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The gut-skin-axis: how poor gut health can trigger acne and other skin conditions

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We’re becoming increasingly aware of the intimate relationship between the mind and body — but what’s the link between gut health and skin?

Whether you’ve noticed your acne flaring up during periods of stress or an outbreak of psoriasis when your mood is low, it’s unlikely to be a coincidence. Our gut influences a lot more than our digestive system and has an impact all over our body, including our face and skin.

Healthy body, healthy skin
Flex to boost your core. Photo by Polina Tankilevitch
Can poor gut health lead to skin problems?

In many cases, inflammatory skin conditions have been directly linked to disruptions in gut microbes — the collective name for the microbes and bacteria that live inside your digestive system. Research has shown that stress and mental health issues can disrupt the gut, and vice versa, and new research is revealing that the knock-on effect of this may impact skin health as well.

The relationship between the gut and the skin — referred to as the ‘gut-skin axis’ or sometimes the ‘gut-brain-skin axis’ — is an emerging area of research, though the concept was identified as far back as 1930, when dermatologists Stokes and Pillsbury attributed depression to altering the gut microbiome, leading to inflammatory skin diseases.

Dr Justine Hextall, a consultant dermatologist, says, “Although not fully explored, the gut microbiome appears to influence the skin though through its effect on immunity.

“Gut bacteria and their metabolites have been found in skin, which suggests that a disturbed intestinal barrier can allow gut bacteria to leak into the blood and directly accumulate in skin.”

Dr Hextall adds that both reducing stress and promoting a healthy gut through diet can optimise skin barrier function and skin health. “Increasing work is being done in looking at this symbiotic relationship,” she says.

The relationship between our gut and skin

“People with acne are 10 times more likely to have gut issues, and 34% of people with IBS experience skin ill health,” says Dr Hextall.

The gut and skin are organs with crucial immune roles and are related in purpose and function. Numerous studies have linked gastrointestinal (GI) health to skin homeostasis. It’s suggested by science that a microbial imbalance in the gut has the potential to impact negatively on the skin microbiome and its basic function. This is when some common skin disorders such as acne, psoriasis, atopic eczema and rosacea can occur.

A study of 113 rosacea patients also demonstrated that those with rosacea have a higher incidence of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) when compared to controls. Those with SIBO were treated with either antibiotics for 10 days or a placebo. Those who were treated with antibiotic therapy experienced an improvement in their symptoms for at least nine months. The research is still limited, but gut health is important regardless of its effect on the skin.

Read more: Food & your mood — can what you eat affect your mental health?
A healthy diet leads to healthy skin
Love your body and it will love you back. © Getty Images
Improving gut health with probiotics

Dr Hextall suggests introducing an effective probiotic, such as Symprove. “Probiotics provide the gut with a healthy microbiome, as long as it can be delivered to the gut without being broken down by digestive acids,” she says.

In 2014, a study by University College London showed Symprove was able to arrive — and thrive — in the gut. Other studies have suggested that it can relieve symptoms of IBS-C (constipation predominant) and IBS-D (diarrhoea predominant), but this research was conducted by the brand itself.

Diet is widely recognised as a key factor that assists in healthy gut performance. Foods containing fibre produces fatty acids that promote a healthy colon. Studies on this have shown that a greater dietary fibre intake is associated with increased gut microbe diversity, thereby improving skin appearance.

However, Dr Hextall recommends taking a course of Symprove for 12 weeks. “Often my patients notice an improvement in bloating, anxiety and skin issues within weeks,” she says. “Following this probiotic course with a diet rich in prebiotics [a food compound found in several vegetables] is important. I’m currently investigating whether probiotics alone can help rosacea, but more research is required on the effects of probiotics in inflammatory skin conditions.”

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