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Phytoceramides: Science or Sham?


Recently, I've been hearing more and more about phytoceramides as oral supplements for skin rejuvenation. Sold by several companies, these bio-lipids have received hype for hydrating, smoothing, and generally improving wrinkled skin, as well as helping to heal skin prone to eczema and thin skin prone to infections. Curious, I went looking in the medical and nutritional literature to see if these claims can be substantiated.

Ceramides are lipids (fats) that are an essential component of human skin. In fact, they are part of the "mortar" that holds the brick wall of your skin cells together. Your body naturally produces ceramides when you are young, but (like bone density and collagen production) ceramide production decreases with age. This can be more than a cosmetic problem, as older skin is thinner and more susceptible to tearing, bruising, and infection. Some people don't produce as many natural ceramides as other people, even when they are young--these are the people who are prone to eczema. Ceramides are a key component in many over-the-counter topical lotions (such as Cerave, Cetaphil Restoraderm, Curel, and others), and their external application has been shown in several studies to hydrate skin and temporarily improve the skin barrier.

This is where the phytoceramides come in. These plant-based ceramides are mean to be taken orally and absorbed into the bloodstream, where they can be carried to the cells of the inner layer of skin (unreachable with external lotions) and eventually seep from inside to the outer layer of skin all over the body, not just where creams are applied. Do they work? It seems that they do to some extent. The patients in the studies took 200 mg to 350 mg of oral phytoceramides daily and averaged about a 35% increase in skin hydration, compared to only a 1% increase in patients who took a placebo.

Where can you find some phytoceramides? I'm generally a fan of getting my vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other natural goodies from real, whole foods, as opposed to taking supplements. It turns out that there are natural phytoceramides in wheat, rice, and corn, but not enough in a reasonable diet to reach the levels that patients took in the studies, so if you'd like some extra phytoceramides, you really will need a supplement. You can buy various expensive anti-aging supplements with phytoceramides, but really any good wheat germ oil would also do the job. I like Standard Process wheat germ oil because I know that it is from organic wheat, cold pressed (to avoid oxidation), and gluten-free. I take 2 capsules of the wheat germ oil 2-3 times a day, especially in the winter.

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