The notion that we can fix what ails us by eating right is a commonly held belief. And it is also one that has considerable merit in some medical conditions. A nutritional treatment for common skin disorders, like atopic dermatitis, would be very welcome to most who suffer from these conditions.
For quite some time, dietary supplementation with the essential fatty acids found in various vegetable oils have been advocated, and with some scientific underpinnings, for the treatment of dry skin and also for atopic dermatitis. One essential fatty acid, linoleic acid, present in large amounts in corn, sunflower and safflower oils, is required to form the fatty (or ‘lipid’) membranes that surround the outermost cells of the skin (the stratum corneum). These layers of water-repellant lipid membranes are what keep our wet insides from drying out. Linoleic acid, therefore, is one critical component of skin’s permeability barrier.
Another key constituent of this lipid mixture is another class of lipids, ceramides. The stratum corneum in atopic dermatitis is deficient in ceramides. While several ingredients of some creams and ointments, such as niacinamide and eucalyptus oil, are purported to increase ceramide production in experimental systems, it is not known whether they actually do so in human skin. But now, new research indicates if you simply ingest ceramides (or their immediate precursor, glucosylceramides), ceramide levels will increase in the skin. Not only does barrier function improve, but also the inflammation of the skin also is reduced – at least that’s what happens in experimental animals.
Bottom Line: The studies we discussed were conducted in animals, not humans. A few human studies have been reported, but only with variable success. At present the information about the benefits of dietary ceramides is too preliminary to support any general recommendations. Dietary sources that are relatively rich in ceramides include wheat germ, brown rice and vegetables like spinach and beets. These are foods that are good for us in other ways, but whether we can improve our skin barriers and heal our dry skin or eczema by eating more of these foods is unknown. Dietary supplements containing ceramides are also available, but we lack scientific confirmation of their safety and efficacy. Stay tuned for further research in this interesting and important area.