The Gut-Skin Connection

The Gut-Skin Connection

Your skin is like a mirror of your internal health. What’s going on inside is reflected on the outside. As our largest organ, our skin is interconnected with every other system in our body. But, it holds a particularly strong relationship with our gut.

While we cannot see what’s actually going on inside our gut, we can certainly see the signs of poor gut health on the outside in conditions such as dull hair, weak nails and skin issues. Poor gut health is also linked to many chronic skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis, and may even lead to premature ageing.

Enter the gut-skin connection.

The gut and microbiome (that is, the 100 trillion organisms living on our skin and in our gut) are responsible for absorbing nutrients, maintaining a healthy immune system and excreting waste. Disruption to any or all of these functions can have a massive impact on our skin.


Functions of the gut microbiome

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Nourishing our skin

The skin is our primary barrier to the external environment, protecting us from physical damage to our tissues, pollution, chemicals, diseases and UV radiation. To perform these vital functions, our skin needs a constant supply of energy, nutrients and hydration delivered to its deep layers.

By its very nature, our skin is designed to keep things out. And, for this reason, it is not well equipped to absorb nutrients that are applied topically. Instead, our skin must get the bulk of its nutrition from the foods we eat.

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When we lack certain nutrients, this can have a major impact on our skin.  Take scurvy, for example, which is caused by vitamin C deficiency. Scurvy leads to a breakdown of connective tissue because the body is literally unable to produce any of the structural proteins that make up the support matrix of the skin.

Sure, this may sound like an extreme example, but even in mild deficiencies we can see major disruptions in the skin’s ability to perform the functions it needs to repair damage, produce new cells and remain healthy.

So, it goes without saying that good nutrition is essential to maintain healthy skin and deliver all of the nutrients that it needs to thrive.

Sounds simple, right?

Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. Poor gut health can significantly impact nutrient absorption, and simply consuming nutrients in your food does not necessarily mean they will be circulated to your cells.

Our microbiome plays a major role in digesting our food. In fact, certain species of bacteria in our microbiome can actually produce certain vitamins, one example is Vitamin K. One study has shown that people given a low Vitamin K diet for 3-4 weeks did not become deficient, however when they were given antibiotics to suppress the function of their gut bacteria they began to show signs of deficiency. Meaning their microbiome was producing this vitamin that was lacking in their diet. Impressive, right?

However, when there is an imbalance in our microbiome and our gut, we cannot efficiently absorb or produce all the key nutrients our skin needs to stay nourished and healthy. This is why nurturing and optimising our gut-skin connection is so important.

The gut-skin connection

Our gut and our skin are constantly communicating with each other in a relationship known as the gut-skin axis. Messages are sent between our gut, our microbiome, and our skin via the immune system, the nervous system and the endocrine system to help keep our body working in harmony (a state otherwise known as ‘homeostasis’).

When our gut is in good health, it is able to support the healthy functions of the rest of our body by providing not only all of the nutrition we need, but also by regulating our immune system, excreting toxins and signalling to the rest of the body to maintain homeostasis.

When we experience poor gut health and imbalances in our microbiome, our gut-skin axis also becomes unbalanced – and an unhappy gut on the inside often reveals itself in unhappy skin on the outside.

So, what causes poor gut health?

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The microbiome and gut health

The microbiome is comprised of many species of microorganisms – mainly bacteria with some ‘good’ and some ‘bad’. In an ideal world, our microbiome lives together in harmony and balance to support our overall health and wellbeing. 

Some of the key bacteria in our microbiome are responsible for breaking down complex carbohydrates into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are important for maintaining a healthy intestinal environment. For example, an SCFA called butyrate is the preferred fuel for the cells lining the gut, helping to support the growth of healthy cells in the colon and provide protection against colon cancer. Butyrate also reduces inflammation and oxidative stress in the colon, and reduces absorption of toxins.

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However, factors such as a poor diet, lack of sleep, chronic stress, drugs, alcohol and certain medications can throw out the delicate balance of the microbiome. This leads to a state of ‘dysbiosis’, resulting in an overgrowth of yeasts and ‘bad’ bacteria. These bad guys wreak havoc on our gut health, causing inflammation, oxidative stress, poor nutrient absorption and, eventually, leaky gut.

What is leaky gut?

The cells lining the gut wall are very selective about what they allow to pass through into our circulation. These cells stop potentially harmful things like pathogens and food allergens and allow through useful things like nutrients and medications.

In a healthy gut, these cells meet at points called ‘tight junctions’. As the name suggests, these junctions create an impermeable barrier. All particles that enter our body via the gut must be checked and approved by these very selective gut cells before they can pass through – kind of like your gut’s very own tiny security guards.

Inflammation of the gut wall brought on by dysbiosis, weakens these ‘tight junctions’. This means large undigested particles or pathogens are now able to pass, or literally ‘leak’, through the gut wall, into our blood stream. At the same time, normal absorption of nutrients is disrupted, slowed or halted. 

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Systemic effects of leaky gut

Unfortunately, the effects of leaky gut do not stop there.

When certain particles ‘leak’ through the gut wall and make their way into our blood circulation, our immune system recognises them as foreign and responds by mounting a defence. The effect of this can be wide ranging, including anything from mild digestive upsets to serious food intolerances and chronic inflammatory conditions.

Microbiome imbalances have also been linked to a range of systemic conditions such as chronic fatigue, auto-immune diseases, obesity and some mental health conditions.

How does poor gut health affect our skin?

Skin ageing

Ageing is a natural process that will inevitably affect us all. However, there are many factors that can impact the rate at which we age – some we can control, others we cannot. Things like chronic sun exposure, emotional stress, poor sleep and smoking are some of the more obvious factors that can increase our rate of ageing. But, one lesser known factor is poor gut health.

The one thing all of these factors have in common is their ability to produce free radicals and chronic oxidative stress, which ultimately leads to destruction of collagen, reduced delivery of blood circulation (and therefore nutrients) to the skin, and a weakened skin immune system.

What follows is uneven skin tone, sagging skin, poor skin texture, appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, and skin dehydration. 

Acne, blemishes and breakouts

Researchers have long suspected a connection between the gut and skin health. A study dated back to 1916 was the first of many to suggest acne sufferers may have greater levels of intestinal permeability – otherwise known as leaky gut.

So, what’s the link? In one study, a group of healthy females experienced a reduction in whiteheads and blackheads after supplementation with the probiotic Bacillus coagulans. The improvement in skin appearance was linked to increased stool frequency and resulting reduction in circulating phenols (a by-product of protein digestion that can exert undesirable effects in the body).

Skin sensitivity and inflammatory skin conditions

With leaky gut, our immune system is basically always ‘on’, constantly faced with the threat of foreign particles leaking from the gut into our blood stream. This leads to a chronic state of stress and inflammation that is reflected throughout our body – and, of course, on our skin.

Research has shown that people with rosacea have a much higher incidence of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and treatment of the SIBO can result in an almost complete clearing of rosacea symptoms. Additionally, several skin conditions are associated with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – in fact, 16.9% of people with IBD also have psoriasis, as compared with estimates of between 2.2% - 8% in the general population. 

How to maintain a happy, healthy gut for radiant skin

A healthy balanced diet

So, we know that in order for our gut and skin to function optimally, they both require proper nutrition. A diet rich in plant-based foods that contain vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients (e.g. plant-based antioxidants) and protein will provide exactly that.

But, we also need to feed the good bacteria in our microbiome to ensure it remains in balance. This is where prebiotics come in.

Prebiotics are a group of compounds (including complex carbohydrates that can breakdown to SCFAs in the gut) that are the preferred food source for good bacteria in our colon.

One example of a great prebiotic is kiwi fruit. Daily consumption of powdered kiwi fruit extract has been shown to increase populations of a bacteria called F. Prau, which comprises up to 15% of a healthy gut microbiome. F. Prau also produces butyrate – the important SCFA we discussed earlier. 

What about probiotics?

Probiotics exert myriad benefits on the gut function and immune system. They can compete with pathogenic organisms, improve gut barrier function and reduce gut inflammation. Probiotics can also provide positive benefits on the skin by enhancing nutrient absorption, supporting the immune system and modulating the gut-skin axis.

There is also a significant and growing body of evidence demonstrating the positive impact of oral supplementation of probiotics to treat various skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Some may also improve wound healing and offer photoprotection to the skin after UV exposure. 

Great skin starts in the gut

Healthy, vibrant skin needs a healthy, balanced gut. One simply cannot exist without the other. While the gut-skin connection is extremely complex, we do have the power to help our body maintain its delicate balance. By nourishing and nurturing our gut and microbiome with good nutrition, prebiotics and probiotics, we can ensure we are giving our skin the best chance to receive all the essential nutrients it needs to thrive.


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