Did you know genetic variants can accelerate your skin aging?

Blueberries for your skin: Antioxidants and the genes that protect your skin from getting old too fast

You forget your bike out in the yard. When you come back for it a couple of months later, after being exposed to the sun, rain and snow, there’s bound to be some rusting. Rust is a product of oxidation, when oxygen and water from the air react with iron to form red flakes of metal.

Now think about your skin. It’s also constantly exposed to variable temperatures, sun and even harsh chemicals. All of which damage and age your skin. Fortunately, these external factors that affect the quality of our skin can be avoided (to an extent). Just like you can store your bike in the garage, you can wear a hat, sunscreen or moisturizer to protect your skin.

However, we have very little control over what happens inside our bodies. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are a prime example. ROS are a natural byproduct of making energy. Like rust, they cause oxidation, weakening and aging our skin. They are one of the main contributors to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Elastin and collagen are two proteins that give structure to our skin. The oxidation of these proteins promotes changes in the texture of our skin. To make matters worse, we make more ROS as we age, and our skin loses some of its ability to repair the damage done by ROS.

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ROS are unavoidable – to keep breathing, moving and simply living, we need to generate energy to power our bodies. To overcome this conundrum, our bodies have evolved proteins and enzymes that can either offset the effects of ROS, or reduce the production of ROS. These proteins and enzymes are known broadly as antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent oxidation, offering us protection from aging, just like the paint that shields your bike frame from the weather. This is where blueberries come in. They are full of antioxidants, and are great for your skin and overall health.

Not everyone has skin that ages the same. This is because genetics have a lot to do with how our skin fares over time. Hence, it is no surprise that two-antioxidant genes, GPX1 and NQO1, influence how we respond to oxidation. The version of these genes that we inherit can dictate how well our “perceived age” and chronological age match up.

Glutathione peroxidase I, (encoded by the GPX1 gene), is one of the most important antioxidants in humans. It is responsible for detoxifying hydrogen peroxide by turning it into water. The NQO1 gene encodes an enzyme that eliminates a class of compounds known as quinones, which are precursors of ROS. While they use different methods and act on distinct substrates, both GPX1 and NQO1 keep oxidative damage to a minimum, helping to keep our skin supple and wrinkle-free.

However, not all of us inherit a fully functional version of GPX1 and/or NQO1, due to genetic variations. If you happen to inherit a version of GPX1 called rs1050450, your GPX1 enzyme levels will be at least 17% lower than someone with the normal version of the gene. As a result, you are likely to experience a few more wrinkles, crow’s feet or sagging skin, and may be perceived as older than your actual age. The same is true for people with a version of NQO1 called rs1800566, which is also associated with reduced enzyme activity. It’s safe to assume that people with defective versions of both GPX1 and NQO1 will often appear the oldest among a group of the same aged peers.

Scientists have known for decades that 60% of the skin aging differences we see are due to genetics. However, until recently we didn’t have the technology to pinpoint the exact genes. Today, DNA sequencing technologies are so advanced that, not only can these suspect genes be uncovered, but we can also start thinking about personalized skin care. Think of it this way, if you know ahead of time that you have a defective gene that will not protect your skin from oxidative damage, you can adopt a skin care regimen with extra antioxidants to counter these effects. Being proactive is the best way to avoid looking your age.

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