There’s much more to growing great skin than what touches it’s surface. Fleur Davis – Beauty Therapy lecturer and co-founder of Twenty8 natural skincare and essential oils – says the #1 skin mistake she encounters is failure to look after our diets.
When you boil it down, there’s really two major contributors to skin health: stress and gut health – says Kim Morrison – Aromatherapist and Director of Twenty8.
Skin is the largest organ of our body. It grows from the inside out, pushing new cells upwards, and sloughing old dead cells constantly from the surface (around 50,000 cells a day!). That’s why what goes IN to the body should be seen as the first step before what goes ON it. Skin cells renew themselves every 28 days, which is why you’ll sometimes need a month for the skin to show the effects of your positive dietary change (keep that in mind if you have a big event coming up!).
If you want to see the dramatic difference diet alone can make, just look at the before and after photos of bodybuilder Brian Turner below.
Gut Health and the skin
Now as good old Hippocrates knew way back when, ‘all disease begins in the gut’. And skin health is no different. Heal your gut, and you’ll begin to heal your skin from the inside out. There is now emerging research showing clear associations between gut problems and skin disorders. Chris Kresser summarises some of the studies here.
The gut and the skin actually have a lot in common. They both have their own microbiome, and they can both become ‘leaky’. Micro-organisms, yeast and bacteria (the microbiome) protect the integrity of both the gut lining, and the skins outer layer. When this microbiome is damaged (certain foods, chemicals, drugs, stress), unwanted substances or organisms can migrate into the blood, and be transported throughout the entire body. Our immune systems – not recognising these ‘foreigners’ – go into fight mode, causing mass destruction, localised and systemic inflammation in their tracks. This can result in eczema, acne, breakouts, and a raft of other skin complaints.
Both our gastrointestinal tracts and the skin are also major organs of detoxification. So when the gut is not doing its job properly, the skin becomes a back-up detoxifier, and the negative consequences to our skins health will show.
In terms of skin and facial mapping, a gut thats not functioning well may show up as skin issues on the forehead (intestines and bladder), in between the brows (liver and stomach), under the eyes (more liver and kidney, but can be intestines), around lips and mouth (mostly hormones, can be intestines), jawline (stomach and hygiene), and chin (stomach, kidney, reproductive organs).
How do I know my gut is healthy?
Some say the gut is functioning optimally when you defecate within 30-60mins of eating, and they are of normal consistency. Yes, you can rate your poo using the chart below.
You should at least be eliminating once a day.
If you are not eliminating daily, or you constantly suffer from gas, bloating, discomfort, diarrhoea or constipation then it would be wise to see a doctor (integrative/functional if possible) to rule out any major issues first. They may also be able to assist with diagnostic testing* for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), ‘leaky gut’, parasites, microbiome imbalances, allergens and sensitivities, enzyme and acid insufficiency etc…
Eating for a healthy gut
What we eat has a huge impact on the health of our gut. But be aware that stress can also affect our gut functioning, including: the speed of transit, enzyme and acid secretions, the strength of our gut wall and even our gut microbiome.
But lets start with the role of diet on our gut:
- Hydration – unless you’ve just taken high doses of B vitamins which will cause your urine to look very yellow, the easiest advice I would give is to always make sure your urine is pale yellow to clear in colour to help prevent constipation.
- Avoid pasteurised, unfermented Dairy – as it contains high levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which is absorbed through the gut and exacerbates acne. Many find removal improves their skin dramatically. You can listen to Brian Turners journey through painful cystic acne here. He rightly points out that whey protein, found in many high protein shakes and bars will do the same thing. Fermented dairy can however improve skin conditions (see 3). The effect of unpasteurised, raw milk is unproven, but may be similar to that of fermented dairy. I would suggest reintroducing it once your skin clears.
- Pro-biotics and fermented foods – oral probiotics have been shown to improve intestinal barrier function, reduce inflammation and improve skin conditions like acne. I like to include 2-3 serves of fermented foods daily, and try to vary the source for greater diversity in the gut microbiome. Sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, natto, tempeh, yoghurt, even fermented dairy is fine – this is because fermentation of dairy reduces levels of IGF-1 by more than four fold (see 2).
- Limit refined sugars and alcohol – the yeast candida loves both sugar and alcohol, and an excess of yeast will crowd out our beneficial gut bacteria, limiting gut functioning. Both also promote inflammation, potentially exacerbating skin problems.
- JERF (Just Eat Real Food), ideally organic (especially The Dirty Dozern) — to reduce the likelihood of sensitivities related to chemical preservatives, colours, artificial sweeteners flavours and thickeners, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s -see also 10.).
- Include bone broth – bone broth is the ultimate gut healer – high in proline and L-glutamine to support collagen and healing of the gut. Convenient powdered versions are available now.
- Ditch processed vegetable oils – high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), these oils promote the growth of ‘bad’ gut bacteria and are pro-inflammatory. Opt for avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, grass fed organic butter or coconut oil instead, which are higher in monounsaturated or saturated fats. Coconut oil is also anti-fungal, helping to prevent candida over-growth, and a consequent imbalance in the gut microbiome.
- Limit grains, particularly wheat – evidence from human intervention studies show the consumption of wheat, and other cereal grains, can contribute to chronic inflammation, by increasing intestinal permeability and initiating a pro-inflammatory immune response (which can then lead to inflammation in the skin). There is suggestion that fermentation of grains helps to reduce the gut damaging effects of the anti-nutrients contained in these foods, but I would still be particularly wary of wheat, due to the presence of glyphosate (source: Roundup) and GMO’s.
- Increase pre-biotic foods — undigested plant fibre is an important pre-biotic ie it feeds the gut microbiome, keeping the gut healthy. Cutting out grains means we need take extra care to eat plenty of vegetable, fruit and nut fibre. Plants extra-rich in pre-biotics include: artichokes, raw garlic and onion, leeks, asparagus and bananas. Botanist James Wong will also tell you that cooking a potato, storing it the fridge, then eating it cold the next day will increase the fibre and resistant starch levels (a pre-biotic). Unfortunately though, these foods can sometimes cause bloating in susceptible individuals, which is why I add basil seeds. They contain up to 50% fiber, but are gentle on the stomach.
- Consider testing for food sensitivities – I have recently had comprehensive ALCAT* testing, which revealed a raft of super healthy foods I was eating that are potentially damaging my gut – celery, ginger, paprika….who would have known! Remember sensitivities and allergic reactions can cause gut damage => leaky gut => systemic inflammation => skin problems. This test can also reveal common household chemicals, artificial food additives, environmental factors and pharmaceuticals you may be reacting to.
Other diagnostic tests
There are many other tests available which can determine the health of your gut. In particular I found the Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis Level 4+ (available through Nutrisearch practitioners) invaluable, as this detects parasites, digestive enzyme and stomach acid insufficiency, yeast overgrowth, as well as the status of your gut microbiome. A tailored treatment program can then be devised.
* This test is available though Nutrisearch practitioners in NZ