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Understanding Your Gut-Skin Axis for Clearer Skin

Geraldine Orentas

Female model

Our skin is our body’s largest organ. It is the first line of defense against pathogens and harmful bacteria. Plus, it’s our most effective way to get rid of toxins and waste. Basically, our skin plays an important role in our health. 

It turns out your skin can be an excellent barometer of your body’s overall health, particularly of your gut health. For example, research has shown that at least 34 percent of people struggling with irritable bowel syndrome exhibit skin symptoms. Your gut microbiome and skin microbiome are delicate environments susceptible to many different stressors that can cause imbalances, resulting in various conditions. 

Let's talk more about this and the git-skin axis.

What’s the Gut-Skin Axis?

Plenty of evidence has found a connection between the gut and the skin. Notably, the gut microbiome seems to participate in many inflammatory disorders, so an imbalance in its microbiome could contribute to acne, atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. 

The gut and the skin communicate through the immune system to regulate inflammation. Research suggests that an impaired intestinal barrier can let pathogens enter the bloodstream, accumulate in the skin, and disrupt the microbiome. 

Both the gut and skin are immensely immersed with microbiota. While we’re still learning how the gut communicates with the skin and vice versa, various studies have already proven a link between imbalances in the gut and imbalances in the skin. 

To put it in simpler terms, think about the gut-skin axis as a two-way road. They’re both in constant communication, looking at every change happening in one another. If there’s an accident in one lane, odds are you’ll see traffic congestion in the other lane too. 

Understanding Gut Dysbiosis

An imbalance in the microbiome is known as dysbiosis. When our gut’s microbiome is not balanced, a chain of inflammatory reactions can appear as skin conditions. The microbiome in our gut is responsible for cell proliferation, fat metabolism and other metabolic functions. However, in dysbiosis, the gut receives mixed signals that trigger inflammation. 

Usually, when this happens, harmful ones have overpowered the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Then, good bacteria have a more challenging time keeping up and controlling harmful bacteria from multiplying. 

Not all of the health problems that arise from gut dysbiosis are digestive issues, but an imbalance in the gut microbiome can lead to:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Atopic eczema
  • Rheumatoid arthritis 

How the Gut-Skin Axis Relates to Skin Health

Our skin can act as a mirror for the imbalances in our gut. Evidence shows that the intestinal microbiome contributes to skin balance and any disturbance or stress of the gut microbiome will affect our skin. Let’s explore each skin condition related to the connection between our gut microbiome and our skin. 

Acne

While most people blame hormones for the onset of acne, that isn’t the only player. The close link between gut health, acne and hormones cannot be ignored. Acne is the most common skin disorder, reportedly affecting between 79% and 95% of the adolescent population in the Western world.

The gut lining has hormone receptors that can affect your digestive system and, consequently, your skin. For example, high progesterone levels - present in both men and women - can slow down the digestive system, which triggers constipation and inflammation. 

Various studies have suggested a link between our gut microbiome and acne. Throughout the studies, scientists discovered that acne patients had decreased gut microbiota diversity, with higher levels of harmful bacteria. The same studies also found that supplementation with probiotics could help restore balance and stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. 

While the gastrointestinal microbiome is only one of many factors contributing to acne, it undeniably impacts acne.

Rosacea

Rosacea is a chronic inflammatory skin condition characterized by skin lesions and it affects roughly 15% of the Caucasian population with fair sun-sensitive skin. Studies prove that the skin of rosacea sufferers contains an overgrowth of commensal skin microorganisms, mainly bacteria that inhabit the sebaceous glands. Researchers noted that sometimes antibiotics affect the skin microbiome in rosacea patients, leading to an imbalance that allows harmful bacteria to proliferate. 

Other studies also point to a relationship between gut microbial dysbiosis and rosacea. The prevalence of harmful bacteria overgrowth was common in patients with rosacea. However, we need more research to pinpoint the specific strain of bacteria affecting the gut microbiome triggering rosacea flare-ups.  

Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)

Atopic dermatitis (eczema) is the most common inflammatory skin disease characterized by a compromised skin barrier, chronic inflammation and microbiome imbalances. Eczema is caused by inflammation driven by cytokines, proteins that regulate the cells of the immune system. Cytokines can disrupt the skin barrier, decrease skin lipids and inhibit antimicrobial peptide formation. 

When there’s low bacterial diversity on the skin, harmful bacteria can easily proliferate and colonize the microbiota. The barrier disruption and reduced ceramide levels cause the harmful bacteria to penetrate the skin, producing a set of trigger symptoms. The low bacterial diversity also leaves atopic dermatitis lesions more susceptible to viral infections.

Restoring the skin barrier can help reduce inflammation and regain microbial balance. 

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is an immune-mediated inflammatory disease and one of the world’s most prevalent chronic skin conditions. It’s characterized by scaly, red, thickened skin lesions that can appear at any site on the body. The skin microbiome of someone with psoriasis has a higher abundance of Staphylococcus and Streptococcus species but low microbial diversity. 

These two bacteria are relatively common in skin lesions, which means they may be involved in skin inflammation. To control psoriasis, bacteria-specific treatment can help reduce harmful levels of bacteria while promoting healthy gut bacteria growth and a restored skin barrier. 

Aging Skin

Our gut’s ability to produce anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids slows down as we get older. At the same time, as we age, we don’t provide the same support to our gut; things like reduced appetite, irregular exercise time and changes in our environment can all affect our gut’s health.

One of the main drivers of premature skin aging is low-grade chronic inflammation. When our gut microbiome constantly fights inflammation, it can become more susceptible to dysbiosis and a weakened barrier function. Age-related deterioration of the gut barrier can increase permeability and transfer harmful bacteria to the bloodstream. 

How to Care for Your Gut (and Skin)

Though the gut-skin axis is highly susceptible to bacterial changes, there are ways we can take care of our gut’s health and, consequently, our skin. By turning our attention to the gut-skin axis and focusing on nourishing both microbiomes, we can help restore the balance. 

Support the Gut Microbiome With Prebiotics and Probiotics

Prebiotics are essential components of restoring gut health; they can help good bacteria proliferate quicker by acting as food for probiotics. Then, supplementing with probiotics like Lactobacillus has been shown to reverse UV-induced skin aging by supporting anti-inflammatory responses. Besides probiotic supplements, incorporating fermented foods into your diet can help encourage microbial biodiversity that can help keep harmful bacteria levels at bay. 

Protect the Skin Microbiome With Topical Probiotics

In addition, topical probiotics can also help in acne, atopic dermatitis and psoriasis by balancing the skin microbioime. Probiotics for the skin can also fight blemish-causing bacteria and provide many other benefits for the skin

Follow a Nourishing Diet

Our skin is a reflection of what we eat. Focus on skin-loving foods like pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, eggs, and salmon. These foods are rich in nutrients like zinc, vitamin D, vitamin A, and amino acids that help protect and strengthen our skin’s barrier and our gut’s lining. Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts are also nutritional powerhouses because they help produce short-chain fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties that protect the integrity of the gut’s lining. 

Avoid Things That Compromise Gut Health

Equally important as what you consume is what you avoid. Foods that cause any sensitivity like soy, gluten and dairy can cause inflammation, resulting in skin flare-ups. The same goes for refined sugars, processed foods and vegetable oils that trigger inflammation and irritation. 

On the flip side, avoiding harsh beauty products and cosmetics that can disrupt the skin’s microbiome at the surface is equally important. Products with high pH levels like bar soaps or bacteria-killing chemical compounds like alcohol, parabens and sulfates can also be too stripping for the skin, causing dysbiosis. 

The Takeaway

Even though we need more research about the tight relationship between our skin and our gut, what we know is enough to know it’s essential. While food and hydration play a role, maintaining the perfect balance of microorganisms in our gut and skin microbiome can genuinely make a difference.

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