The skin is our largest organ, yet it is the organ most likely to be taken for granted. Its simple appearance belies its complexity; skin is an intricate arrangement of several layers of cells, nerves, blood vessels and glands, all held together by a fabric or matrix of protein and carbohydrates. The considerable effort that the body puts forth in maintaining healthy skin has a practical application: skin is our first line of defense against dehydration, infection, injuries, ultraviolet radiation and temperature extremes. Skin cells also can detoxify harmful substances with many of the same processes that the liver uses.
Skin also has a physical attraction and beauty function. There are several “beauty from within” approaches to healthy skin that utilize nutrition to improve skin’s function or appearance. Familiar ones address increasing skin hydration (as with hyaluronic acid supplements) or aiding in detoxification (for example, with antioxidants). Less well understood are approaches that aim to improve the health of the skin matrix (also called connective tissue or extracellular matrix). This aspect of skin health provides the foundation upon which all others are built: a healthy, resilient skin matrix allows skin to maintain its proper flexibility, hydration, and defensive properties.
An important, albeit underappreciated nutrient with a crucial role in the maintenance of healthy skin matrix is silicon. Silicon (not to be confused with silicone, a man-made plastic) is an essential trace element in human nutrition. It is required for some of the countless chemical reactions that create and maintain the human organism. While silicon is the second most abundant element on the planet, humans need very little for proper health. Indeed, an average human body contains only about a gram of silicon in their body. Silicon can be found in several food sources, particularly mineral waters and unprocessed grains, but to some extent in fruits, vegetables, meats and fish—as well as from a correctly formulated dietary supplement.
In plants, silicon is stored in a form called silica, which is a long chain of silicon atoms. This is the form of silicon that is most prevalent in the diet and as supplements (i.e., horsetail silica). For us to absorb and use silicon as a nutrient, we must convert dietary silica into individual silicon units called orthosilicic acid or OSA. This form is available as a supplement. This silica-OSA breakdown process can become less efficient as we age, making orthosilicic acid the preferred dietary silicon source in older individuals.
How does silicon help to maintain healthy skin? The answer comes from its ability to help us produce collagens, important components of our skin extracellular matrix. Collagens are the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom and are extremely versatile for building tissues in the human body. The collagens used to make our skin are long, resilient fibers that are woven together to form a mesh-like structure. This collagen network is the foundation for the overall form and strength of skin. Other components of the skin matrix, like elastin and glycosaminoglycans, work with collagen to ensure skin is flexible, supple and hydrated.
Dietary silicon stimulates collagen production in the skin; this has been demonstrated in both animals and humans. For example, in a study of a group of 50 women with photodamaged skin, 10 mg/day of supplemental silicon (as orthosilicic acid) led to significant decreases in skin roughness and significant increases in elasticity. A quantitative assessment of skin microrelief (a measurement of wrinkle depth and length) demonstrated a significant decrease in the depth and incidence of fine wrinkles in women taking the OSA supplement. This is likely due to an increase in silicon-induced skin collagen production, and an overall strengthening of the skin matrix.
Collagen is not unique to skin; different types of collagens are also used to build other tissues of the body. The strength and flexibility of our arteries, and the resiliency of our bones, are both due to proper formation of collagen in these tissues. In fact, the calcium and other minerals in our bones are held in place by a matrix of mostly collagen protein. It should come as no surprise then that silicon has roles in enhancing collagen production in these tissues as well, leading to improvements in skeletal and cardiovascular health.
In short, the trace element silicon, in its simple role as a promoter of collagen production, has widespread roles in the health of several bodily systems. WF
A.M. Barel, et al. “Effect of Oral Intake of Choline-Stabilized Orthosilicic Acid on Skin, Nails and Hair in Women with Photodamaged Skin,” Arch. Dermatol. Res. 297 (4),147–153 (2005).
E. Bisse, “Reference Values for Serum Silicon in Adults,” Anal. Biochem. 337 (1), 130–135 (2005).
M.R. Calomme and D.A. Vanden Berghe, “Supplementation of Calves with Stabilized Orthosilicic Acid. Effect on the Si, Ca, Mg, and P Concentrations in Serum and the Collagen Concentration in Skin and Cartilage,” Biol. Trace Elem. Res. 56 (2), 153–65 (1997).
T. Spector, presentation given at the 27th Annual American Society for Bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR) Conference, September 23–27 2005, Nashville, TN.
S. Sripanyakorn, et al., “Dietary Silicon and Bone Health,” British Nutrition Foundation Nutrition Bulletin, 30 (3),222–230 (2005).
Kevin M. Connolly, Ph.D. (UCLA), is the director of scientific affairs and product development at Jarrow Formulas, Inc. Previously, he spent 15 years in basic biochemistry research elucidating such diverse mechanisms as bacterial antibiotic resistance and collagen synthesis. He is an inventor of several medical device patents and is a frequent guest on radio health programs throughout the country.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, March 2009