When addressing skin issues, we often look to lotions, potions, peels, and prescriptions. However, in many cases, the key to naturally healthy, glowing skin is connected to something you likely wouldn’t expect: our digestive health.
More and more research points to the importance of proper digestion and gut balance for the improvement of our overall health and well-being, and skin health is certainly no exception. In fact, some researchers have referred to the gut and the skin as “two sides of the same coin,” and even suggest that gastroenterologists and dermatologists team up to take on skin issues. In my personal struggle with acne and dermatitis, and through my private nutritional therapy practice, I’ve witnessed the connection between the gut and the skin time and time again.
So how exactly does the gastrointestinal (GI) system so intimately impact the skin?
First of all, we can see this connection through the successful (or unsuccessful) process of digestion. If we’re not properly digesting our food, we can’t properly break down and assimilate nutrients, so they literally get flushed down the toilet. This of course impacts all parts of the body, including our largest organ, the skin. Without critical nutrients — such as vitamins A, C, and E; zinc; and anti-inflammatory omega-3 essential fatty acids, among many others — the skin’s health suffers.
Poor digestion and gut imbalances may also cause chronic inflammation, the skin’s archenemy. Increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut,” is one such cause of chronic inflammation — an affliction where the gut lining thins and inappropriately allows undigested food particles and toxins to enter the bloodstream and negatively impact the digestive system and other parts of the body, including the skin. This medical issue is becoming increasingly common thanks to poor diets, stress, and certain widespread medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Not surprisingly, inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne and eczema, are considered some of the telltale signs of leaky gut. Oxidative stress may accompany these inflammatory issues, reducing the cells’ ability to defend themselves from free-radical damage. This promotes collagen breakdown, causing all the classic signs of aging: wrinkles, loss of elasticity, and skin sagging. Oxidative stress also causes the skin’s oil, or sebum, to oxidize and become extremely comedogenic (susceptible to causing blackheads), which further promotes blemishes and acne.
The trillions of bacteria housed in the gut also play a significant role in skin health. A healthy gut microbiome is filled with many different types of “good” bacteria, which keep the “bad” bacteria in check. The good bacteria not only help reduce the inflammation and oxidative stress that wreak havoc on the skin, but they also enhance digestion, nutrient absorption, and the integrity of the gut lining. And whereas bad gut bacteria produce toxins, good gut bacteria synthesize a number of nutrients, including vitamins B7 (biotin) and K, as well as essential fatty acids, which are key for healthy skin.
Needless to say, it’s important that we keep our bodies in working order, and that includes our skin and GI systems. If you’re ready to give your gut — and, by extension, your skin — some extra love, these steps will help you do so.
As a general guideline, especially because research in some areas is still developing, consult your health care practitioner before adopting any of these treatments to ensure the solutions are right for you.
Foods you’re intolerant of are the most important irritants to remove from your diet. Unlike a food allergy, which typically provokes an extreme and immediate reaction, food intolerances are a bit sneakier and can go unaddressed for years, if not a lifetime. Food intolerances typically cause annoying GI discomforts, such as bloating, burping, gas, and diarrhea, but they may also cause chronic GI inflammation and leaky gut. For example, gluten can inflame the gut lining and trigger the release of zonulin, a chemical that signals the small spaces in the intestinal lining to open. This is a double whammy when it comes to increasing intestinal permeability, and thus gluten can promote leaky gut. Sadly, this appears to be the case even for those of us without an identified gluten allergy or intolerance.
Again, inflammation is something to avoid for the health of the skin, and there are a couple of ways to do that. Certain tests (most often offered by functional medical practitioners) can identify foods you’re intolerant of. An elimination diet can also help you identify food intolerances, though the process may take several months and requires quite a lot of willpower. That being said, it can be a therapeutic process and a great tool for helping you get in touch with your body and the messages it’s sending you.
Heal the Gut Lining
After you’ve removed irritants, you’ll need to repair your gut lining. It just doesn’t make sense to work on healing while irritants are still in your diet — the two will negate each other!
Bone broth, gelatin, fermented vegetables, cabbage, and potentially certain coconut products (though scientific studies are not many yet) are all gut-loving superfoods that help soothe and heal the gut lining. Look for ways to incorporate as many of these into your diet as possible. I typically suggest that clients start and end their days with a warm mug of bone broth, use coconut oil for most of their cooking and baking, and include a daily serving of fermented cabbage in their diets.
L-glutamine is a particularly great supplement to assist with leaky gut recovery and can speed the process along, as can slippery elm.
Enhance Your Digestion
When food isn’t digested well, not only are nutrients not properly broken down and assimilated by the body, but the ill-digested food also irritates the gut lining. Therefore, for the sake of both nutrient absorption and gut health, it’s critical to ensure your food is being digested properly.
Low stomach acid is far more common than you’d think and is one of the most significant causes of indigestion. In fact, some regard it as the true cause of heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), rather than an excess of acid, as antacid commercials would have you believe. This is mainly because studies have shown that the risk of GERD increases with age, while stomach acid production seems to decrease. When stomach acid is low, food isn’t properly broken down in the stomach, which may trigger GI inflammation and distress further down the line in the intestines and colon. In addition to provoking acid reflux, heartburn, gas, bloating, and cramping, this may promote the chronic inflammation that undermines skin health.
When taken shortly before meals, digestive bitters may help to stimulate hydrochloric acid production, which is the main component to our gastric acid. Digestive enzymes may also be helpful in enhancing digestion in the stomach and thus preventing distress further down the GI tract.
Reduce ‘Bad’ Gut Bacteria
As previously mentioned, in a healthy gut microbiome, good bacteria outweigh bad bacteria. But the scales can sometimes tip in favor of bad gut bacteria. This condition is known as “gut dysbiosis,” symptoms of which may include gas, bloating, belching, diarrhea, constipation, and acid reflux. Certain inflammatory skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis, may also be symptoms of gut dysbiosis.
Reducing dietary sugars and simple carbohydrates is key to rebalancing a gut microbiome or maintaining a healthy one. A high-sugar or high-carbohydrate diet is like a feast for bad gut bacteria, allowing them to overcrowd the beneficial ones and cause dysbiosis. On the flip side, a diet low in sugar and simple carbohydrates can help rebalance the gut microbiome by cutting off bad bacteria’s food supply. Remember: Dietary sugar and simple carbohydrates aren’t just in candies, soda, pastries, pasta, and bread; they also can be in whole foods, such as potatoes, fruit juices, rice, honey, maple syrup, and dried fruits.
Repopulate with ‘Good’ Gut Bacteria
In addition to reducing bad gut bacteria in the microbiome, it’s critical to repopulate good gut bacteria through probiotic-rich foods or probiotic supplements. Probiotic-rich foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and kefir. Try to get at least one daily serving of these foods into your diet. To save on your grocery bill, try making them at home!
When looking for a quality probiotic supplement, check the total number of bacteria, as well as the diversity of the strains. Choose an option with at least 5 billion active cultures and at least eight different strains. This will help ensure abundance and diversity, both of which are important components of a robust gut microbiome.
Feed Probiotics with Prebiotic Fiber
Prebiotic fiber essentially acts as food for good gut bacteria, allowing them to survive and thrive. Soluble fiber is a major source of prebiotic fiber. Chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp fiber and protein, properly soaked and sprouted grains, and some organic fruits and vegetables are all great sources of soluble and prebiotic fiber. Pair your probiotic supplement with a meal or snack containing one of these foods. Fiber, both soluble and insoluble, will also help keep your GI system moving and grooving, preventing constipation.
These are just a few of the ways you can begin to investigate and improve your digestion and gut health. But it doesn’t stop with the gut; with better nutrition will come more overall improvement in your body. The body’s largest organ, the skin, is no exception to this. Because of its close connection to the GI system, what happens to the gut is reflected in the skin. Therefore, when you take care of your gut, your body will thank you in many ways, including naturally healthy skin from within.
Nadia Neumann is a nutritional therapy practitioner who specializes in adult acne. She is the founder of the healthy living blog Body Unburdened and the author of Glow: The Nutritional Approach to Naturally Gorgeous Skin.