How taking care of your gut can heal your skin

Many of us suffer with skin conditions that we’ve tried everything to remedy, but looking after our gut could make all the difference says Janey Lee Grace.

Young Indian woman admiring her skin in the mirror

As frustrating as it is to be past your teenage years and still suffering with breakouts, the reality is that a huge number of women suffer with skin problems.

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From spots and acne to eczema, rosacea, psoriasis and dermatitis, there can be a lot happening on the outside that we’re not happy about.

Chocolate orange body butter

But according to leading experts, not all of the above are actually skin conditions – they are, in fact, autoimmune disorders that are a direct result of problems with our gut bacteria.

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And while topical applications do have some success, in order to fully and permanently resolve our skin issues, we need to heal our gut.

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The link between good bacteria and our skin health

It seems as though the microbiome has its own publicist at the moment; we’re all becoming more aware of the importance of good bacteria in the gut, and many of us are realising that we are suffering from microbiome damage.

Shann Nix Jones is the best-selling author of The Good Skin Solution and founder of Chuckling Goat, a company that sells goats’ milk products.

She says that this microbiome damage is the result of what she calls ‘The Four Horsemen of the Gut Apocalypse’: antibiotics, sugar, stress and environmental toxins. These damage your good gut bacteria.

Healing your gut is a lot like restoring a natural ecosystem that has been damaged
Shann Nix Jones, author of The Good Skin Solution

There is now cutting-edge scientific research to prove what Shann has long believed. A study from Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in the US found that damage to our microbiome is a key contributor to many different problems, both internally and externally.

In our gut, it may feel like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), or give us digestive problems. On our skin, it can look like eczema or acne. It can even result in allergies and sinus problems.

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How to heal your skin from within

Most of us go about trying to sort out our skin conditions by applying different lotions and potions to clear up the breakouts.

Having facials, skin peels and all manner of treatments can help in the short-term, and might make skin conditions look less ‘angry’, but soon enough – because we haven’t sorted out the issue from within – those problems will return, often accompanied by bloating, pain, fatigue, digestive issues and even depression.

Shann believes that when we heal the gut, we can resolve all of these symptoms in one go. “Healing your gut is a lot like restoring a natural ecosystem that has been damaged,” she explains.

“You need to trickle those ‘good bugs’ in gradually over time, to bring the system back to life – and consuming fermented foods is the safest and most effective way to do that.”

For Shann, a powerful probiotic drink called kefir is her preference. Originally from the Caucasus Mountains in West Asia, it is made by fermenting milk with active kefir grains, and is similar to yogurt, with a tart, slightly fizzy taste. Although traditionally made from cow’s milk, Shann recommends goat’s milk kefir.

“All milk provides a powerful base for probiotics,” she says, “but goat’s milk is the most hypoallergenic and most easily tolerated of all the animal milks. It does not contain the [protein] A1 casein that makes cow’s milk such a strong allergen for many people.”

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Is kefir good for your skin?

By nurturing good bacteria in the gut, kefir has a positive impact on our skin. Plus, kefir is also a ‘psychobiotic’, meaning that it contains beneficial bacteria that have a positive effect on the gut-brain connection.

In US medical journal Trends in Neurosciences, psychobiotics are described as exerting “antidepressant effects characterised by changes in emotional, cognitive, systemic and neural indices”.

In other words, these probiotics boost our moods, as well as our brain function and overall health.

Body positive

Betsan Evans, a photographer from Wales, had some acne as a teenager, but it was only when she turned 30 that she started to suffer with serious skin issues. Around that time, she was also dealing with acute stress, having recently lost three members of her family, as well as juggling three jobs and a course.

“I sought help from a GP and a dermatologist and was prescribed antibiotics and several different topical creams, but nothing worked,” says Betsan. “In fact, they made my skin worse.”

She began to look for alternatives, and started to learn more about her microbiome. “At first, when I heard about kefir and how it could help with skin issues, I was on a strict no-dairy diet, so I ruled out the idea,” she says.

But a year later, after doing more research, Betsan realised that it was likely she was suffering from a leaky gut and that one of the best treatments was kefir. She decided to give it a try.

“I couldn’t believe the difference it made,” she says. “My skin is better now than it’s ever been.”

She applies kefir skincare too, and avoids conventional soap, preferring to make her own face washes using natural castile (olive oil-based) soap and essential oils.

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But she is wary of attributing everything to drinking kefir: “It’s not just the kefir, it’s not just the lotions, it’s also about getting your diet right,” she says.

Betsan drinks 170ml of goat’s milk kefir every day and follows a low-GI (low glycemic) diet, free from gluten and refined sugar, to keep her blood-sugar levels steady.

It’s the combination of her diet and skincare routine that she believes has made such a difference to both her skin and her overall health.

Shann agrees: “Natural healing is slow, and takes time. The length of time required depends on the severity of the dysbiosis (the term for an imbalance of microbes, or ‘good’ bacteria, in your gut) and how long-standing the issue is. It can take nine months to a year to deal with severe autoimmune issues.”

Organic probiotic milk kefir grains, Tibetan mushrooms on wooden spoon over kefir milk in a glass
Getty Images/Thitaree Sarmkasat

Adding kefir to your diet

If you are considering introducing kefir to your diet, Shann advises building up the amount you take gradually. “Because kefir is so powerful, it is best to begin slowly: I suggest starting with just one tablespoon per day, and work up to 170ml over time,” she says.

Kefir is also safe during pregnancy, and can be taken by babies after the age of four months.

“A study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that taking probiotics during pregnancy decreased the chances of a baby being born with eczema by nearly half,” says Shann.

“The good news is that with kefir, unlike chemical medications, all the side effects are beneficial.”

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Use simple food swaps to improve your skin health

Simple food swaps can also help with skin issues. Eating good fats, like walnuts, salmon and avocado can reduce inflammation and help to speed up healing. F

resh fruits and veg, especially dark green leafy vegetables, are also key to support the good bacteria in your gut.

You could also make your own skincare saviours to use alongside kefir. These can combat specific issues or simply soothe your skin, and they’re easy to make at home – all you need are some containers, a blender and some good raw ingredients, many of which can be found in your kitchen cupboard.

If you like your porridge smooth, chances are you’ll have some fine oatmeal to hand. This is incredibly soothing for the skin. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and will soak up excess oil to help treat acne.

Ground almonds are great for gentle exfoliating, and also provide oils beneficial for the skin. Almonds also contain vitamin E, which is rejuvenating and soothing.

Meanwhile, sea salt is perfect for adding to olive oil to make a facial scrub to remove dead skin cells and get that glowing feeling. The citrus oils found in lemon or orange juice can act as mild astringents for oily skins, while raw extra virgin coconut oil can be used as a moisturiser for face and body (as well as an intensive hair conditioner).

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Mix up a rejuvenating facial oil

Sooth your skin with this simple recipe – it’s especially easy to make at home. Facial oils are excellent for restoring the hydrolipidic film, a light protective layer that covers your skin. Plant-based oils nourish the skin’s layers, and you can add a drop of essential oil to make your own bespoke oil for however you are feeling.

Ingredients:

  • 50ml sweet almond oil
  • 50ml roship oil
  • 2 drops of lavender oil
  • 2 drops of rose oil
  • 1 drop of frankincense oil

Method:

Mix the rosehip oil into the sweet almond oil to make your base, then add the other oils. Pour into a small glass bottle and use sparingly – it smells divine!

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3 ingredients that can irritate your skin

1

Synthetic skincare

It can be difficult to know the origins of the products used in our skincare routine. “There’s no need to use synthetic ingredients on our skin,” says Rebecca Martin, creator of Conscious Skincare handmade products. “There are always alternatives. Nature, as usual, can offer something just as good – I use a vegan-friendly version of hyaluronic acid made from recognisable natural ingredients, such as brewer’s yeast.”

2

Chemical irritants

Many chemical skincare ingredients are actually known irritants; these include sodium laurel sulphates, artificial fragrances, parabens, preservatives and phthalates. It’s easy to identify them on labels – look for products that don’t contain them.

3

Water woes

In the quest for calming our irritated skin, even for babies and children, one factor that’s often forgotten is the water we use to bathe in. It’s full of chlorine, which is extremely drying for the skin. An easy fix is to use a filter. The Sensitive Skincare Company make a de-chlorination filter that fits onto a shower attachment, or a ball to hang from your bath taps to filter as you go.

Photos by Tachina Lee, Yoann Boyer, Jo Robles, Sarah Comeau and Christin Hume on Unspslash.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine issue 16.