January is the time of the year when most of us make at least one New Year’s resolution. Often, these resolutions regard our health in some way. As such, it is fitting to focus this month’s column on our outer health – or, more specifically, our skin.
Our skin is the largest organ in our body. Most of us know this fact from our high school health class. But, what many of us don’t appreciate is how much our skin can reveal about our inner – and even overall – health. What may seem an innocuous bump may be a harbinger of a much deeper and more serious problem; and what seems to be a whole-body illness may be little more than a brief al- lergic reaction. This wide variety of problems and their presentations is what makes taking care of the skin and patients’ outer health fascinating and problematic.
As with any organ in our body, inflammation is a root cause of multiple illnesses. If you stop to think about it, any kind of inflammation of a body organ – hepatitis (liver), cystitis (bladder), encephalitis (brain), vasculitis (blood vessels), gastritis (stomach) and more – are basically “code words” in medical jargon to indicate a problem with that organ. Medicine and medical care attempt to mitigate the damage from this inflammation. Therefore, to a physi- cian like me, the inflammation of the skin – dermatitis – is a sign of poor health of the skin.
What makes inflammation of the skin so problematic is that most of the anti-aging dogma regarding skin care, including medical treatments and spa-grade treatments, are directed at increasing in- flammation of the skin. Patients are advised to put irritants on their skin; suffer through redness, pain and swelling; and use products that make skin actually hurt, all for the sake of “anti-aging.” To me, this is antithetical to the health of the largest organ. How can itbe possible that inflammation of every other organ in our body is considered a state of disease, yet we intentionally increase the dis- ease of our body’s outer protective layer? How can breaking down this physical barrier increase our overall skin’s health? This is a topic and question I have pondered for the last 30 years. I have “gone to battle” every day with my own skin, as I have tried the latest potion, treatment or regimen for purportedly increasing my skin’s health while decreasing its apparent age.
We are learning more about how chronic inflammation of any organ or body part can be detrimental to our health. Heart disease has been linked to bacteria from the mouth that causes inflammation of the cardiac vessels. Chronic inflammation also is linked to innumer- able illnesses, even cancer. Therefore, with few exceptions, I believe it is essential to decrease the inflammation of our skin. I will warn you up front, this opinion is emerging in the medical community, and many physicians will not agree with me – yet. The traditional treatment of the skin and general recommendations from the medi- cal community involve increasing the skin’s irritation and decreasing the barrier function of the skin. They do little to nothing to improve the healing time of any injury to the skin.
In my own medical practice, we focus on decreasing inflammation of the skin and improving the skin’s own natural barrier function. Skin health optimization – like cardiovascular conditioning or optimal cognitive brain function – should be a part of anyone’s anti- aging goal. So whether your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, increase your aerobic capacity, strengthen your muscles or improve your memory, please keep the health of your skin in mind. Protect your skin from sun damage with a zinc-based sunscreen; cleanse off the grime of the day (even if only with a splash of water); and moisturize your skin with a calming lotion or cream.
Most important, do not intentionally irritate your skin. If your skin feels irritated, think of it as a cranky 2-year-old having a meltdown: give it a hug and calm it down with a soothing hug, rather than a spanking while screaming “shape up!” Partner with a trusted medi- cal professional to put together the best regimen for your skin’s par- ticular health or state of dis-ease. Believe me, your skin will reward you with a healthy glow and proper barrier function; and you will know that you are not intentionally causing an “-itis” of your largest organ. This is true “anti-aging” advice and a New Year’s resolution most of us can keep.
Elizabeth VanderVeer, M.D., is a board- certified internist and president/medical director at VanderVeer Center. A native Oregonian, she is a fourth-generation doctor who has dedicated her practice exclusively to aesthetics for many years and specializes in nonsurgical cosmetic medicine. Dr. VanderVeer is a published author and a sought-after international lecturer.