Heal Your Skin From Within
Whether you are a teenager with acne or an adult with rosacea, we may be inclined to look for a topical solution for our skin ailments, but what about looking inside? Instead of figuring out which cream to put on your skin, I recommend focusing on what you put in your mouth! Everything we eat goes through our digestive tract which acts as a barrier to keep harmful substances out while allowing nutrients in. Disruption to this barrier by stress, medications, toxins, food sensitivities and more, can lead to intestinal permeability which allows semi-digested foods and other substances to get into our bloodstream and trigger an immune response. This can lead to systemic inflammation that can affect the skin.
Just like our digestive tract, our skin acts as a barrier to protect us from external exposures such as toxins, pollution, chemicals, microbes, and ultraviolet light. We can even find toxins in our skin care products! Some examples include parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, sulfites, and fragrances. These exposures can impact our skin barrier leading to problems like dry skin, acne, eczema, rosacea and more.
Both the skin and gut barriers are constantly being exposed to potentially harmful substances, so it is important to consume the proper nutrients to support healthy gut and skin barriers. It is no coincidence that nutrients that support skin health also support a healthy gut!
Below are some of the most important nutrients for your skin (and gut):
- Probiotics: More research is looking at how the gut microbiome interacts with our body and how we benefit from these microbes. The interaction between the gut microbiome and the skin is known as the gut-skin axis. When there is gut dysbiosis, an imbalance of the gut microbes, it can lead to various skin conditions just as if there was an imbalance to the skin microbiome itself! We can support the skin and gut microbiomes with both oral and topical probiotics which can help keep them in balance and inhibit the growth of problematic bacteria. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, tempeh, and natto. Including prebiotics to feed the good gut bacteria is recommended as well and include asparagus, dandelion greens, eggplant, endive, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, leeks, legumes, and onions. Regarding the skin microbiome, you may want to consider the frequency in which you wash and sanitize your skin as this can alter the skin microbiome.
- Protein: Getting protein from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, and legumes will help to support the structure of our skin, including making and repairing skin cells. For example, collagen is a protein that helps with strength, elasticity, and smoothness of skin.
- Zinc: Along with protein, zinc is needed for skin repair and collagen production. It also regulates oil glands which prevents clogged pores. It is anti-inflammatory and protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays which is why it is commonly found in sunscreen. You can get zinc from fish and seafood, especially oysters and crab, as well as meat, beans, lentils, nuts, pumpkin seeds, brown rice, and oats.
- Vitamin A: Retinol is preformed vitamin A and is used both orally and topically to help improve the skin due to its ability to promote cell turnover, prevent collagen breakdown, retain water, and aid in production of new blood vessels in the skin which improves skin tone. Retinol is found in animal products including liver, meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.
- Omega-3 Fatty acids: These essential fatty acids provide stability to maintain a healthy skin barrier and prevent dry skin by retaining water. They also reduce inflammation which contributes to skin conditions like rosacea and psoriasis. Foods that provide us with our omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds.
- Gamma linolenic acid (GLA): from borage and evening primrose oil is an omega 6 fatty acid that can also help to reduce skin inflammation such as redness, dryness, and irritation.
- Antioxidants: Beta-carotene and vitamins C and E are examples of antioxidants that combat skin damage and breakdown from numerous exposures. For example, ultraviolet light damages our skin by creating free radicals. Antioxidants neutralize these free radicals, preventing them from causing further damage. Sources include colorful food from a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. This is why we recommend to eat the rainbow!
- Vitamin D: This fat-soluble vitamin helps maintain the skin barrier, increase anti-microbial activity, and regulate the immune system which makes it particularly helpful for inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis. It can also suppress tumor formation. Vitamin D is absorbed via the skin but there are many factors that influence one’s ability to absorb it such as genetics, skin pigmentation, location and season, time of day and length of time outside, and amount of clothing. Due to these variables, many people are not getting enough vitamin D and it is difficult to obtain from diet alone. Food sources include fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms exposed to sunlight and fortified foods but often supplementation is needed. I recommend getting your vitamin D levels checked to determine the need for supplementation.
- Water: Keeping the skin hydrated improves skin tone and elasticity. Adequate hydration prevents excessive oil production which can clog pores. We recommend drinking half your body weight in ounces per day.
Focusing on eating all these nutritious foods will not leave much room in your diet for inflammatory foods that can negatively impact your skin. Eating foods high in sugar and refined grains increases your risk of insulin resistance which contributes to skin inflammation and aging. It affects skin turnover making it more likely that dead skin cells will build up in skin follicles causing skin inflammation. Consuming pro-inflammatory foods can also lead to gut dysbiosis which can have systemic effects on the skin. Lowering processed foods high in sugars and refined grains along with eating balanced meals with adequate non-starchy vegetables, protein and healthy fats will support our digestive tract and skin.
Additionally, many people see benefits in their skin when removing dairy from their diets. This is where an elimination diet can be so impactful since it could be dairy, but it could also be other foods that are triggering your skin condition such as gluten, eggs, legumes, soy, corn or all grains. You can try to eliminate them for a certain amount of time, at least three weeks, to see if you notice a difference.
Please note that food reintroduction is an important step to be done correctly to determine which foods are contributing to symptoms. You can always work with a functional medicine nutritionist to help you through this process if needed.
Very often people forget how much stress and lack of sleep can impact our skin since they both increase inflammation and alter hormone balance. Many times, people do not even realize they are stressed and often think they can get away with less sleep which is so important for skin repair. Making sleep and stress reduction a priority can positively influence skin health.
If you still do not see improvement after doing the above, it may be that your digestive tract needs more support to heal. If you suspect you need additional digestive support, you can work with a functional medicine provider to help guide you on your journey to improved skin.