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by Brian T. Morris, M.D.

Many people envy the bloom of good health reflected by the great beauties of our time. Clear skin, no wrinkles and no blemishes are the ideals we all crave. Essentially, the appearance of your skin reflects the health of your body inside.

Since ancient Egyptian times, doctors have used the observation of the patient's skin to determine what may be going on in the body. . . and we still do.

But some activities and foods have a more direct influence on your skin and that's what this article is all about -- some ways to get fast improvements in your skin for free, or at least at a low cost -- and just in time for short sleeves and revealing swimsuits of summer.

Water is a very low-cost way to improve your skin quality, and the effect is fast. Just one week after increasing your water intake you can see fewer wrinkles and minor blemishes.

Water has two functions that lead to better looking skin. First, it helps flush toxins out of your body which can show up as blemishes on the skin. Second, it plumps up the skin so wrinkles don't form or are less noticeable. We recommend that everyone drink a full glass of water, before they start each meal, as well as another five or six glasses of plain or seltzer water during each day.

Sun avoidance is no-cost if you just cover up, or low-cost if you choose to use a sunblock with an SPF (skin protection factor) of 15 or greater. A little sunshine lifts the spirits and feels good on the skin (the operative word here is "little").

Much of our work at the Cosmetic Laser Clinic is repairing damage from excessive sun. It causes or exacerbates premature wrinkling of the skin, freckles and age spots, as well as the tiny "spider" veins, wrongly, but widely held to be caused by excessive drinking.

In addition, too much sun has the potential to cause skin cancer . . . the most prevalent type of cancer in America today.

Alcohol & tobacco avoidance will save you a lot of money these days. No matter how good your diet, too much alcohol will prevent your body from utilizing the vitamins and minerals you consume, so you are a candidate for vitamin deficiencies even though you are eating the right things.

A little wine or beer with meals helps people relax and reduce the stress that contributes to acne and other adverse skin reactions. But more than a couple of drinks a day dehydrates the system and wrinkles show up.

Cigarettes and other tobacco products cause untold damage, some of which shows up on your skin. The smoke itself tends to "tan" the skin on your face in patches and causes premature aging. Digestion is interfered with and some organs, such as the spleen and blood vessels, tend to shrink in size and become less effective at delivering oxygen and removing wastes, so your skin becomes sallow.

Use of seatbelts is a no-cost way to keep your good looks. Seatbelts may be the easiest way for most people to keep their skin looking good, or at least as good as it looks now. Every doctor who has worked in an Emergency Room can tell you horror stories about patients who crashed into the dashboard or went through the windshield. No amount of skin care after one of these accidents can take away the scars or replace missing parts of a face.

Turkey and chicken are two of the lowest cost sources of protein available today. The white meat with the skin removed is about as fat-free a source of protein you can find -- it's in the same league as beans. Chicken and turkey offer all the amino acids plus niacin to keep your skin healthy.

Oats are clearly low in cost and deliver both soluble fiber, to balance blood sugars and minimize mood swings, as well as insoluble fiber to maintain speedy elimination of body waste. Less toxins in your body and less stress mean fewer frown lines and a better complexion.

Tomatoes are low in cost and ubiquitous -- they're in all kinds of foods we eat every day, and one serving of uncooked tomatoes is loaded with half your daily requirement of vitamins A and C. Just 30 calories too. But remember that cooking destroys most of the vitamin C.

Never mind an apple a day -- a carrot a day will do you a lot more good, and at a much lower cost too. Think about it, they're fat free, full of fiber, and loaded with beta-carotene. Beta-carotene becomes vitamin A after digestion, and vitamin A plays an important role in maintaining smooth, healthy skin.

Strawberries range from low-cost when they're in season (late June around here) to outrageous when they're not. But they have more vitamin C than almost any other food. They also deliver a lot of potassium to aid the body's water balance as well as plenty of fiber and iron. Fiber aids digestion, iron ensures good skin color, and vitamin C is essential to collagen formation. Collagen is a major component of firm healthy skin. What's more it builds stronger blood vessels to avoid excessive bruising and aid healing of skin wounds.

For almost everyone, except George Bush, broccoli is low in cost and high in all kinds of healthy goodies. It offers iron, calcium, fiber, a smattering of B vitamins, lots of vitamin A and loads of vitamin C. Light steaming preserves the vitamins, so don't overcook broccoli.

Low fat yogurt, or better yet, no fat yogurt is low in price and delivers a cornucopia of riboflavin, for skin health, vitamin B12, for skin tone, folacin (AKA folic acid) to avoid pale, sallow skin, as well as zinc and protein.

Parsley, the orphan decoration at the side of your plate, carries a truckload of nutrients in every curly, green sprig. Women who are taking oral contraceptives or who are pregnant need parsley's folic acid offering to ensure vibrant skin tone. Half a cup each day is about right and includes a plentiful amount of vitamin C as well.

Papaya was not on my Granny's table, but it should be on yours. Depending where you live they may be low-cost, but chances are they won't be. The vitamin A in one papaya exceeds the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) by 50%; and vitamin A is crucial to keeping skin supple, moist and disease resistant so it stays looking young. They carry some calcium and potassium as well as your full day's requirement of vitamin C.

Another exotic, mangoes, are not too expensive. One mango delivers your RDA of vitamins A and C.

Potatoes, humble and low-cost, are good providers of niacin, copper, and iron; the skin offers plenty of fiber, and a whopping 35% of your daily vitamin C needs as well as folic acid.

Watercress is low-cost, tasty and loaded with vitamins A and C.

Exercise is free, but for best results you need to do some every day. But never mind the Marine boot-camp "no pain, no gain" mentality. The latest research shows that consistent, light exercise, such as brisk walking, improves muscle tone, aids elimination and puts the "roses" back into your cheeks. All beneficial to good-looking skin.

Need more incentives to get off the couch? Exercise gives you a sharper mind, quicker reaction times, better resistance to illness, less depression, easier pregnancy and a better sex life, too.

Whole-grain bread, and I don't mean white flour with a smattering of whole grain flour, is rich in fiber, zinc and all the vitamins in the B group. The B vitamins make for calm nerves and that means less stress and fewer wrinkles.

Spinach is low in cost and Popeye's favorite. Good reason too; just a half cup provides your RDA for vitamin A as well as plenty of vitamin C and some calcium.

Cantalope is low-cost, at least when it's in season, and provides a bumper crop of vitamins A and C.

Avoid fast weight loss diets and save the money you might have spent on liquid meals or other crash programs. Weight gain stretches your skin, and rapid weight loss (more than 1 or 2 pounds a week) destroys the elastin (a form of collagen in your skin) so that permanent wrinkles can form. Jowls and other permanently stretched skin can only be fixed by plastic surgery -- definitely not a low-cost/no-cost solution.

Take weight loss slowly and be sure to eat a balanced diet -- no high protein diets, please -- to maintain health and improve your appearance.

Whole milk dairy products and meats, along with other fats, tend to clog arteries and contribute to poor-looking skin, not to mention more serious problems like obesity and heart attack. Fortunately, the alternatives, such as skim milk, chicken, fish, beans and other healthier choices, are all lower in cost.

Fish and seafood is generally a good choice to keep skin and your whole body healthy since they are lower in fat and cholesterol than red meats. Too much iodine, mainly in seafood, such as shrimp, causes a rash in some people.

Oysters can hardly be classed as low-cost/no-cost, but you need a treat once in while. They're healthy, too. Rich in zinc, copper and iron, they're very low in cholesterol. Zinc carries vitamin A to skin cells, plays a key role in protein development for skin cell replacement, and helps remove carbon dioxide from the deeper skin layers. Meanwhile, copper is essential to the red blood cells that feed the skin and give it that healthy glow.

Flounder is one of the lower priced fishes, low in fats and a source of high quality protein. Salmon, halibut, swordfish and other fatty fishes taste great grilled on the barbeque, and the oils are said to be beneficial to the heart.

An Introductory Guide to Nutrition, A to Z

Most doctors and nutritionists don't favor food supplements, such as vitamin pills, except in very special cases. Most Americans get all the vitamins and minerals they need from eating a healthy, balanced diet. That is, a diet low in fats, sugars and excess salt, and high in fiber -- just the kind of nutrition you get from eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat.

You are wise to reduce the amount of whole milk and whole milk products, red meats, and fried foods. Some of the latest research indicates that you're wise to replace animal fats with modest amounts of fats from sources such as almonds, macadamia nuts, avocados and olives. But you can load up on all other fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereal products, and limited amounts of fish, seafoods, turkey and chicken.

If you select them wisely, here's what you will get:

Amino acids (also known as proteins)
The building blocks of your body for muscle, ligaments, lubricants and other key tissues needed to grow new cells.

Vitamin A
Aids in keeping skin moist, supple and wrinkle-free.
Helps skin resist infections
But, be careful, vitamin A is toxic in large amounts.

Converted by the body into vitamin A
Found in carrots (what a surprise) and many other green and yellow vegetables.

Vitamin B group
The vitamin B group helps keep nerves calm, reducing stress and avoiding frowns and other stress related negative effects on appearance.

Folacin (also called folic acid)
Plays an important role in the formation of red blood cells.
Pregnant women and those using oral contraceptives need twice the usual amount of folacin.
Folacin deficiency shows up as pale, sallow skin.

Assists cells to use energy and stay healthy.

B 12
Promotes healthy blood and good skin tone.

Strengthens bones, especially important for all women in order to avoid crippling osteoporosis later in life.
Plays a key role in regulating blood pressure.

Essential for formation of red blood cells which nourish your skin.

Vitamin C
Critical to formation of collagen, part of the connective tissue that keeps your skin firm.
Promotes the healing of wounds.
Prevents tiny skin capillaries from breaking.

Insoluble fiber absorbs water and helps keep you regular.
Soluble fiber stabilizes blood-sugar levels and thereby minimizes mood swings.
Be sure to drink plenty of water with fibrous foods or it may backfire and cause constipation.

A key component of red blood cells, iron assures a rosy, healthy look.

Sometimes known as the "happiness" mineral because it promotes a feeling of calmness and well-being.
Also helps keep your heart healthy.

Transports vitamin A to the skin where it enhances appearance.
Helps eliminate carbon-dioxide waste from the skin and your entire body.
Aids protein synthesis which is critical for skin cell renewal.
Zinc deficiency resembles eczema on the skin, making it look red and scaly

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