We’ve all heard of liver spots—those blemishes, ranging in colour from pale to dark brown, which appear on our skin as we age as if by (dark) magic.
Also known as age spots, these irregularly-shaped patches on the skin, though not cancerous or painful, are certainly a feature of the ageing process that we would all prefer to avoid.
Despite their name, liver spots have nothing to do with liver problems.
They’re actually caused in part by UV light: this is why they appear most frequently on the face, the backs of the hands, the arms, the shoulders, and the neck, all areas of skin that are most frequently exposed to the sun.
The sun isn’t actually the ‘cause’ of skin aging either, it only contributes to skin damage with overexposure and when a person has accumulated too much PUFA in their tissues.
A quick internet search will tell you that there are ways to remove age spots, including cryotherapy and laser removal.
Unfortunately, these are not usually available on the NHS, can be expensive, and may lead to slight skin discolouration.
A cheaper option is to try to reduce the chance of developing liver spots in the first place: many health sites advise that the best way to do this is to avoid sunbeds and minimise the time spent in direct sunlight, covering up with hats and shawls when you go outside.
But this advice is only telling half of the story.
Research by Dr Ray Peatsuggests that another factor crucial in age spot prevention is the right diet.
If you really want to be free from liver spots, there are some important foods to avoid.
How are Liver Spots Formed?
Liver spots get their brown colour from lipofuscin, a waste material that builds up in our cells as we age. Lipofuscin has three constituents:
Oestrogen + Iron + PUFAs = Lipofuscin
In other words, the polyunsaturated fats (canola oil, soy oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, fish oil, flax oil etc) we consume in our food (and rub into our skin in the form of moisturisers), the iron we eat from red meat and green vegetables, and the oestrogen our bodies produce naturally, combine to form this brown, fatty waste product that clogs up our cells and as we age, forms liver spots.
Where does sunlight fit into this picture, I hear you ask? Dr Peat explains that when we’re exposed to UV light, it can cause damage to unsaturated fatty acid molecules in our skin, producing free radicals.
Without antioxidants to prevent this damage from taking place, the damaged fatty acid molecules can be broken down by our cells into waste products—including lipofuscin as Rob Turner's round up of researchexplains.
Avoiding Liver Spots
You can reduce your risk of developing liver spots by:
Managing your iron intake
Reducing your intake of PUFAs
Increasing your intake of vitamin E (a powerful antioxidant)
Oestrogen Levels: Oestrogen is a hormone that both men and women produce naturally. However, our oestrogen levels can be artificially raised by things such as a diet high in PUFAs, taking the contraceptive pill and endocrine-disrupting chemicals in mainstream personal care products.
Iron is one of the most important pieces of the age spots puzzle. While we need some iron in our diets, too much can be toxic, contributing to the creation of free radicals that damage and age our cells.
One way of managing your iron levels is to give blood regularly: there’s evidence that this can even reduce your risk of heart attackand strokes.
Donating blood can be especially helpful for men and post-menopausal women, because they do not lose any blood through menstruation.
Josh from East West Healing has a few more suggestions on ways to manage your iron intake in the video below.
For example, if you have a diet high in sources of iron you can drink tea or coffee with meals, and avoid drinking orange juice with red meat, to reduce the amount of iron that your body absorbs from these foods.
The tannins in tea and coffee inhibit your body’s ability to absorb iron, while vitamin C boosts it.
Reducing PUFA intake: Replacing sources of polyunsaturated fat with saturated fat is a sure-fire strategy for cutting down on PUFAs.
So, ditch the sunflower oil for dripping, coconut oil or ghee when cooking, swap out margarine for butter, and replace PUFA-heavy snack foods like nuts and seeds with fruit, dried meat, or cheese.
You can also reduce your PUFA intake through your choice of skin care products; some commonly used ones are argan, almond, avocado, grapeseed, rosehip and sunflower.
Many moisturisers, both mainstream and natural, are full of high-PUFA plant and vegetable oils which can contribute not only to liver spots, but also to dry and stressed-out skin.
Highly saturated/Low-PUFA alternatives made with tallow or coconut oilare kind to your skin, nourishing it gently without contributing to the build-up of lipofuscin.
Vitamin E is important for counteracting all three of lipofuscin’s constituents.
It can be taken as a supplement, but is also found in naturally high levels in butternut squash and shellfish.
Vitamin E supplements can be taken with meals, but not at the same time as iron-rich foods.
Taking them alongside a source of vitamin C will make them even more effective, as the two antioxidants boost one another.
There are other useful tips, as well as a far more in-depth explanation of liver spot formation, in this video from Josh at East West Healing:
Health, and therefore beauty, starts in the kitchen!
The secret to keeping our skin clear and beautiful as we age is not costly laser treatments, but a healthy diet: managing our iron intake, reducing PUFAs in our food and skin care products, and getting enough vitamin E.