Skin problems can make your life miserable.
If you remember back to elementary science class, you might recall that your skin is your largest organ. Your skin a barrier between you and the physical world, protecting you from nasty stuff like viruses and disease-causing bacteria, helping you regulate your body temperature, keeping fluids in, and assisting in detoxification through sweat.
You may picture healthy skin as coming from what you put ON the surface of your body. Maybe that’s where the phrase “skin deep” comes from…
And certainly, what you put on your skin matters. Certain substances are widely known for their ability to soothe or, on the other hand, irritate your skin. (Poison ivy, anyone? Anyone?!)
But what happens in your body hugely affects your skin and can cause or flare up existing skin conditions.
In this post, I’m covering the surprising root of skin problems.
Going Below The Surface of Skin Problems
Skin issues like acne, dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea can be more than just annoying.
Embarrassment, loss of self-confidence, and even social isolation can add another layer of shame and pain to the matter, especially when these issues are severe or occur on very visible places on the body like the face and hands.
In 2012, I watched my husband (then fiancé) cancel our plans because the eczema around his eyes flared so badly they were swelling shut. (We finally did determine the root of his eczema flares: histamine intolerance.)
My training is in holistic nutrition and I’m about to finish my Nutritional Therapy Consultant training. I’ve seen the right nutrition and lifestyle interventions clear up people’s skin, resolve cystic acne, soothe autoimmune-based skin flares, and make their eczema calm down without medication.
Of course, sometimes it takes patience and tinkering. Not every combination of approaches works for everyone. But if you’ve been dealing with chronic skin issues – or you’re someone who just wants to slow down the clock on the aging process – you have to go deeper than the skin itself.
You have to start in the gut.
You Aren’t Just What You Eat; You Are What You Can Digest & Assimilate
Inflammation of the gut can show up on your skin. In other words, if you’re eating foods that inflame your gut and disrupt its selectively permeable nature, it can cause skin problems.
(And yes, using skincare products with known irritants or ingredients that strip skin of moisture can also play a role. Shop the brand I recommend here. They have over 1500 ingredients on their Never List.)
Foods like industrial seed / vegetable oils, sugar, some dairy products, alcohol, and meat from animals given hormones and antibiotics can all increase inflammation. In other word, avoiding inflammatory foods matters.
It’s thought that the mechanisms of skin problems may be different depending on the issue.
How Inflammation Can Make Skin Problems Worse
Inflammation stemming from your gut – your digestive system – may also cause or flare autoimmunity (where your body attacks your own cells). An overactive immune system that makes you more susceptible to allergies, and even cause changes in the microbiome of your gut and skin. Yes, your skin has its own microbiome. Freaky, right?
In my clients, I often observe a strong connection between their skin problems and existing – sometimes even life-long – gut issues like chronic bloating, cramping, acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea, and IBS. (Hey, poop talk isn’t always comfortable to discuss, but it’s really important.)
“But Steph, I eat healthy foods, and I still have skin problems. What gives?!”
What To Do About Inflammation
- Increase your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids (ex: fatty cold water fish, fish oil, evening primrose oil) that calm inflammation
- Reduce your intake of inflammatory foods like industrial seed oils, sugar, alcohol, and processed foods
- Consider a 30-day elimination diet to test foods you may be sensitive to
Why Digestion Matters For Skin Problems
If that sounds like you – you’re eating mostly real, whole, nutrient dense foods, paying attention, and giving a damn about what you put in your piehole – that’s still only part of the equation.
Imagine a luxury sports car. You can put premium fuel in it all day long but if it’s never had an oil change, its belts are old and frayed, the tires are bald, and the brakes are worn down to nothing, it’s going to drive like crap.
In other words, if you’re eating great but not digesting your food well, that can cause inflammation, bacterial or yeast overgrowth, and gut permeability that lead to – you guessed it – body-wide inflammation including the skin.
I’ll be further breaking down how the digestive system should work – and how to support yours for better skin – in a future post so stay tuned for that.
How to Support Digestion
- Take 5-10 deep belly breaths before you dig into your meal
- Slow down at meal time and chew well
- Drink homemade bone broth daily
- Eat probiotic rich foods or take a high-quality probiotic daily
But What About Hormones and Skin Problems?
“But Steph, someone told me that my skin problems are hormonal, not gut-related.”
Surprise again: Your gut health affects your hormones!
Let’s just say that the microorganisms (primarily bacteria) that inhabit your gut are probably more in charge of you than you are. In fact, your body contains more bacterial cells than human cells. Translation…your microbiome is really freaking important, and it does a lot of stuff, some that we’re only beginning to understand.
- Did you know that your gut microbiome can affect your balance of sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone?
- That it affects your balance of neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine?
- Did you know that slow motility (aka constipation) can make hormonal issues worse?
- That a bogged down liver and / or gall bladder can affect hormones, too?
- Consider past or present antibiotic use and its potential to shift gut flora and change your microbiome.
If you’re a woman, consider that hormonal birth control – though often prescribed to treat acne – doesn’t address underlying dysfunction. It can further disrupt your microbiome and deplete B vitamins (including B6, B12, and folic acid), magnesium, and zinc.
Zinc, for example, plays an important role in hormonal balance and has anti-inflammatory effects. If you’re on hormonal birth control, it’s a good idea to consider consuming more zinc-rich foods and supporting your gut health.
These are just a few of the ways the gut, hormones, and the skin problems are connected.
Ways to Support Your Hormones
- Support good digestion and blood sugar management
- Eat regular meals
- Include high-quality protein in your meals
- Reduce stress daily
- Increase sleep to 7-8 hours a night
- Get sunlight during the day and avoid light from devices at night
What About Aging?
Logically, nobody can stop the hands of time. And sometimes anti-aging skincare talk gets pretty out of hand. Products touted as miracles are usually too good to be true. Genetics also plays a role in how we age.
That being said, supporting your skin as it ages is an inside-out gig. Yep, here I go with that “it starts from the inside” chat again.
Of course, premature aging has many origins, but let’s consider a few common issues:
- Lack of adequate healthy fats (either because you’re not eating it or you’re not digesting what you are eating)
- Loss of collagen and elastin fibers in the skin
- Sun overexposure
- Inadequate hydration
Making sure your digestion is humming along smoothly and you’re supporting your body with healthy lifestyle choices (real, whole foods; movement; sleep and rest; stress management; smart sun exposure) improves the odds that you’re keeping your cells-tissues-organs in good shape.
Support for Aging Skin
- Stay hydrated
- Include collagen-rich foods like bone broth or consider supplementing with collagen
- Dry brushing to increase lymph movement and circulation
- Eat adequate healthy fats
- Use a high-quality hydrating moisturizer
On the other hand, when your body is working really hard to overcome poor digestion and less-than-optimal lifestyle choices, your organs may get bogged down and struggle. That often reads on your skin as dullness, lack of color, excessive dryness, dark circles, areas of pigmentation, and more.
My Own Personal Experience with Skin Problems
For most of my life – even as an adult – I had acne. It was actually the worst on my hairline and back, and I could never seem to get rid of it. Unfortunately, no amount of benzoyl peroxide or harsh acne treatments every really helped. And, I suffered from super dry skin on my hands, face, and scalp.
However, it wasn’t until I completely overhauled my nutrition in 2010 that things began to improve. For the first time, I started cutting down on excess sugar (hello, inflammation). Next, I introduced healthy fats into my previously fat-phobic diet. And, I fell in love with raw fermented foods like sauerkraut and kvass, eating them daily.
Over time, my skin problems started resolving. My acne went away, and aside from the random zit here or there, it’s stayed away. And my dry skin resolved without the use of heavy moisturizers. I may be wearing makeup in these professional photos, but I rarely wear it in my daily routine. I turn 40 in five months, and my skin is the best it’s ever been.
Overall, I credit the things I mentioned in this article: reducing inflammation, increasing my healthy fat intake, and improving my gut health.