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Skin Deep

Beneath the surface of Alaska skin conditions


When Jenny Vanderbilt was first diagnosed with eczema at the age of ten, the clinic nurse in Seward told her mother not to worry about the red, flaky patches on her beautiful daughter’s face and recommended an over-the-counter topical lotion for the dryness and itching.
For years, the chronic skin irritation was a reminder to Vanderbilt that another harsh Alaska winter was on its way. Although the condition never got worse, she says, over time, what started as a winter reoccurrence became a year-round frustration, with the chronic condition showing up at varying times and in different spots including her neck and back. 
When she moved to Anchorage, where winters are colder and dryer than in Seward, Vanderbilt’s condition worsened. She quit mentioning it at doctor appointments because her condition never changed.

Photo by Colleen Turley

Jenny Vanderbilt.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Vanderbilt has been told over the years. Changing seasons and the environment could be contributing to the condition, dust and increased pollen levels are often an irritant, it could also be hereditary—these are some of the explanations she has been offered by nurses and physicians over the years.
Now twenty-eight, she subscribes to one of the most common explanations: “And it doesn’t help that you live in Alaska.” In the meantime, Vanderbilt continues to try a different assortment of soaps and drugstore hydrating and anti-itch creams for flair ups, doing what she can to drink water and eat more fruits and vegetables to counteract her condition. 

From the Inside Out

About 82 million Americans experience some form of dry, itchy, or scaly skin during the winter months. Of these, almost half are affected by eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, which is one of several common, inflammatory skin conditions that the Alaska medical community sees regularly. 
While cold, dry weather conditions such as those that exist in Alaska can irritate the skin and contribute to chronic skin conditions, the healthcare community barely mentions topical creams when it comes to recommended treatments. Instead, providers agree, prevention and treatment begin from within; whatever is going on externally mirrors what’s going on in the body internally.
“Skin is like the tip of an iceberg—putting lotion on is just holding the symptoms down, but under the water is something bigger that you’re not seeing,” says Robert Torrey Smith, an Anchorage naturopathic doctor. “Symptoms should be seen as an opportunity to identify chronic conditions underneath that, once treated, can change life for the better. It is easy to get in the habit of using topical treatments, not realizing we are hiding clues to improve our health and core diet, because it temporarily gives us relief.”
As a naturopathic doctor, Smith treats a wide variety of medical problems using natural means, including skin problems such as eczema, aging skin, acne, scarring, and non-healing skin ulcers. He also treats those that are often a result of the Alaska environment such as dry skin, rashes, insect bites, and sunburn. Certain plants, such as cow parsnip or Pushki (poosh-kee) stalks, similar to poison ivy and poison oak, often result in large blisters, redness or darkened pigmentation, and increased susceptibility to exposure. To prevent sunburn, Smith increases patients’ vitamin D levels before exposure by prescribing consumption of preventative pigments including blueberries and raspberries. High levels of ellagic acid and supplements that contain astaxanthin pigment—the same plankton that sockeye salmon eat—may also help protect the skin from sun damage and rashes.
Treatment of skin problems depends on the diagnosis and cause, though increasing hydration is one of Smith’s first recommendations. The skin contains almost two-thirds water, so preventing dehydration by drinking water is critical. From there, rather than prescribing drugs at the first sign of a problem, he develops a treatment plan that identifies the condition’s cause and helps the body repair faster by using the right nutrients and herbs to support the healing process. Formulas that help the kidneys regulate fluid balance and bolster the adrenals are good for the skin conditions for which Alaskans commonly seek treatment, and this is especially true for the older population. “As we age, it weakens our ability to ‘hang onto essence,’ which often means we sweat easier and urinate more frequently, resulting in chronic dehydration and exhaustion.” All of these factors contribute to unhealthy skin, especially in an Arctic climate like Alaska’s.

Nutrition or Bust

Although Alaska weather tends to get the blame for residents’ chronic skin conditions, there are other causes that can only be treated through appropriate diagnosis. For example, Smith says, low thyroid function can be a cause of dry skin. Physical and emotional stress can be a source of cracked finger tips and slow-healing extremities as the body shuttles blood to the core of the body to protect the heart and vital organs. Skin conditions are often the first sign that a person has diabetes, which causes many skin problems that resemble less serious conditions but when left undiagnosed and untreated can be very serious.
Experts on caring for and repairing skin conditions, regardless of the climate and environment, will likely have different approaches to treating the same problem; however,, all healthcare disciplines agree on one core principle when it comes to prevention. 

Photo by Kelly Ott

Joanna Bryant, Registered/Licensed Dietitian, Alaska Regional Hospital Health Management Center.

“Healthy skin, no matter the climate in which one lives, is dependent on nutrition,” regardless of external and internal factors, says Joanna Bryant, a registered, licensed dietitian for the Alaska Regional Hospital Health Management Center. 
What is the proper diet for maintaining well-nourished, attractive skin?  While Bryant recognizes that the discussion can be complicated, she recommends a diet that includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, yogurt, nuts, olive oil, and fish and seafood.
Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and fats like these—all rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, beta-carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E—are proven to protect the skin against free radicals that may lessen the inflammatory response in the skin, damage skin cells and cause signs of aging, as well as advance the progression of cancer, cardiovascular, and age-related diseases. Combined with adequate sleep, exercise, sunscreen use, and dietary changes, at any age, skin surface, texture, color and overall health may be noticeably improved in ninety days, though results vary by person.
“You’re just getting old, get used to it and deal with it—this is not a phrase I use,” Smith says of his commitment to helping Alaskans of all ages improve or reverse skin vulnerabilities. “If you are compliant with a regenerative-based treatment plan, you can improve your skin and health at any age.”
Heidi Bohi is a freelance writer who has written stories about Alaska since 1988. 
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