What do you think of when you hear “stem cells?”
Do you imagine scientific experiments to clone body parts or research on new health treatments?
Don’t worry—we’re not talking about either of those things, but we are going to talk about stem cells.
Because there are many stem cells in the skin, and keeping them healthy may be the key to looking your best.
What Are Stem Cells?
The Mayo Clinic calls stem cells the body’s “raw materials,” because they have the unique capacity to develop into many different cell types, from muscle cells to brain cells to skin cells.
All of the rest of the body’s cells have specific purposes. A brain cell, for example, is different from a heart cell or a liver cell. You can’t put a liver cell in the brain and expect it’s going to do any good there.
A stem cell, however, can turn into whatever type of cell the body needs. Every day, the body works to renew its tissues. When it needs a certain type of cell, it dips into its supply of stem cells, which then divide and produce the type of cells and tissues the body needs for maintenance and repair.
So far, scientists have discovered stem cells in the:
- Bone marrow
- Blood and blood vessels
- Skeletal muscles
Stem cells can live in these various areas as “non-specific” cells for years until they are called upon to repair tissues or grow new tissue. When that happens, they divide to form more cells (called “daughter cells”), and then these cells become either new stem cells or specialized cells, like brain and bone cells.
No other cell in the body has this capability. That’s what makes stem cells unique.
Why are Scientists So Interested in Stem Cells?
Scientists are busy studying stem cells for many reasons, but one of them is because they hold promise in fighting disease and injury. Researchers can work with stem cells in the lab and guide them into becoming specific cells that could then be used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues.
Currently, stem cells hold promise in treating spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, burns, cancer, and osteoarthritis. One day, for example, doctors may be able to treat people with heart disease by using stem cells to grow healthy heart muscle cells and then transplanting those cells into the damaged hearts.
What Do Stem Cells Have to Do With Skin?
The skin is constantly renewing itself throughout our adult life, and stem cells are highly involved in this process. They are also needed for the skin to be able to repair itself after suffering an injury, like a cut or a scratch.
Called epidermal stem cells, these cells live within the skin itself, as well as in the hair follicles. Of course, the skin has many other specific cells that are there to do different jobs, but it has stem cells, too, that are available to step in when needed.
According to the author of a 2008 study on skin stem cells, “The skin’s elixir for maintaining tissue homeostasis, regenerating hair, and repairing the epidermis after injury is its stem cells….” She goes on to note that stem cells have the “remarkable capacity” to make more stem cells and to create other specific cells that are needed in various tissues.
In other words, if we want our skin to stay looking and acting its best, we need to take care of our stem cells! Here are some tips for how you can do that.
- Protect from the sun: There is a strong connection between sun-damaged skin stem cells and skin cancer. We need to protect the skin from UV radiation, but it’s important to be selective in the sunscreen you use. Some sunscreen ingredients have been linked with actually increasing the risk of cancer. UC Davis states that the best protection from skin cancer “is shade or if you have to be out in the sun, clothing.” They also suggest that a small amount of sunlight on unprotected skin is important to create the vitamin D you need for good health.
- Minimize your exposure to plastics: There is some evidence that the chemicals used to make plastics—like bisphenol A—can increase the risk of cancer. Scientists believe they may do this by damaging stem cells in particular. Limit your exposure by avoiding microwaving food in plastic containers, use only stainless steel or other safe water bottles, and don’t allow young children to play with or chew on plastic toys.
- Eat food, not chemicals: Some chemicals in processed foods may cause genetic changes in stem cells that could damage them or even reprogram them into cancer cells. Choose whole foods whenever possible, and those that have undergone the last processing, such as fresh and frozen (without additives) options.
- Exercise daily: Research suggests that regular exercise may help preserve a larger, healthier population of stem cells, which may help slow and delay the appearance of aging.
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep per night: Research has shown that our circadian rhythms—our natural body clocks—orchestrate many cellular functions, including cell division, cell migration, and cell metabolism. The changes that occur during sleep are believed to promote the environment our cells—including our stem cells—need to operate as they should. But when we fail to get enough sleep, that circadian rhythm is disrupted, which can throw cellular function out of whack. Suddenly your stem cells can’t reproduce, get to where they’re needed, or develop into the cells your skin needs, and that can accelerate the appearance of aging. So do your best to get your zzzz’s!
Did you know that stem cells were so important to the skin?
Fuchs, E. (2008). Skin stem cells: rising to the surface. The Journal of Experimental Medicine, 205(2), i5-i5. doi:10.1084/jem2052oia5
Knoepfler Lab UC Davis. (2013, August 4). Five simple ways to protect your stem cells to stay healthy and biologically younger. Retrieved from https://ipscell.com/2012/03/five-simple-ways-to-protect-your-stem-cells-to-stay-healthy-and-biologically-younger/
Elkhanany H, et al., “Tissue regeneration: Impact of sleep on stem cell regenerative capacity,” Life Sci., December 2018; 214:51-61, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30393021.