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5 Skin Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

young woman smiling behind a leaf
Highlights
  • Beauty comes from the inside – which means that a regular intake of nutrient-dense foods is required to achieve optimal skin health
  • Omega-3 fatty acids influence the gut-skin axis – one of the most critical factors affecting skin vitality
  • Emotional stress can create unfavorable changes in skin quality, but can be combatted by certain dietary and lifestyle choices

According to the research, achieving healthy, youthful-looking skin requires making internal improvements – by consuming nutrient-dense foods such as collard greens (yum!), beets, lentils, almonds, and wild-caught salmon.1,2 To be more specific, low-sugar diets that contain probiotics and nutrients or compounds like zinc, selenium, coenzyme Q10, collagen, prebiotics, and omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to younger and healthier looking skin.1,3 In this article, we focus on the five most researched skin benefits of omega-3 fatty acids specifically. 

1) Omega-3 Effects on the Gut-Skin Axis  

Who would have imagined that the living organisms located in our gut could change the appearance of our skin – a phenomenon known as the gut-skin axis.3 Recent investigations reveal that poor dietary choices may lead to unfavorable changes in our gut bacteria, which may in turn, disrupt the quality of our skin.4 For example, high-sugar, high-fat and low-fiber foods have been shown to alter gut microbiota in ways that result in higher insulin levels – a factor that’s been linked to the development of acne.5,6 Fortunately, changing dietary patterns can help enhance the quality of gut bacteria. In fact, some studies show that increased consumption of fish or supplementation with omega-3s may help promote the growth of “good bacteria” that are thought to optimize health.7,8

Speaking of optimal health, a recent study (2018) showed that supplementation with omega-3s increased certain types of the “good bacteria” that produce gut-protective molecules known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).8 The human gut loves SCFAs, as these fatty acids not only provide energy to our stomach cells, they also help strengthen the gut lining – a protective barrier that acts like a gatekeeper. When our gatekeeper is weak, unwanted critters (bacteria) or their byproducts (toxins) may make their way through the barrier, enter the bloodstream, and end up in your skin.9

While it isn’t a pleasant thought knowing that unwanted bacteria and toxins from your gut may be headed up to the surface to wreak havoc on your epidermis, you’ll be pleased to know that human studies have shown that both prebiotics and probiotics can help optimize skin health by out-populating the “bad critters” in your gut.10,11

Considering that omega-3 fatty acids may help increase the “good guys”, an adequate intake of these vital fatty acids may help optimize gut health – a strong factor affecting skin vitality.   

2) Pimple-Fighting Properties of Omega-3s

Research suggests that diets low in omega-3 fatty acids may be linked to the prevalence of acne—a skin condition characterized by pimples that occurs when hair follicles become plugged with oil and dead skin cells.12,13 Conversely, a study analyzing the diet of over 1000 teenagers found that those who consumed higher amounts of fish and seafood tended to have fewer breakouts14

Some trials report that supplementation with either omega-3 fatty acids or gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) can have pimple-fighting properties.15,16 In a recent 10-week trial, subjects with breakouts were assigned to supplement with either 2,000 mg of omega-3s, 2000 mg of borage oil, or no supplements at all (control group).16 At the end of the trial, the participants that supplemented with omega-3 oil or borage oil (which contains a “healthy” omega-6) had fewer breakout issues, whereas the control group showed no such improvement. How might the intake of omega-3s and GLA result in a more favorable skin complexion? Good question.

Some researchers believe that pimple formation is an insulin-driven skin problem and that because omega-3s have been shown to have insulin-sensitizing effects, this may explain why those with a higher intake of fish and seafood tend to have fewer problems with breakouts.17

3) Sun-Buffering Effects of Omega-3s

Skin damage that results from sun overexposure is one of the most common causes of accelerated skin aging.18 When sunlight contacts the skin, it causes the production of free radicals, which can attack the skin’s cellular membranes. Because the omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in cellular membrane health, it is thought that having an optimal omega-3 status may enhance the skin’s resilience to ultraviolet light.19,20 Several human studies have reported that oral supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can help buffer against the sun’s harmful rays.21,22

The use of omega-3s to naturally support skin health is gaining interest as fish and cod liver oil extracts are now found in various cosmetic products.23 In a human trial, participants had sardine oil applied to the skin of one forearm, followed by ultraviolet light exposure to both forearms.24 When comparing participants’ forearms, the researchers noted a significant improvement in response to ultraviolet light in the sardine oil-treated forearm. However, before you run to the store to find the latest creams containing omega-3s, know that oral consumption of omega-3s is much more likely to provide the skin benefits you are looking for. 

4) Anti-Wrinkle Effects of PUFAs

When the outermost layer of the epidermis (also known as the skin barrier) loses its water-holding capacity, scaly, rough, and cracked skin is what you may see in the mirror – yikes! Fortunately, the skin barrier’s ability to retain water is influenced by the composition of fatty acids, which can be affected by changes to your diet.25,26 In fact, research shows that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can have a positive influence on the skin’s hydration levels.27,28 In a study comparing the effects of supplementation with flaxseed oil or borage oil on women with sensitive skin, it was found that both groups saw positive changes in skin hydration, scaling, and roughness.29 This is not overly surprising as omega-3s from flaxseed and omega-6 GLA from borage oil (which is a “skin-supporting” omega-6 fatty acid not typically consumed in high amounts) are thought to promote a healthy immune response and to prevent the excess production of acute-phase proteins – molecules that are known to affect skin quality.30,31 It is thought that the excess consumption of the omega-6 fatty acids (with the exception of GLA) commonly found in Americanized diets can cause an imbalance in the skin and other organs that may have consequences such as accelerated aging.32,33

5) Stress-busting Properties of Omega-3s

A healthy skin barrier is one that prevents excessive water loss and can prevent foreign substances from getting absorbed that might irritate the deeper layers of the skin. Unfortunately, studies show that stress or sleep deprivation may lead to an unhealthy skin barrier – taking away the youthful look of your skin (which only creates more stress!)34 Another study analyzed how stress impacted the skin of college students by comparing the quality of their skin during exam periods versus vacation periods.35 The results showed that students’ skin barrier function declined during exam weeks compared to when the students were on winter break.

Because stress can disrupt the skin-barrier—and being stressed out has become part of the cultural norm here in America—stress could literally be hurting our country’s image. How do we turn this situation around? The easiest solution would be to simply get rid of unwanted stress, but we all know that’s easier said than done, and according to our recent article – it’s much more challenging to de-stress when your omega-3 status is low. Because omega-3s are thought to dampen the stress response and provide a calming effect, maintaining an adequate intake of omega-3s appears to be beneficial in the context of skin health. For this reason, we recommend you talk to your doctor about getting your omega-3 blood levels tested.   

Conclusion

So, what have we learned here? To recap, the overconsumption of processed foods high in sugar and fat can result in an unhealthy gut, and potentially lead to pimpled, dry, wrinkled, and scaly skin. Thankfully, research shows that you can enhance your skin health by consuming a diet that promotes digestive health. Given that omega-3s are thought to promote the “good” bacteria, ensuring an adequate intake of omega-3s is an excellent strategy for achieving the healthy, glowing, and youthful-looking skin complexion you’re after. Omega-3s also appear to increase skin hydration, promote healthy insulin levels, help establish a healthy stress response, and buffer the skin from sun damage—all factors known to affect the overall quality and condition of the skin. In other words, omega-3s have many unique, skin-promoting benefits. But don’t take our word for it—try it and see for yourself.

Adin Smith, MS is a Science Researcher and Writer for Nordic Naturals. He holds a Masters Degree in Nutrition, and believes that many health conditions are the result of suboptimal nutrient status. For this reason, Adin is committed to informing others about the latest research in nutrition, lifestyle modification, and dietary supplements.

Gut Microbiota: The collection of bacteria and certain other microorganisms that reside in the digestive tract.

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