutrition plays an important role with skincare? And secondly, do you know, how does it play an important role?

MM: Perhaps your skin is not performing to its maximum, not looking as great as it should, or not feeling as good. There are lots of reasons behind that. When you have lots of reasons, you have to have a multifactorial approach as well. You look at nutrition, your diet, whether you need specific nutrients for certain skin conditions. You have to look at what you’re trying to achieve. If someone has acne, psoriasis, or eczema, they would be looking at nutrition from different perspectives. Diet is a really important factor. I always say to my clients that it’s best to start off with diets because that’s in your hands, that’s what you can change, that’s under your control. Then you have lifestyle factors such as exercise, sleep, even stress. Stress plays a really important role in the skin. That’s very overlooked, in fact, because sometimes people think that when their skin is not looking and feeling great or they’re suffering from a condition, they’ll maybe run to the doctor, get antibiotics, or go to a dermatologist, which is very important as well. But then they’re overlooking that, actually, it can really start with your diet and your lifestyle. Perhaps you’re not sleeping enough or exercising enough. Mindfulness is a really important aspect of skincare as well, to just help reduce that sort of stress level that constantly builds up on a daily basis because the modern lifestyle is such that you’re in a chronic state of hyperactivity. What happens is that sometimes there’s that sort of inflammation that’s constant, even if it’s a little bit, which can play havoc with your skin. Exercise is really important for blood circulation to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the skin. It promotes collagen production, the sweat glands that live in the dermis actually help to clear out toxins. It’s really important to think about supplements. Someone might have a specific skin condition they need to address, and then they would take certain supplements for that. I always say that supplements do exactly what their name suggests: supplement the diet. I wouldn’t ever say to someone, “You have terrible skin or you need help with your skin, please go and have XYZ supplement.” I think you really fix those conditions through the diet first and then move on to supplements. It’s very multifactorial.

AB: So you’re saying food, exercise, mindfulness, all very important besides just putting on whatever is outside. And you’re also saying stress, where a lot of us live in the fight or flight mode can have a negative effect on the skin.

MM: Absolutely. And I think that’s something that we’re not really aware of because we’re in that state all the time and always running from one activity to another. But I think if we slow down, that’s when you increase self awareness. And that’s where you can actually start to notice not just your skin improving, but other health conditions as well. So that’s really important.

AB: Now tell me, what foods would you recommend for great skin?

MM: Skin health is dependent on the nutrients that the blood vessels in the dermis receive. You have your epidermis, your dermis, and then your hypodermis. So, really, those blood vessels are very important. We need to be nourishing ourselves with whole foods, which I think are really important. Whole foods have a natural diet that is not processed, that isn’t high in sugar, that we can make ourselves, and that’s easily accessible. When I say easily accessible, I don’t mean processed foods that you can just open from a packet and eat. Freshly prepared foods that you can make very easily, keeping it simple with natural ingredients. What’s really important is complex carbohydrates, like fibre, because that really helps to eliminate toxins from your body and decrease inflammation.

Gut health is really, really important because the microbes in our digestive system produce B vitamins, which are essential for skin health. It’s really important to have complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and if possible, raw vegetables. Having a variety of whole grains is important. Protein is also important because you need amino acids, which help nourish collagen and elastin. They are the building blocks of skin. Certain amino acids are specific to certain skin conditions. If you’re aiming for complete protein, animal proteins like chicken, fish, and meat tend to be more suitable. For vegetarians or vegans, combining plant proteins like whole-grain brown rice with beans and lentils can provide complete protein. There are many ways to obtain complete protein, even from a vegetarian or vegan diet. Good-quality protein and healthy fats are important because they support collagen production and maintain a healthy cell membrane. Healthy fats are essential for the epidermal oil barrier on your skin. Essential fats can be obtained from oily fish like mackerel, herring, tuna, or salmon, while vegans and vegetarians can get essential fatty acids from nuts and seeds. Chia seeds are a great option that doesn’t require relying on supplements. On the other hand, processed foods have the opposite effect as they can clog up the digestive system, hinder nutrient absorption, and disrupt the digestive system, which can have a negative impact on the skin.

AB: So basically you’re saying healthy fats, proteins, carbs, especially complex carbs, and make sure you eat fibre. Now, tell me, you find that as we age, or even when you look at people who are young and teenagers, their skin tends to be either dry or oily. So what foods would you recommend for each of these?

MM: So you have dry skin and dehydrated skin. Dry skin tends to occur if you have a skin condition, like perhaps eczema, but with dehydrated skin, perhaps you’re not drinking enough water or you’re sort of constantly exercising and your sweat glands are perspiring, so you become dehydrated, whereas dry skin is more about trans epidermal water losses. What you would do in a situation like that is actually eat a very similar diet of whole foods. But antioxidants are great, like vitamin E from avocados, nuts, and seeds. Again, for that essential fatty acid content, I think with dehydrated skin, you would probably have lots of coconut water and really focus on the hydration. Oily skin is when you produce too much sebum. And that could be genetic, and it could also be diet-related as well. And there are a lot of mixed reviews and lots of research out there. But I think everything points to perhaps dairy products that are very high in hormones, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. So the mechanism there is through insulin, and that sort of plays havoc again with your skin. The end result is oily skin. And I think the skincare would also be very different for all three. If you had dehydrated skin and perhaps dry skin, the skincare would be different. Although you feel it’s the same dehydrated skin, you would perhaps have more water-based skincare products. And for dry skin, perhaps more oil-based. And for oily skin, again, water-based

AB: You know, when people get acne, so what I find is a lot of teenagers come with questions saying we have acne, but we have dry skin. So, I mean, what do you recommend for skin with acne?

MM: Basically, there are lots of reasons for that. And until you see someone’s skin, it’s hard to tell. It could be that because they have acne, they’re using very harsh products, so they’re sort of stripping their skin of natural oils. Again, that’s sort of leading to this vicious cycle of producing too much sebum because the skin is trying to protect that sort of outer layer, that acid mantle, and the epidermis. So I think until you really see someone again, focus on whole foods. It could be hormonal for many different reasons.

AB: And what food would you recommend for anti-ageing in general? Because I think it’s never too early, no matter what age people are, to start on anti-ageing.

MM: So anti-aging is really interesting, and that’s what I like to focus on as well, because we’re always looking for answers. The anti-ageing market is absolutely huge at the moment. It’s worth $38 billion…

AB: That’s amazing.

MM: That’s just products; it’s not looking into aesthetics or anything else. That’s just anti-ageing products. I have details of a 15-year study, and the results came out in 2021, showing that antioxidants can actually help in the diet and with wrinkles and pigmentation. That’s a very long study. Another randomised control trial involved one group of women given almonds to eat for 24 weeks and another group that didn’t have anything. The women who had almonds as a snack showed better skin health and less pigmentation. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting that antioxidants really help with skin ageing and overall skin health.

AB: What external skin care do you normally recommend that one combines with all the foods that you’re recommending for different skin conditions.

MM: Using sun protection is really, really important because 80% of our skin is damaged at a very young age. By your 20s, UV rays can penetrate very deeply into the dermis, causing long-term damage. It can lead to lines, wrinkles, and leathery skin. UV rays can penetrate clouds and glass, so it’s important to think of it as day protection rather than just sun protection. Applying sun protection during the daytime helps protect against UVB rays that damage the surface layer of the skin. It’s crucial to use sun protection on a daily basis, and higher SPF doesn’t necessarily mean better protection, but it does help with UVB rays. Applying sun protection every 2 to 3 hours is one of the most important skincare routines to incorporate.

AB: You know, how the whole world is going on about retinol at the moment. Give us your view on retinol. Are there people who should not use it?

MM: So I love retinol, actually, because I think it really helps with ageing skin, acne, and people who have an uneven skin tone. What I think is that it’s very important to be mindful of the type of retinol that you’re using because there are so many over-the-counter products. I recently had a client who bought retinol off the internet, which I thought was a really big no-no. I think you have to get it from a reputable pharmacy, perhaps even prescription retinol. In terms of who shouldn’t use retinol, I think everyone can use retinol in small quantities; a small percentage of people who have open wounds shouldn’t. I think you can always consult with a dermatologist, or if you feel that in special cases you might not be able to, but I think retinol is quite safe for most people, especially over the counter if they’re over the age of 30, for example. And then, if you need a stronger prescription, you should go to your doctor.

AB: The other thing about retinol, would you only use it at night?

MM: Definitely, only at night. If you’re going to take retinol, it’s important to not just rely on external application but also combine it with a diet high in vitamin A and foods that convert into retinol in the body. This inside-out approach can be beneficial. Fruits and vegetables that are yellow and orange in colour, such as papayas, mangoes, and orange bell peppers, can contribute to this. Having a diet rich in vitamin A and natural beta-carotene is important, especially if you’re aiming to improve skin cell turnover and incorporate retinol into your skincare routine.

AB: So, Monisha, I need to clarify one thing. You confirmed that we should only use retinol at night because you also said to increase your sun protection.

MM: If you’re taking retinol, because it makes the skin more sensitive and easy to burn, I think you really have to be mindful. So don’t go through a quarter of using retinol if you’re about to go on holiday. That’s what I mean, and you’re going to be in the sun. At a time when you know you’re not going to be out in the sun for a few weeks, perhaps in the winter, but just be really mindful of adding that extra layer of sun protection every two to three hours. More than the quantity. It’s how often you’re doing it, actually. So every two to three hours is ideal.

AB: So you’re saying even if you use retinol at night, your skin is still sensitive during the day?

MM: Yes.

AB: So tell me, what is an absolute essential you would say, when it comes to the skin?

MM: I think hydration is something that’s often overlooked. While we try to drink plenty of water, it’s actually crucial for good skin health as it improves blood flow to the skin. Having warm water in the evenings can also have a positive effect on the skin by expanding the veins and enhancing blood flow. Hydration plays a significant role. Additionally, a recent study revealed that individuals who consume varying amounts of water daily have different levels of microbiota in their digestive system, which is an interesting finding. We typically associate water with hydration and toxin elimination, but it also affects the balance of microbiota in the digestive system. Sleep is another important aspect. Both deep and REM sleep are crucial for collagen production and cell and tissue repair. Getting sufficient rest helps promote a sense of relaxation, reduces stress, and impacts the gut-skin and brain-skin axis. It’s essential to recognize that managing stress and cultivating mindfulness are just as important as diet and skincare. While we all experience stress, learning techniques to cope with it can greatly benefit overall well-being.

AB: I just need you to explain what microbiota is.

MM: We all have bacteria. So these are the bacteria in our digestive system. We have good bacteria and bad bacteria. And the good bacteria are nourished by a good diet. So having that good variety, I would tell my clients to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, because having that balance and that variety of fruits and vegetables, different colours have different nutrients, and that really feeds the good bacteria in your digestive system. And when you have processed foods with lots of sugar, it can encourage bad bacteria to grow. So you’ll be having digestive symptoms and bleeding, and you will be feeling unwell. So that actually affects your skin in turn. Again, it’s important to get that sort of thing to constantly feed and nourish your good bacteria.

AB: Please tell us the technique. I’m sure lots of people want to hear it.

MM: It’s actually a very simple technique. You breathe in for 4 seconds…

AB: Four, okay.

MM: And then you hold your breath for 2 seconds and then you exhale for 6 seconds and you’ll actually feel that you’re sort of feeling a little bit more relaxed. So if you do this a couple of times everyday, I think that can make a really big difference.

AB: And it’ll show up on the skin right?

MM: Absolutely. And I think the minute you just feel more relaxed, you look more relaxed, you’re smiling. That’s releasing a sort of endorphin ,serotonin in the body and that affects the skin as well. So it’s all, like I said, it’s a multifactorial approach to just dealing with skin.

AB: Yes, absolutely. Now tell me, Monisha, is there anything which you would say is an absolute no no?

MM: So I think a big no no is sugar.

AB: Oh, I was worried you’d say that.

MM: Yeah, sugar, refined carbohydrates and foods that have been barbecued, heated to very high temperatures. Because what happens is these foods produce something called AGEs. And what that does actually, that sort of attaches to collagen elastin. It damages it, it destroys it, so it breaks the collagen down…

AB: That’s the biggest ageing food.

MM: Yes. Sugars. So what we’re looking to do is nourish the body with whole foods and nutrients that are easily assimilated into the body. There’s also a genetic test that you can actually take to see if you have the capacity to clear out those glycations and the AGEs from your skin. Skincare has become really advanced in many ways. It’s not just about products that you can use or aesthetics. There are a lot of products on the market that, if you really look into them, can improve your skin’s health in a very natural way.

AB: And any tools, treatments or even tests that you would recommend to get glowing skin?

MM: One thing I really love is microneedling because it helps to actually create those little tears in your skin, but in a controlled way, so that when you heal, you’re increasing collagen production. I think face yoga and facial exercises are great to really get that sort of blood flow and circulation that helps with the muscles. The face is usually divided into three sections. If you’re focusing on the orbital muscles, the nasal muscles, and the mouth area, then you can really get a bad glow from that. Face yoga is part of Ayurveda and part of some of the techniques, but in terms of how effective it is to change the structure of your face or to get rid of lines and wrinkles, I’m really not sure. There are some studies out there with little evidence, but that’s growing as well. I think you also have to be mindful because anyone who’s had sort of aesthetic treatments shouldn’t really be doing face yoga or facial exercises because if you’ve had Botox or fillers, they can all migrate when you start sort of touching them.

AB: That’s interesting.

MM: So this is for people who want to do it completely naturally as well.

AB: So, you know, there is a Kriya I do with my Pranayam, this is called Kapol Shakti Vikasak. And I noticed I was getting some lines which have actually gone because of this. I mean, I do it three times a week and I just think, to me, Pranayama and yoga is magic.

MM: Deep breathing is really part of all forms of yoga, and there are 50 different facial muscles that we have that we rarely use. So when we start sort of exercising those muscles, you do see a result, but then they have to be very consistent. And there was actually one study that showed that you have to sort of do facial exercise for 20 to 30 minutes a day for at least 20 weeks before you can see any results. So it’s not to say that it doesn’t work, but as with anything, you have to be very consistent in what you’re doing. Whatever you incorporate, you should be able to maintain it.

Monisha, any advice?

MM: Start slowly, and don’t be too hard on yourself. I think focusing on the weakest link is sort of the key to improving your skin’s health. So, for example, if you know that you eat well, you use good skincare, but you don’t exercise, and perhaps you’re not sleeping well, then focus on the sleep and the exercise. I think one should start off with those sorts of baby steps. Everything that you do will have a positive impact. And, like I said, it’s a multifactorial approach. So just looking at it from a holistic perspective rather than, ‘Oh, it’s just skin care, it’s just diet,’ it’s really everything together, But I would say it starts off with diet; it starts off with what you’re putting inside your body and then what you’re applying to your skin.
Can you give us five pointers for drinking or eating healthy on a daily basis?

MM: I think keeping a food diary is a brilliant way to start. I refuse clients who don’t fill out a food diary because I can’t monitor what they’re eating, and they can’t make the necessary changes or be mindful and aware of their eating habits. When you note down what you eat, you become aware of habits that you may not have realised before. For example, you might be having a bar of chocolate every day after dinner without realising the amount of sugar it adds up to over a month. Recognising these habits allows you to make conscious choices to cut down on them. Keeping a food diary is for your benefit, helping you identify areas that need improvement. It also enables you to make connections, such as linking poor sleep or breaking out into a rash with certain foods. Starting with a food diary is a good way to make those connections and take steps towards a healthier lifestyle.

AB: Do you want to talk about what fruits you would recommend?

MM: So antioxidant fruits, all sorts of fruits, and I would say stick to whole fruits and not fruit juices because you’re taking away the fibre. And fibre is essential for the digestive system. Red fruits, pink fruits are very high in lycopene, which is really important for skin health and gettin that glow. Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables— I think if you start off with that, then that’s really important. If you’re looking for specific nutrients like vitamin C, that would be most fruits and vegetables, berries, oranges. Vitamin E— so the nuts, seeds, chia seeds, they’re brilliant for nourishing that lipid layer on top of your skin. So to get that glow and to help with that cell membrane, vitamin D goes into the sunshine a little bit. So it’s everything, really.

AB: What about sugar substitutes, the natural ones, like the stevias of the world? What is your view on that? Is that still harmful?

MM: I think so, for example, because what happens is— your body is looking for that sugar. You’re almost tricking your body into thinking you’re not having sugar. Ultimately it will search out high carbohydrate foods. I have a few clients that have diabetes and they’ll have Diet Coke, but what they won’t realise is that they’ll get that sort of sugar craving and then they will reach out for something that’s high in carbohydrate or high in sugar later during the day. I think that it’s really about trying to stick to a natural diet and maybe have sugar from more natural sources, like raisins and fruits.

AB: Going off wheat and rice and dairy. Does that help?

MM: So dairy and refined carbohydrates are implicated in acne and very oily skin. But I would say I’m not a big fan of omitting any food groups. I think it’s very, very important to eat everything. Having those balanced wholegrains, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats I think when someone talks about giving up rice, perhaps they mean refined rice, like white rice, or whole grain rice. I mean, I have it every day. I think it’s wonderful because it’s very satisfying. It has selenium, which is an antioxidant and is very brilliant for the skin’s fibre. It’s very nutritious, generally. So actually, I would discourage people from omitting food groups. I think it’s important to eat whole foods, not refined carbohydrates.

AB: Wonderful. Monisha, that was such an interesting chat. Thank you so much. I think people are going to find it absolutely wonderful. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you leading your best life.