Your skin is the largest organ in your body and your first defence against the outside world. Your diet is one of the largest contributing factors to the overall health of your skin, and what you choose to eat can either contribute to skin issues or help clear them up.
While cosmetic brands and conventional medicine will lead you to believe it is what you put ON your skin that will have the greatest impact, it is actually what you put IN your body that truly matters. Everything from the food and drink you consume to the ways you manage stress can have a huge impact on the health of your skin.
The solution and secret to healthy skin lies from within.
In this article, we’ll uncover the critical link between your skin, your gut, stress, and how you can use these associations to achieve healthy skin.
Your gut and skin play similar roles in the body.
The skin is your first line of defence to the external world and works to keep pathogens and toxins from entering the body, while your gut works to protect the body internally against the pathogens and toxins we may consume.
Both the skin and the gut are host to a diverse ecosystem of bacteria, and these bacteria work in harmony with the body to create optimal health. Your gut is home to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, while your skin is host to bacteria, fungi, and viruses. This is known as the microbiome, this balance of bacteria in the gut and skin is essential for optimal health, and a disrupted microbiome has been linked to inflammation, digestive issues, allergies, food sensitives, hormonal imbalances, and skin issues (1).
Our gut microbiome is a vast collection of bacteria, viruses and fungi inhabiting in our GI system.
Because your skin is a detoxifying organ of the body that helps to eliminate toxins and waste, when your gut is not functioning optimally this disruption is often represented in your skin, this is known as the gut-skin axis creating a bidirectional connection between the gut and skin (2).
Not only can gut inflammation trigger skin issues such as rosacea and eczema (1), but a damaged gut lining can impair vital nutrient absorption required for healthy skin, as well as disrupt optimal hormone function which can further impact your skin.
OPTIMISING GUT HEALTH FOR HEALTHY SKIN
You may read or someone will tell you that a certain vitamin or mineral supplements are good for the skin. Others say certain ingredients are good for the skin, like cucumber, mint, lemon, berries. However, there's no one single compound or small group of food ingredients that will help clear your skin.
Your nutrition and your diet as a WHOLE are what determines the health and vitality of your skin. The more wholesome and diverse you eat, the healthier your skin will be. This is because the gut microbiome is greatly influenced by diet.
If you want healthy skin, you need a healthy gut.
Probiotic & Prebiotics
Probiotic foods contain live bacteria, examples such as kefir, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, and plain yoghurt. Probiotics have been shown to improve digestive health and nutrient absorption, support the immune system and reduce inflammation (3-5). This all has the potential role in the prevention and management of various skin conditions.
Additionally, prebiotics feed the bacteria in your gut and consist of fibre, found in garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, oats, leeks, and apples.
Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K2 are some of the most important nutrients for skin health, all of which are found in whole foods.
Vitamin A (retinol) is one of the most widely acknowledged nutrients for healthy skin. Lack of vitamin A causes the skin to become scaly, mucus secretion is suppressed, and rough dry skin which often first appears as rough, raised bumps on the back of the arms (6 - 8) Although vitamin A is found in some vegetables in the form of carotenoids, preformed vitamin A, which is well absorbed in the body, is only found in animal foods such as pastured dairy products, pastured egg yolks, fish oils, and meat (especially liver).
Vitamin K2, which is also found in whole foods such as egg yolks, and liver, prevents calcification of your skin’s elastin, the protein that gives skin the ability to spring back, smoothing out lines and wrinkles (9).
Vitamin D supports skin cell growth, repair, and metabolism, so plan to optimise your levels by spending time outside daily. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that is also important for skin health so incorporating adequate plant foods, such as spinach, sunflower seeds, almonds, bell peppers, asparagus, kale, and broccoli is beneficial.
The essential fatty acid omega-3 is essential for skin health. High levels of omega-3 fatty acids from whole foods such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, and anchovies, have been shown to decrease inflammation and may reduce the risk of acne and other skin problems (10). In addition, conditions such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis have been shown to be positively affected by supplementation with omega-3s (11).
Zinc & Vitamin C
Several other nutrients are important for skin health including vitamin C and zinc.
Zinc is an essential mineral that assists in the proper structure of proteins and cell membranes, improves wound healing, has anti-inflammatory effects and protects against UV radiation (12). The best available sources of zinc include beef and lamb, and seafood such as oysters, scallops, and other shellfish. Plant foods such as pumpkin seeds and other nuts can also be high in zinc as well, but are less bioavailable, as the zinc is bound to phytates if not properly prepared by soaking.
Vitamin C plays a crucial role in structural protein collagen, which aids in lowering the incidence of wrinkles and dryness. Increasing the amount of vitamin C in the diet can contribute to improved skin health and faster healing (13). Some of the best sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, guava, dark leafy greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kiwi and citrus fruits.
However, in order to effectively absorb and utilise these nutrients, gut health remains key. Yes, you are what you eat, but you are truly what you are able to ABSORB.
WHAT TO AVOID FOR HEALTHY SKIN
Refined Sugar & Refined Carbohydrates
One of the most detrimental and inflammatory foods to your skin is sugar, specifically refined sugar and refined carbohydrates.
Not only are these forms of food highly inflammatory, but they can have a large negative impact on your microbiome. Excess sugar and/or refined carbohydrates in the diet promote the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and yeast in your gut, specifically the large intestines and due to the gut-skin axis, this can trigger reactions in the skin.
Additionally, refined sugar and refined carbohydrates have a huge impact on your blood sugar and insulin which are directly linked to the function of all of the hormones in your body. The rise of insulin levels in the bloodstream, caused by excess sugar consumption, has been shown to increase the activity of oil glands in your skin and increase inflammatory processes triggering acne and spots.
Therefore, managing the amount of sugar, both natural and refined, that is consumed in the diet is necessary for healthy skin.
Refined & processed foods
Limiting sources of omega-6 fatty acids such as fried and processed food is also important for healthy skin since, in excess, omega-6 fatty acids can be incredibly inflammatory to the gut. Therefore it is beneficial to limit all sources of vegetable oils and products made out of them. Processed and refined foods affect our gut diversity, so moderation is key.
It’s vital to remove irritants that can cause gut inflammation. Some of the most common foods that have been shown negatively affect the gut environment, and in turn your skin, include dairy, gluten, soy, corn, and eggs.
Constantly consuming food irritants may increase the permeability of the gut lining, often referred to as ‘leaky gut’. This can allow increased toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles into the bloodstream causing an immune reaction in the skin. Therefore, before simply adding more skin supporting foods to the diet, it is crucial that you remove the damaging ones and heal the gut so that you can make the necessary repair to the foundation and address the root cause of the issue.
LIFESTYLE FACTORS FOR HEALTHY SKIN
The stress-skin connection is real. We all know how much our skin can react in stressful times.
Stress can affect your skin in multiple ways. One way is that stress causes inflammation, which in turn negatively affects skin functions and disease (14).
Let me explain the stress response. When we experience a stressful situation —whether we’re being chased by a tiger or whether we have a deadline, whether we’re having trouble with family or finances — the stress response is all the same. Your immune system gets ready to go into battle. It does this by releasing certain chemicals, in order to help protect your health, this causes inflammation.
If your genetics, environment, or both make you susceptible to certain skin-related problems, this inflammation can also make them flare up and become aggravated (14).
So, ask yourself what things you might be able to do to bring some peace into your life. Is it time spent in nature? Time spent with family and friends? Self-care rituals or breathing techniques? Whatever it is, take the time to identify what you can do to decrease some of that stress in your life.
Sweat it out
It should come as no surprise that sweating and regular exercise helps with the health of your skin. Increased blood flow helps to deliver much-needed oxygen to the skin for regeneration and nutrition, and also carries away with it waste products and flushes out toxins and debris.
No individual food is a skin superfood and you can use all of the creams and lotions you want, but until you address what you are putting inside your body, success in having healthy skin will be limited!
Focus on the basics; consume whole foods, limit sugar, and refined carbohydrates, remove trigger foods, prioritise sleep, manage stress and do exercise. It may seem so simple but these are the foundational bricks for healthy skin.
All good things take time. Don't get tempted into quick-fix solutions and don't expect overnight results. Remember that consistent practice is key.
1) Ellis SR, Nguyen M, Vaughn AR, Notay M, Burney WA et al. (2019). The Skin and Gut Microbiome and Its Role in Common Dermatologic Conditions. Microorganisms. 11;7(11).
2) Salem, I., Ramser, A., Isham, N., & Ghannoum, M. A. (2018). The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin Axis. Frontiers in microbiology, 9, 1459.
3) Sánchez, B., Delgado, S., Blanco-Míguez, A., Lourenço, A., Gueimonde, M., and Margolles, A. (2017). Probiotics, gut microbiota, and their influence on host health and disease. Mol. Nutr. Food. 61:1600240.
4) Krutmann, J. (2009). Pre-and probiotics for human skin. J. Dermatol. Sci. 54, 1–5.
5) Iman Salem, Amy Ramser, Nancy Isham and Mahmoud A. Ghannoum. (2018). The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin Axis. Frontiers in Microbiology. 9: 1459.
6) McCullough FS1, Northrop-Clewes CA, Thurnham DI. (1999). The effect of vitamin A on epithelial integrity. Proc Nutr Soc. 58(2):289-93.
7) Saghaleini, S. H., Dehghan, K., Shadvar, K., Sanaie, S., Mahmoodpoor, A., & Ostadi, Z. (2018). Pressure Ulcer and Nutrition. Indian journal of critical care medicine: peer-reviewed, official publication of Indian Society of Critical Care Medicine, 22(4), 283–289.
8) Mukherjee, S., Date, A., Patravale, V., Korting, H. C., Roeder, A., & Weindl, G. (2006). Retinoids in the treatment of skin aging: an overview of clinical efficacy and safety. Clinical interventions in aging, 1(4), 327–348. doi:10.2147/ciia.2006.1.4.327
9) Gheduzzi D1, Boraldi F, Annovi G, DeVincenzi CP, Schurgers LJ et al. (2007). Matrix Gla protein is involved in elastic fiber calcification in the dermis of pseudoxanthoma elasticum patients. Lab Invest. 87(10):998-1008.
10) Elsa H. Spencer, Hope R. Ferdowsian et al. (2009). Diet and acne: a review of the evidence. International journal of dermatology. 48:4; 339-347.
11) Esther Boelsma, Henk FJ Hendriks, Len Roza. (2001). Nutritional skin care: health effects of micronutrients and fatty acids. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 73:5;853–864.
12) Wintergerst ES, Maggini S, Hornig DH. (2007). Contribution of selected vitamins and trace elements to immune function. Ann Nutr Metab;51:301-23.
13) Kang JS, Kim HN, Jung da J, et al. (2007) Regulation of UVB-induced IL-8 and MCP-1 production in skin keratinocytes by increasing vitamin C uptake via the redistribution of SVCT-1 from the cytosol to the membrane. J Invest Dermatol;127:698-706.
14) Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. (2014). Brain-skin connection: stress, inflammation and skin aging. Inflammation & allergy drug targets, 13(3), 177–190.