Diet therapy

Skin care for active people

We all like to look our best particularly if we are having to “front up” in public. This can be an ordeal for some people as their appearance  can be affected by the very nature of their sport or activity.

The stress of competition, the sun and wind, sweat, chaffing and high sugar levels are just some of the things that can aggravate skin conditions. Athletes who suffer from acne, rosacea and psoriasis may need to take extra care to protect their skin while exercising.

Issues to consider


Normally a moderate level of stress can be reduced through exercise. However for elite athletes or workman struggling to meet deadlines, their livelihoods may be dependent on producing winning results so the stakes are higher.

For many years doctors have suspected that stress can make acne worse. Then two studies (2003 Stanford University and 2007 Wakefield Forest University Singapore) both found that college students reported flare-ups of acne during exam times compared to low-stress periods such as summer breaks.

The researchers hypothesized that when a person undergoes stress the steroid hormones like glucocorticoids and adrenal androgens are released. These in turn activate the cells that produce sebum which is the oily substance that mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria to clog the hair follicles, leading to  pimples or acne cyst production.

While some people squeeze their pimples occasionally others compulsively pick at them. This condition is known as acne excoriee and can turn small eruptions or scabs into major scarring if the sufferer fails to curb this obsession.


The majority of athletes spend hours training and competing in the sun increasing their risks of sun burn, skin cancer and rapidly aging skin. There are some people who avoid the use of sun screen because it can get into their eyes when they sweat and it stings. New Ph-balanced sunscreen don’t sting and for those athletes with oily skin, gels or oil-free products or powder laced with SPF may offer the best protection.


For active people prone to acne, the irritation and perspiration associated with wearing tight-fitting clothes during work or training may lead to acne mechanica (i.e rashes). Wearing loose-fitting clothing, avoiding the use of makeup when exercising, as well as showering as soon as possible after completing work or training, can all help to prevent skin irritation.


For rosacea sufferers, any increase in body temperature resulting in skin flushing can cause flare-ups of their condition. Symptoms may be reduced by exercising in a cool environment such as swimming, although care must be taken, to moisturise the skin afterwards, as chlorine has a skin drying effect. Jogging in the cool of the evening or in an air-conditioned space can also help to prevent overheating.


Any vigorous activity results in perspiration or sweat which contains water and salt. Any salt accumulation particularly in areas where the skin creases, such as underarms and the groin, can exacerbate eczema and psoriasis problems as the skin becomes dry in response to the excess salt or over washing.

Sleep deprivation

All of us experience sleep deprivation at some stage during our lives. However for athletes who may have to get up early for training (such as swimmers or rowers) or those who are traveling extensively, sleep loss can affect performance. According to sleep researchers the risk of psychological stress increases by 14% for every hour of sleep lost at night. This occurs because, as mentioned earlier, stress increases glucocorticoid production which can lead to abnormalities in skin structure and function thereby aggravating conditions such as acne.


Carbohydrate containing foods (particularly those with a high glycaemic index (GI)) cause blood sugar to rise quickly which triggers a boost in insulin and androgen levels resulting in inflammation in body cells. Excess levels of insulin in the blood stream trigger a hormonal cascade and endocrine response that can lead to an overproduction of serum and pore clogging activity.

This can be a problem for athletes as they often depend on high GI foods (such as sports drinks and gels, lollies,etc) for an energy boost before, during or for the post exercise recovery phase of their training or competition.

Nutrition research in the US has found that people who consume a low-glycaemic diet that includes whole grains, beans, vegetables and limits white bread, white pasta and sugary drinks and snacks, had fewer breakouts.

Nutrition tips for healthier skin

There are many factors that contribute to healthier skin. Our hormones, stress, sleep levels as well as environmental factors all play a part. Many of these things are beyond our control. However the food that we choose to eat can really make a difference.

The body is constantly regenerating itself and the nutrients supplied by your diet can aid tissue building and repair. Here are just a few of them:

Vitamin A

Vitamin A helps regulate the skin cycle preventing acne-causing protein and oil to build up in the pores. There is some evidence that acne sufferers may have lower levels of this vitamin than is normal. Vitamin A is a major ingredient in the prescription medications for acne Roaccuatne ®and Accutane®. Vitamin A can be found in yellow vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin and kumara and also dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. It is also found in oily fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines, eggs, margarine, milk and dairy products. As vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin and accumulative large amounts can build up to toxic levels. It is not safe to take more than 10,000 IU per day and should never be taken while pregnant or breast-feeding.


Zinc levels can be suboptimal in acne sufferers and is helpful in calming skin irritations. Good food sources are milk, oysters, red meat,  liver, wheat germ, almonds and brazil nuts. Once again avoid excess zinc due to supplementation as this can increase the risk of heart disease by raising the “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowering the “protective” HDL’s.

Vitamin E and C

Vitamin C is essential for the proteins present in connective tissue. In times of deficiency skin can breakdown and bleed. Good food sources include or raw fruit and vegetables. Vitamin C also plays a part in helping to regenerate Vitamin E whose role it is, as a powerful anti-oxidant, to prevent cellular breakdown by free radicals. Vitamin E is another fat soluble vitamin and is found in kumara, olive oil, avocado, broccoli and leafy green vegetables.


This is a trace element lacking in New Zealand soils and like Vitamin E it protects the skin from free radical damage. Good food sources include wheat germ, tuna, salmon, garlic, eggs and brown rice.  Taking two brazil nuts per day will prevent deficiency. Do be wary of selenium supplementation as in excess hair and nails can be lost and skin lesions can appear.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These help to prevent acne by reducing inflammation and supporting skin renewal. Good food sources include salmon and sardines, nuts and seeds.


Well known for carrying nutrients, water is essential for hydration of the body and healthy skin. Care should be taken however not to over hydrate as this can have harmful effects. For more information see Lea’s article on water intoxication.

The importance of good hygiene.

It is possible to minimize the number of germs landing on your face. Here are a few ideas:

  • Always wash your hands after using the bathroom or sports gear and particularly before handling food or snacks.
  • If this is impossible during sporting activities then ensure your snacks are wrapped in plastic so as to minimize contact between your food and dirty hands.
  • Avoid sharing drink bottles and also towels when wiping away sweat from the face.
  • Avoid picking or scratching sores or dry skin
  • Rowers beware of duck droppings that may be present on river banks as these can be a source of bacteria entering cuts or blisters on your hands if touched and are easily transferred to the face and neck.
  • Cell phones carry germs that are easily transferred by your fingers on the key pad to the face and so need to be cleaned regularly with an antiseptic wipe. This also applies to mouth guards, headgear and cycle helmets where sweat and bacteria can accumulate and be transferred to the face, lips or neck.
  • When using the toilet always put the lid down before you flush as bacteria such as e.coli are easily propelled into the air settling on your face, eyes and lips as you bend forward to flush.

If you are concerned about the nutrient adequacy of your daily diet then contact us now we would be happy to help you with a nutritional assessment.

This may prove to be a lot cheaper and safer in the long run than grabbing a bottle of dietary supplement. Particularly for serious athletes when considering anti-doping guidelines and the importance of reducing the risk of cross contamination that dietary supplements may be exposed to during their manufacturer.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

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