What to Know About the Connection Between Gut Health and Skin

Nykia Spradley
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What to Know About the Connection Between Gut Health and Skin
Photo: Getty Images/Allison Kahler

Pretty much anything that malfunctions on the outside of our bodies indicates something has gone wrong on the inside; skin included. Sure, there are a ton of factors to consider like general sensitivity, acne, and allergies—but even some of those things can link directly to our gut.

Think of your gut as the brain for your skin. When the former is out of whack, it’s going to let us know in some pretty obvious ways. So if you’ve been on a clear-skin plan in anticipation of swimsuit season, but have hit some hurdles that you can’t seem to figure out, take a deeper look inside, with the help of two gut-savvy experts who can help get things back on track.

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Grasp the Connection

Healthy, radiant skin usually reflects a healthy gut; however, skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, and acne typically indicate that something’s not quite right. “The balance of your microbiome is most likely off. This usually can be from bad bacteria or fungal overgrowth from poor diet or exposure to bad bugs (parasites),” says Frank Lipman, MD, author of How to Be Well and founder of Be Well Skin.

Check for Leaky Gut Syndrome

Digestive issues, skin flare-ups, chronic fatigue, and aches/pains are all common symptoms of
leaky gut, a condition that could also be the culprit behind problematic skin. When our intestinal lining is working properly, it forms a tight barrier, which controls what is absorbed into our bloodstream. “However, a compromised gut lining allows toxins, undigested food particles, and bad bacteria to ‘leak’ out of your intestines and to then travel throughout your body via your bloodstream,” says Whitney Bowe, MD, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin.

The immune system marks foreign substances as threats and therefore attacks them. What you’ll see as a result could be inflammation, which is your body’s way of telling you that it’s working to fight off these things that do not belong. Lipman explains that things like drugs, alcohol, gluten, and processed foods can damage the lining of the gut wall, leading to an imbalance of bacteria and yeast called dysbiosis.

“Rashes, rosacea, and hives are common skin flare-ups that can come from gut dysbiosis,” says Lipman, though most can be cured through proper diet and supplements.

Unfortunately, a leaky gut can be difficult to detect. “The only symptom might be inflammation in the skin in the form of acne, rosacea, eczema, stinging, burning, or chronically dull complexion. And while all of these will likely raise a brow for you, you may not link it to what you’re ingesting. Some people develop symptoms like bloating or gastrointestinal discomfort, but I’ve treated many patients who didn’t even realize their gut was not in a healthy state until we changed their diet and it cleared up their skin,” says Bowe.

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The Solutions

Monitor What You Eat

That age-old adage “you are what you eat” definitely applies here. “Your diet has a direct impact on the health and radiance of your skin,” says Bowe. She says that you will want to skip the processed foods that we rely on so regularly just for ease of convenience. “These foods slow digestion, and the resulting stagnation causes an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria in our gut,” Bowe explains. This can lead to bacteria entering our bloodstream, which creates system-wide inflammation and can manifest as skin conditions ranging from acne and rosacea to eczema and even premature aging.

Start a Smart Gut Plan

If you want something more regimented, Bowe’s “The Beauty of Dirty Skin” includes a 21-day plan for rebooting from the inside out. It’s a three-week program that starts with addressing dietary changes, and in week two it addresses the brain component by dialing down chronic stress and introducing healthy exercise and mindfulness strategies. The final week focuses on skin-care products and DIY options to restore unhealthy skin.

Switch Up Your Snacking

Overhauling everything that you eat in the name of good skin can be daunting. It’ll definitely take some discipline and the breaking of old habits, but clear skin that starts in your gut is definitely achievable. Bowe explains that with the addition and subtraction of specific foods, in a matter of a few days (three is all it takes!), you can see a significant difference.

“Introducing fermented foods and drinks like kombucha, kimchi, and miso soup helps to maintain the integrity of your gut lining,” says Bowe. They also serve as natural antibiotics, help to balance your body’s pH, and control inflammation, which is the root cause of many of these skin conditions. Of course, everybody is different, so results will depend on your symptoms and your particular condition—and the healing process is impacted by a number of different factors.

Add Probiotics for Gut Strength

Another way to boost both good bacteria internally and a healthy glow on the outside is by adding an oral probiotic to your regimen. “Oral and topical probiotics support the health of the ‘good bugs’ that make up our microbiome, to keep our gut and skin healthy,” says Bowe. They fight bad bacteria, help regulate the immune system by working to control inflammation, and keep your gut lining strong so that it doesn’t leak.

And Don’t Forget Prebiotics

Eating a diet rich in prebiotic and probiotic foods, as well as consuming collagen and bone broth, can help heal the gut lining. Lipman says that probiotics (such as yogurt and tempeh) in particular are essential for repopulating the good bacteria in the gut.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are a form of fiber that we cannot digest, but they get consumed by the “good” bugs in our gut to benefit us. “As our guts metabolize these otherwise nondigestible foods, they produce short-chain fatty acids that help us meet our own energy needs,” says Bowe. Although not all forms of fiber act as a prebiotic, Bowe says that dandelion greens are one of the best sources. Mix it up in a smoothie if you want an easy way of ingesting it.

Prepare for Breakouts

Fair warning as you work to reboot your system—breakouts are to be expected. As your system purges the impurities that were flooding your system, Lipman warns that your skin may get worse before it gets better, but again, this again varies per person. “Drink lots of water, do a gentle cleanse, enjoy some infrared sauna sessions, and practice stress-relieving techniques daily,” he says.

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