The Gut-Skin Connection

One of my clients has painfully dry, sensitive skin and eczema, manifestations of Sjogren’s (SHOW-grins), a serious and systemic autoimmune disease.  She’d been using Aveeno and CeraVe lotions to care for her skin and wanted to know why she only got temporary relief from her symptoms while using these products.  During her skin care consultation we read through the ingredient list and discussed what each ingredient did and how it benefitted her skin health.  She quickly realized that none of the ingredients in the products she was using improved her skin health, they only gave her a temporary illusion of healthy skin.  She was curious about how whole foods would affect her skin and she asked if she could use any of the oils she had in her kitchen on her skin.  Based on what she had available and what I knew of her health, I suggested she use sesame seed oil.  Late that night she texted me, “I was shocked by how soothing and softening it is…I’ll never use Aveeno again…Or the CeraVe…Also, is it possible the sesame oil has a calming effect in general?  After I put it on I felt completely in my body and calm.  A couple of days later, another client of mine, who struggled with rosacea and still struggles with anxiety, described feeling similarly relaxed and calm after applying whole foods to her skin and wondered why. 

Here’s why…That feeling of relaxation and calm that my clients felt after switching from skincare made with peptides, hyaluronic acid, retinol, niacinamide and other synthetic ingredients to skincare made with whole foods is similar to the changes that occur when you switch from regularly eating processed foods to regularly eating whole foods.  

Your gut and skin are more similar than you may think they are.  They’re the two largest epithelial surfaces in your body; they directly interact with your external environment; and they’re both home to large populations of microbes (your gut and skin microbiomes) that interact with your immune system and organs.  How you care for and what you feed these microbes (diet, cosmetics, and skincare) influences their health and, in turn, your health.  Importantly, just like your gut, your skin is filled with nerve and blood vessels and is an absorptive organ that selectively allows the passage of molecules, including nutrients, into and out of your blood stream.

To feed yourself means to give yourself real food, the nutrients your body needs to grow and repair.  Since your skin, like your gut, is both a protective barrier and an absorptive organ, you can feed your skin from the outside in.  

What we call food has changed.  Ideally, food should provide bioavailable nutrients; building blocks in forms and concentrations that your body knows how to use so it doesn’t have to waste resources figuring out how to extract what it needs from what you ate.  Until very recently, we only consumed minimally processed plants and animals that evolved alongside us, so our bodies developed mechanisms and processes to efficiently and effectively extract the nutrients from these whole foods.  However, in the last hundred years what we consume as food has evolved much faster than we have.  We no longer only consume plants and animals, we also consume processed foods and chemical-ladened concoctions that attempt to mimic what nature readily provides, and this has created problems.  A lot of foods provide energy, but lack the nutrients necessary for good health.  Many foods come with ingredients that destroy gut, skin, and overall health.  We’re well-fed but undernourished by many of the foods available today.  

Unlike nutrients in whole foods, synthetic nutrients aren’t stabilized by a team of supporting molecules.  Instead, they’re chemically modified to protect them from degradation by heat and oxygen.  These chemical modifications change how your body absorbs, uses, stores, and gets rid of the nutrient.  During my doctoral research I discovered that these seemingly small and innocuous modifications can have unanticipated, detrimental effects.  Plus, synthetic nutrients don’t come with the added benefits that the supporting molecules in whole foods provide to us and our microbiomes.

Food affects mood.  A body lacking nutrients is a body in distress; it typically manifests as pain, anxiety, or vague unease and edginess, a chronic hangry feeling gone off the deep end.  Once your body has what it needs, these signals of distress go away.  A good example of this is a subclinical level of magnesium deficiency.  Magnesium is a nutrient involved in over 300 essential metabolic reactions in your body.  If you’re healthy, it’s difficult to deplete yourself of magnesium because your body regulates the levels tightly and, if you’re regularly eating whole foods, Mother Nature makes sure you’re getting enough.  Magnesium is the eighth most abundant element on earth and is found in a wide variety of whole foods: nuts and seeds, legumes, cereals and grains, vegetables and fruits, fish, and dairy.  But in the last hundred years the average dietary magnesium intake in the US has declined markedly, primarily because we’re eating more processed foods.  Consequently, people with subclinical levels of magnesium deficiency feel anxious and often find that supplementing with magnesium alleviates some, if not all, of their anxiety.  The calming effect of magnesium is so profound that there’s even a magnesium powder brand called Calm.  This calming effect is not unique to magnesium, though it’s more noticeable because magnesium is required by so many metabolic reactions in your body.

(One of the most common and least bioavailable forms of magnesium in supplements is magnesium oxide.  Check the ingredient list.  If you’re taking magnesium oxide to maintain your magnesium levels, you’re throwing money down the drain.  You’ll get more value for your money by regularly eating magnesium-rich whole foods, and you and your microbiota get the added benefits of all the other nutrients in those whole foods, keeping you in good health.) 

Given that your gut and skin are both protective barriers and absorptive organs that influence your health, what you put on your skin really matters.  The investment you make in your health by regularly eating whole foods is protected and enhanced when you use skincare products made with whole foods. 

 A version of this blog post is published in my local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise.  You may have to create a free account to read the article

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