I had just finished a really intense boxing class. One where I’d sweated and pushed myself much harder than usual. As I rinsed the sweat off my face, I noticed some small red bumps. They were mostly on the left side, from the cheeks down.
Figuring it was a reaction to my intense sweat, I washed my face and went on with my day. Over the next few days, the red bumps didn’t go away. In fact, they spread.
My dermatology hat went on. I tried a few of my different remedies with no change. I even resorted to hydrocortisone which made it worse and then an anti-fungal cream. Nothing seemed to help. My friend, a western dermatologist, wasn’t sure what it was either and offered up another steroid cream to try.
At the time, I was just beginning my training in functional medicine. I sent in a sophisticated stool test called a GI MAP. This is a specialized test to determine what is going on in the gut’s internal environment- called the microbiome. It’s not the same as the test they do in your doctor’s office.
I didn’t actually have any digestive issues, but I’ve always felt that if I’m going to recommend a test to others, I’d better know what the experience is like.
Why test your gut?
Around 1200 AD, a Chinese physician names Li Dong Yuan wrote a text book about the role the digestive system plays in the health of the entire body. His theory was that the root of all health and disease started in the gut. Practitioners of Chinese medicine have used this theory for hundreds of years to treat a wide variety of health conditions.
Including skin problems.
Fast forward to 2020
One of the hottest topics in the world of medicine is the role the gut plays health and disease.
Formal research on the environment of the gut and the microorganisms living in it, known as the microbiome, started in 2001. Since then there’s been a myriad of studies into how the microbiome affects your:
- brain health
- immune system
- energy levels
- hormone balance
At this point, there’s still a ton to learn about the microbiome. But it looks like Li Dong Yuan was onto something big.
I was surprised when I got the test results back. I had a pretty big gut infection, but no digestive issues.
The big surprise came when I began a treatment protocol to restore my gut microbiome. My now weeks long skin rash went away completely and has never returned.
Over the years since, I’ve seen many patient’s skin problems clear up when imbalances in the gut are taken care of.
How are the gut and skin related?
First of all, they have somewhat similar functions.
- Both come into contact with the outside world (food and liquids for the gut) and are first line defense against pathogens.
- Your gut absorbs vitamins and nutrients that are essential for skin health.
- Inflammation in the gut often shows up on the skin as a rash, rosacea, acne, and other skin problems.
And guess what? Inflammation on the skin can cause gut issues and systemic inflammation in the body. Cuts and burns on your skin affect your gut bacteria. A recent study of people who suffered burn injuries showed an increase in gut permeability and movement of bacteria from their intestines to the bloodstream and other areas.*
It pays to take really good care of your skin and its unique ecosystem.
What is the Skin Microbiome?
It turns out that just as your gut has a whole ecosystem of micro-organisms that take care of you, so does your skin.
The skin’s ecosystem (microbiome) consists of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mites (sorry)** that have a huge effect on how your skin looks, feels, and acts.
When the skin’s microbiome is out of balance, the beneficial micro-organisms may be weakened. Less beneficial or even harmful micro-organisms can gain a foothold, leading to an aged appearance, skin disorders, infections, redness, acne and reactive skin.
I think of it like a garden. If it’s not tended properly, fed and watered, weeds can move in and take over. And it’s not so pretty.
What disturbs your skin microbiome?
There’s a lot still to learn about your skin’s ecosystem. We do know that disturbances and imbalances in the system can cause skin problems. Things like harsh soaps, over use of exfoliants, and too much vigorous scrubbing cause problems. As do certain beauty treatments like:
- laser treatments
If you do any of these things to your skin, it’s important to make an effort to rebalance your skin’s microbiome afterwards.
Benefits of rebalancing your skin microbiome
- Strengthen your skin’s barrier against environmental threats and improve its natural defenses
- Help your skin to become—and stay—properly hydrated
- Lessen your skin’s sensitivity and reaction to irritants
- Improve signs of aging, pigmentation and dryness, including a tight and uncomfortable feeling
- Maintain a healthy pH balance to your skin’s surface
- Improve wound healing and inflammation
How to Rebalance your Skin’s Microbiome (and skin care ingredients that help)
The first place to start when rebalancing your skin’s microbiome is inside. In your gut. Changing your diet changes the makeup of your gut microbiome and that has a positive effect on your skin.
- Prebiotic foods. These are the high fiber foods that the micro-organisms in your gut need to grow and thrive. If you don’t want to memorize a whole of foods, remember to eat a wide variety of fibrous veggies. Things like asparagus, garlic, onions, carrots, beets, cabbage, yams….
- Probiotic foods. Good bacteria foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, sourdough…
- Dr. Datis Kharrazian, a top functional medicine researcher, once told me that the best way to improve your gut microbiome was to eat the widest variety of vegetables that you could every day. That makes it simple.
As far as your skin goes:
- avoid harsh soaps and especially anti bacterial soaps.
- Exercise and work up a sweat regularly. Sweat can act as a prebiotic for your skin in addition to benefits that include increased circulation, oxygen, and nutrient delivery
- Use skin care that is pH balanced.
- Wear a non-chemical sunscreen.
- Moisturize and protect your skin barrier/microbiome from environmental damage.
Some ingredients that we know help your skin’s microbiome:
- Mushroom extracts (like reishi)
- Green tea
- Botanical extracts (plant extracts like gotu kola, licorice, gongko, dandelion, and more)
- Probiotics (an at home yogurt mask is nice for this)
In the years since that boxing class, I’ve learned a lot about keeping my gut and skin microbiome healthy. It’s paid off for me in a healthy body and skin through menopause and beyond. I want the same for you.
If the road to better skin health (and gut health) looks overwhelming, there are three main things to remember:
- Increase the amount and variety of fruits and veggies in your diet
- Be gentle with washing and exfoliating
- Use skincare like SunWindSnow that supports your skin microbiome as it protects, nourishes, and restores your skin