You are what you eat…
You’ve probably heard the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ at least half a hundred times but it really is true, especially when it comes to your skin and your gut health.
Your gastrointestinal tract or digestive system runs from your mouth to your anus and includes your stomach, small intestine and large intestine. It is responsible not only for breaking down your foods, but also absorbing the nutrients from that food and filtering any waste products or toxins out of your body. It also houses over 70% of your immune cells and trillions upon trillions of different strains of bacteria which can help with the digestive processes I’ve just mentioned.
So, as you can see, your gut is a pretty complex system and what you put into it can have an impact, especially on your friendly bacteria. You need plenty of friendly bacteria to absorb all those wonderful nutrients that your skin needs to thrive, plus these friendly bacteria act as a sort of protective barrier for your immune system too!
If you stick to a healthy, balanced diet full of fresh fruit, vegetables, lean sources of protein and complex carbohydrates (plus the occasional treat) then your digestive processes will tick along nicely and your friendly bacteria will multiply. However, if you’re eating lots of refined carbohydrates, simple sugars and processed fats then things can quickly go wrong, as these types of foods help to fuel your population of unfriendly bacteria. This is when problems and symptoms can start to appear!
What happens when things go wrong with your gut?
When it comes to the health of your gut, it often hinges on a delicate balance between your friendly and unfriendly bacteria. When this balance becomes skewed too drastically, it can cause what is known as ‘gut dysbiosis’ and problems can start to arise – below I’m going to look at a few typical symptoms associated with gut dysbiosis and how these can affect your skin!
1. Leaky gut
Earlier, I spoke a little bit about the role your friendly bacteria play in protecting your immune cells and, here, I’m going to go into more detail. If it helps, try to think of the lining of your gut as fine mesh – only the smallest particles can penetrate it. However, in gut dysbiosis, the permeability of this gut wall can be affected which means that undigested foods and pathogens can slip through and encounter your immune cells.
Your immune system will be far from pleased to meet these potential invaders and, as a result, it will trigger an inflammatory response. If you’re at all familiar with acne or eczema, then you’ll already know that inflammation, even low grade inflammation, is a huge trigger for flare-ups and breakouts!
2. Candida infections
Candida can refer to a type of yeast or fungus that is commonly found in the gut as well as your skin. In the gut it feeds off sugar, metabolising it into a harmful chemical known as acetaldehyde which can not only upset your digestive system, but also even cause wider symptoms such as joint pain!
Presented with the right opportunity, candida can multiply very quickly but, fortunately, your friendly bacteria can help to keep your candida population under control. When your friendly bacteria aren’t up to the job, though, a candida overgrowth can easily occur, actively contributing to a leaky gut and possibly a candida overgrowth on your skin!
Constipation can be an extremely uncomfortable experience and for good reason! If your waste products aren’t excreted then they have nowhere else to go, so they sit in your intestines, making you feel bunged up and even nauseous! Eventually some of the toxins will be reabsorbed into your body, which will not only stimulate more inflammation but will possibly place your liver under additional pressure too.
As I discuss in my blog ‘Is your liver the most important organ for your skin?’, this is a big problem because if your liver starts to become too stressed, then other organs such as your skin may need to pick up the slack. You can bet that excreting these toxins through your epidermis is a recipe for irritation, inflammation and itchiness!
These are just a few of the symptoms associated with gut dysbiosis. Interestingly, it’s thought that many skin conditions start in the gut - acne sufferers, for example, have been found to have altered intestinal microflora1 and IBD sufferers are often more vulnerable to inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema.2
Looking after your gut, then, is extremely important for healthy skin and a clear complexion, which is why I recommend reading our Digestive Health Advisor Ali’s blog series on gut bacteria. In the meantime, I’m going to look at a few factors that can impact your gut health and what you can do to tackle them, starting with the biggest – stress!
Could stress be contributing to your tummy troubles?
A lot of emphasis is placed on the gut-skin part of the gut-brain-skin axis but nowadays the brain is starting to get some attention. It’s no secret that emotions like stress and anxiety can play a role in upsetting your stomach and, usually, this is related back to your ‘fight-or-flight’ reflexes. These primordial instincts are often triggered even in mild cases of stress and cause your body to prioritise short-term survival.
As a consequence, your digestive processes can slow down – breaking down your food and excreting waste products is hardly a priority in a life-or-death scenario. This can cause you to experience symptoms such as constipation and diarrhoea which, over, time will alter the environment of your gut in favour of your unfriendly gut bacteria.
Interestingly, it’s theorised that chronic stress could even contribute to the development of digestive disorders such as IBD, IBS, and acid reflux!3 It’s also worth noting that stress can affect your eating habits, sometimes making you crave sugary, carb-heavy comfort foods that will only feed the unfriendly bacteria and candida in your gut.
Recently, researchers have also been turning their attention to the role that friendly gut bacteria could play in supporting your mental health. Serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is often found in your gut and, more indirectly, digestive problems like constipation and diarrhoea can impact your mood. A vicious cycle then forms, with stress fuelling digestive upsets and these digestive upsets then exaggerating stress symptoms.
Your skin, unfortunately, is just one victim of this circle!
How can you support your gut?
Manage your stress levels
Stress, as we’ve just discussed, can be a big contributor towards gut imbalances and skin problems so managing this emotion is essential. Our Stress Advisor Marianna speaks a bit more about how to tackle stress over at A.Vogel Talks Stress, discussing diet and lifestyle tips. I highly recommend that you read her blogs but, in the meantime, if you feel you need an additional helping hand, you could try our gentle stress remedy AvenaCalm which contains a soothing combination of avena sativa and oat flower.
Chew your food
A lot of us are guilty of eating on-the-go these days which can mean that we’re not spending as much time as we should chewing our food. Chewing is an extremely important part of the digestive process as the act communicates to your gut that food will soon be arriving and encourages the secretion of digestive juices. Just read our Digestive Advisor Ali’s blog, ‘Dealing with digestive complaints', if you need further convincing!
Watch your diet
I’ve discussed the dangers of sugary, carb-heavy foods but, rather than focusing on what you shouldn’t be eating, let’s take a look at what should be included in your diet. Fresh fruit and veg, as always, are essential as they contain those key skin-boosting nutrients and antioxidants your skin is craving! Lean sources of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates are pretty important too but, if you want to avoid issues like constipation, fibre should be top of mind. I discuss fermented foods in a bit more detail in my blog ‘Are fermented foods the secret to glowing skin?’ as these are a really important food group, especially if you’re trying to increase your population of friendly bacteria!
Drink plenty of fluids
If you’re not drinking enough fluids, your digestive system can become sluggish, which may contribute to problems like constipation. Staying hydrated also helps to flush the toxins out of your body, keeping your liver happy and healthy!
Be aware of medications
Unfortunately, certain medications can have negative repercussions for your digestive tract. In recent years, antibiotics have become top of mind, especially as it seems that more and more of us are building up immunities.
These types of medications are great for fighting infections but they do not distinguish between friendly and unfriendly bacteria, which means they could end up wiping everything out! If you’re unsure about whether or not you should be considering an antibiotic, I’d recommend reading our Women’s Health Advisor Emma’s blog, ‘UTIs – When are antibiotics necessary?’.
Try a pre- and probiotic combination!
If you really want to support your gut health in the long term, I’d recommend investing in a prebiotic and a probiotic. Prebiotics like our Molkosan Original help to create the ideal gut environment for your friendly bacteria to flourish, whereas probiotics provide the best, healthy strains of friendly bacteria. Together, both can go a long way towards encouraging optimal gut health. When it comes to probiotics, I often recommend Optibac. They have a fantastic range of high-quality probiotics to suit almost every need, from probiotics you should take when you’re on antibiotics, to ones specifically formulated for women’s health!
(Originally published 28/09/2018, updated 07/06/2019)