Your skin is your largest organ and the state of your skin is truly a representation for what is occurring inside your body. Made up of nerves, glands and cell layers, your skin plays an intricate role in your health and is greatly affected by the food you eat, the state of your gut, and the state of your hormones.
The Gut-Skin Connection
In some ways, your gut and your skin play similar roles in the body. Your skin is your first line of defence to the external world and works to keep pathogens and toxins from entering the body, while your gut works to protect the body internally against the pathogens and toxins we may consume. Both the skin and the gut are host to a diverse ecosystem of bacteria, and these bacteria work in harmony with the body to create optimal health. Your gut is home to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, while your skin is host to bacteria, fungi, and viruses, and harbours approximately 1 billion microbes per square centimetre. Known as the microbiome, this balance of bacteria in the gut and skin is imperative for optimal health, and a disrupted microbiome has been linked to inflammation, digestive issues, allergies, food sensitives, hormonal imbalances, and skin issues. Because your skin is a detoxifying organ of the body that helps to eliminate toxins and waste, when your gut is not functioning optimally this disruption is often represented in your skin, this is known as the gut-skin axis. Not only can gut inflammation trigger skin issues such as rosacea and eczema, but a damaged gut lining can impair vital nutrient absorption required for healthy skin, as well as disrupt optimal hormone function which can further impact your skin.
The Impact of Sugar
The first question many people ask when it comes to improving their skin is “What can I eat for better skin?”, but the question we should truly be asking is “What should I be avoiding for better skin?”. Although adding certain foods and nutrients to the diet is important, it is difficult to make dramatic improvements if you have a rotting foundation! One of the most detrimental and inflammatory foods to your skin is sugar, specifically refined sugar and refined carbohydrates. Not only are these forms of food highly inflammatory, but they can have a large negative impact on your microbiome. Excess sugar and/or refined carbohydrates in the diet promotes the overgrowth of “bad” bacteria and yeast in your gut, specifically the large intestines and, thanks to the gut-skin axis, this can trigger reactions in the skin. On the extreme level, excessive yeast overgrowth, also known as candida, is a condition in which the normally occurring yeast in your gut grows out of control, breaking down the wall of your gut, and impacting the gut-skin axis. Not to mention, refined sugar and refined carbohydrates have a huge impact on your blood sugar and insulin which are directly linked to the function of all of the hormones in your body. The rise of insulin levels in the bloodstream, caused by excess sugar consumption, has been shown to increase the activity of oil glands in your skin and increase inflammatory processes triggering acne and pimples. Moreover, when consumed in excess, sugar attaches to collagen protein in a process called glycation, creating a new substance called AGEs. AGEs are incredibly destructive to your body’s natural proteins and have been shown to break down elastin and degrade collagen in the skin causing wrinkles and premature ageing. Therefore, managing the amount of sugar, both natural and refined, that is consumed in the diet is necessary for healthy skin.
The Impact of Food Sensitivities
The thing about food is that not everything affects everyone the same way; a certain food can make one person feel great, while it can make another person feel terrible. Although people often only consider direct digestive issues such as gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea when it comes to food, the body gives us many other signs that certain foods might not be working for us, and the state of your skin is one of them. In addition to sugar, some of the most common foods that have been shown negatively affect the environment of the GI tract, and in turn your skin, include dairy, gluten, soy, corn, and eggs, just to name a few. Similar to sugar, these foods can cause inflammation in the gut, making them a double edge sword; not only can they be the cause of the initial inflammation, but the continual consumption of them can cause further inflammation, perpetuating the problem. The increased permeability of the gut lining, often referred to as leaky gut, can allow increased toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles into the bloodstream causing an immune reaction in the skin. Therefore, before simply adding more skin supporting foods to the diet, it is crucial that you remove the damaging ones and heal the gut so that you can make the necessary repair to the foundation and address the root cause of the issue.
The Importance of Healthy Fats
Fat, in all its natural forms, is incredibly beneficial for skin health, and although avocados get all of the praise, there are actually a lot more foods that can support your skin. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K2 are some of the most important nutrients for skin health, all of which are found in whole foods. Vitamin A, or retinol, is one of the most widely acknowledged nutrients for healthy skin, as lack of vitamin A can cause the skin to become rough, dry and scaly since mucus secretion is suppressed, which often first appears as rough, raised bumps on the back of the arms. Although vitamin A is found in some vegetables in the form of carotenoids, preformed vitamin A is only found in animal foods such as pastured dairy products, pastured egg yolks, fish oils, and meat (especially liver). Additionally, vitamin K2, which is also found in whole foods such as dairy products from grass-fed cows, egg yolks, and liver, prevents calcification of your skin’s elastin, the protein that gives skin the ability to spring back, smoothing out lines and wrinkles. In addition to A and K2, vitamin D and vitamin E are both stored in your fat cells and important for skin health, so spending adequate time outside, and incorporating adequate plant foods, such as spinach, turnip greens, chard, sunflower seeds, almonds, bell peppers, asparagus, collards, kale, broccoli, and brussels sprouts is beneficial. Not to mention, eating nose to tail animal products rich in healthy fats, increases the overall consumption these fat-soluble vitamins while providing much-needed collagen which is necessary for the extracellular stability of the skin.
In addition to fat-soluble vitamins, the essential fatty acid omega-3 is essential for skin health. High levels of omega-3 fatty acids from whole foods such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, tuna, and anchovies, have been shown to decrease inflammation and therefore may lead to lead to smoother, younger-looking skin with a visible reduction in inflammatory skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. On the contrary, limiting sources of omega-6 fatty acids is also important for healthy skin since, in excess, omega-6 fatty acids can be incredibly inflammatory to the gut, therefore it is beneficial to limit all sources of vegetable oils and products made out of them.
The irony in this, as you may have noticed, is that the some of the same foods that can benefit the skin can also be detrimental to it if you are intolerant to them which is exactly why healing the gut and addressing food sensitives is so important.
The Impacts of Nutrient Deficiencies
In addition to the fat-soluble vitamins, several other nutrients are important for skin health including vitamin C and zinc. Zinc is an essential mineral that assists in the proper structure of proteins and cell membranes, improves wound healing and has anti-inflammatory effects. Part of the reason zinc is important for skin health is that it supports the transportation of vitamin A in the bloodstream. Although you can get zinc from some plant sources, it is less easily absorbed as is it bound by phytates if not soaked during preparation, so the best available sources of zinc include beef and lamb, and seafood such as oysters, scallops, and other shellfish. In addition to zinc, vitamin C plays a crucial role in structural protein collagen, which aids in lowering the incidence of wrinkle and dryness. While vitamin C deficiency is rare in North America, if you are not consuming adequate fruits and vegetables, you may be getting sub-optimal levels. Some of the best sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, guava, dark leafy greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kiwi, citrus fruits, and strawberries, while fresh green herbs are such as cilantro, chives, thyme, basil, and parsley are also great sources. However, keep in mind that in order to effectively absorb, assimilate and eliminate these nutrients, gut health remains key. Yes, you are what you eat, but you are truly what you are able to absorb.
The Importance of Detoxification & Elimination
A final thing to consider is that skin is an elimination organ and therefore it is imperative that you support the natural detoxification and elimination processes of the body. Along with your skin, your liver and kidneys are two very important elimination organs and should they become taxed, your skin will suffer the consequences. If your dietary choices are less than ideal (excess refined carbohydrates, sugar, processed foods, alcohol, etc..) your detoxification and elimination systems may become overburdened and therefore your skin will too. Ensuring that you are well hydrated, consume a diet rich in leafy greens, whole foods, and healthy fats can help to support the body’s natural detox processes. In addition to these detoxification organs, the natural elimination process of bowel movements is also important to consider. When your digestion is slow or you suffer from chronic constipation, waste meant for elimination remains in your intestines and these toxins will seek other methods of elimination if bowel movements are not available – AKA your skin. This is another reason why our gut health is the key to our overall health, and eating a diet of whole food, rich in fibre, probiotics, fermented foods, and free of food intolerances is critical. Lastly, the importance of detoxification and elimination is also why regular exercise and sweat is vital for healthy skin given exercise helps to stimulate the natural peristalsis movement of your digestive tract to support regular bowel movements and sweat helps eliminate toxins from the body.
The Bottom Line
Your diet does impact the health of your skin, there is no way around it. You can use all of the creams and lotions and potions you want, but until you address what you are putting inside your body, success in healing your skin will be limited. If you truly want to learn how to eat for healthy skin start with the basics; focus on whole foods, limit sugar and refined carbohydrates, support your gut health, remove trigger foods, focus on sleep, limit stress, and exercise. It may seem overly simple but these are the foundation of skin health and if you put in the work and stay consistent results will come.