Life Extension Magazine July 2009
A New Approach to Protect the Skin
By Romy Fox
A Natural Sunscreen That Works From Inside the Cells
As we have already learned, sunlight, and UV light in particular, generates free radicals, reactive oxygen species, and photons that “rip apart” skin cells and structures and damage skin DNA that is responsible for ensuring every skin cell fulfills its designated role. Ultraviolet light also destroys specialized immune-system sentinels that live in the skin called Langerhans’ cells charged with destroying harmful substances such as germs, toxins, tumors, or other invaders before they can hurt the skin or penetrate further into the body. The result? Skin that develops lines and wrinkles, sags, dries out, thins, and begins to look like grayed, worn paper.
Because this sun-induced damage is subtle, slow to accumulate, and usually painless (unless you get a sunburn), it’s very easy to overlook. Until you look in the mirror one day and discover that your skin has aged markedly.
In addition to creating visibly damaged skin, unprotected sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer in the US.21 How much sunlight does it take to cause skin damage, accelerate the aging process, weaken the immune system, or trigger cancer? That is impossible to say given the differences in the amount and intensity of sunlight in different areas of the country, the length of exposure, the type of skin, and so on. So health experts advise everyone to take precautions.
Unfortunately, many people are remarkably vulnerable when it comes to protecting their skin against the sun’s harmful UV radiation. They don’t always put on sunscreen. That is, they don’t put it on every single time they go outside, especially if it’s only for a few minutes or if the weather seems a bit overcast. When sunscreen is applied, it is often not spread evenly over every part of the body that might be exposed to the sun or used in sufficient amounts to do the job properly. People also may not re-apply it like they should when they have been outside for a long time or have been sweating or swimming. As a result, many people are exposed to more sunlight more often than they think.
Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of having to apply and re-apply sunscreen, you had an “internal sunscreen” and skin protector that worked from inside the cells? A sunscreen that could be swallowed as a supplement, only had to be “applied” once a day, covered every inch of skin “thickly” and evenly, and could not be inadvertently rubbed or washed off? Research suggests that we do have such a sunscreen and that it comes from a tropical fern.
For centuries, natives of Honduras have protected themselves against sunburns, tumors, psoriasis, and other skin diseases by ingesting Calaguala, an extract from a fern that scientists have dubbed Polypodium leucotomos. An article in Nature discussed this fern’s anti-tumor effects over 40 years ago,22 and since then numerous studies have demonstrated that it has antioxidant properties,23-25 reduces the number of sunburn cells following exposure to the sun’s UV rays,26,27 protects against UV-induced DNA damage,26 guards the skin’s structure by slowing the movement of cells that release inflammatory substances into the skin,26,28 influences the immune system,26-30 and acts against tumors.22,31,32
An early study, conducted by Harvard researchers on 21 volunteers in 1997, tested whether Polypodium leucotomos extract, taken orally or applied topically, could protect human skin against sun damage.33 Some of the study participants were pre-treated with a light-sensitizing agent, some were not, and then all were exposed to solar radiation. The researchers then assessed the level of skin damage (amount of sunburn, changes in skin pigment, and amount of injury to skin cells). The volunteers then either took an oral dose of Polypodium leucotomos extract or applied it to the skin, and were exposed to solar radiation again. Once again the researchers assessed the effects on the skin, and found that Polypodium leucotomos extract had a protective effect whether it was taken as a supplement or applied to the skin. Specifically, it increased the amount of exposure necessary for adverse skin effects to be induced. The amount of time the volunteers’ skin could tolerate sun before reddening increased nearly three-fold, while in some subjects, the skin could tolerate nearly seven times the amount of exposure before suffering sun damage. In addition, Polypodium leucotomos protected the Langerhans’ cells, which means that it guarded this portion of the immune system from sun-induced damage.33
A 2004 study by the same research group also used human volunteers to determine the effectiveness of Polypodium leucotomos in protecting fair to light skin against sun damage.26 Nine healthy volunteers, some of whom were given oral doses of Polypodium leucotomos extract and some of whom where not, were exposed to varying amounts of UV light. After 24 hours, the researchers took biopsy samples to measure the amount of skin redness due to inflammation (erythema). Those who had taken the extract showed a “significant decrease in erythema,” and microscopic examination of skin cell samples revealed a significant decrease in the number of sunburn cells, damage to DNA, and infiltration of the area by mast cells, which play a role in allergic disorders. The researchers concluded that taking Polypodium leucotomos extract offers “significant protection of skin against UV radiation.”26
Although researchers continue to investigate just how Polypodium leucotomos protects the skin, thus far we know that it slows the proliferation of free radicals that are normally seen with sun exposure and normal metabolic processes.25,34 It also prevents damage to and decomposition of DNA and natural elements that protect the skin (such as Langerhans’ cells), and prevents UV rays from killing skin cells and supporting structures.35
These and other properties suggest that Polypodium leucotomos may serve as an internal sunscreen, making it the missing ingredient in many people’s anti-aging and longevity programs.
Beautiful, Healthy Skin
Your skin is more than just an outer coating; it is your armor against “outside” invaders and a reflection of who you are. In order for you to look and feel good, it must be in tip-top shape, protected against the dangers arising from within and without. Three herbs—ashwagandha, Phyllanthus emblica, and Polypodium leucotomos—can help protect your precious skin and give it the tools it needs to stay healthy and beautiful.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension Health Advisor at 1-800-226-2370.
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