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Digestive Acne: How Your Gut—Yes, Your Gut—Affects Your Skin
By WH Staff | Oct 19, 2021
As anyone who has experienced breakouts, acne or bad skin knows, skin problems go far beyond simply what you put on your face. Now more than ever, we’re seeing a connection between diet and skin. Even in bonafide scientific research, the link between skin and stomach has been noted (most recently, a 2008 study of 13,000 acne sufferers found that they were more likely to suffer things like constipation and bloating).
To find out more, we sat down with founder of The Beauty Chef, Carla Oates, who is the name behind powders like GLOW Inner Beauty Essential and-the brand’s latest product-CLARIFY, a supplement formulated to support a clearer complexion and radiant skin.
As Carla explains, “When it comes to inner beauty – I often talk about how our skin is a great barometer for what’s going on inside our gut. While this approach is true for all of us – no matter our skin type or skin concerns – it is especially relevant if you’re looking to ameliorate specific skin conditions.”
Here, Carla shares her knowledge on the differences between digestive and hormonal acne, the key ingredients that help combat such skin issues and the most common misconceptions around diet and acne.
In terms of acne, what are the key differences between digestive and hormonal acne?
Exactly as it sounds, hormonal acne is caused by hormone fluctuations that essentially trigger your skin manifestations. Raised hormone levels or a sensitivity to a particular hormone, testosterone for example, are common causes as both can stimulate the skin’s sebaceous glands, contributing to an overproduction of sebum and subsequently, clogged pores at the surface of the skin. While it’s true that this common acne can surface during puberty—adult acne is also extremely prevalent amongst women throughout various stages of their menstrual cycle as their hormones shift, fluctuate and flare as oestrogen levels drop. Those who have polycystic ovarian syndrome or even women going through menopause can also experience this type of androgen-driven acne.
However, it’s not just testosterone that can contribute to hormonal acne. Cortisol—our stress hormone—also impacts our skin by dampening our immune system, disrupting the delicate balance of bacteria in our gut and directly contributing to skin inflammation—including acne.
On the flipside, digestive acne is driven more by our gut health, than our hormones. However, the link between our gut health, hormones and skin is complex as each can influence and impact the other. For example, oestrogen and progesterone (the key hormones which ebb and flow throughout a woman’s monthly cycle)—also impact how quickly food is digested and subsequently moved through the digestive tract. The gut also influences how oestrogen is metabolised and eliminated by the body. So, if we are constipated and our elimination pathways are impaired or slowed down, for example, the way our body processes oestrogen can also be disrupted and trigger hormone imbalances.
But, it’s not just the relationship between our hormones and gut health that can trigger digestive acne. There are a number of gut disorders that have been linked to acne as well. SIBO—or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth—is shown to be ten times more common in people with acne while leaky gut due to stress can also be linked to the skin inflammation that is commonly experienced by those with acne. These studies indicate just how important our overall gut health is for clear, glowing skin and highlight how an imbalance in our microbiome or a condition such as leaky gut can directly impact our skin by reducing our ability to assimilate and utilise the key nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are so essential for skin health.
While strong clinical evidence proving that certain foods directly cause acne has not yet been established, there have, however, been many review studies examining potential food culprits that worsen acne in some people.
For example, there has been evidence to show that the quality of carbohydrates consumed can play a role in acne pathogenesis. This isn’t surprising as high-GI sources of carbohydrates can cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin. Consequently, a spike in insulin is linked to a rise in IGF-1, has been shown to boost sebum production. It’s important to therefore always consume small and balanced quantities of low-GI carbohydrate sources at every meal to help regulate and keep blood sugar levels steady all day long. There has also been evidence to show a link between dairy consumption and the worsening of acne in teenagers—however, there hasn’t been a clear determination between a specific type or quantity of dairy that causes this.
What we do know is that our microbiome produces metabolites that regulate metabolic functions and cell proliferation. Therefore, in cases of gut dysbiosis or where the gut barrier integrity has been compromised, this can cause metabolic inflammation which can then influence acne pathophysiology. Studies have illustrated that a high percentage of acne sufferers have low stomach acid, which is vital for digestion and protecting the gut from pathogens that can disrupt microbial balance and cause dysbiosis.
While it’s undoubtedly important to establish the type of acne you’re experiencing—as that will assist in determining the most effective management strategy—there are certain things you can do at home to help mitigate the effects of acne and improve your overall skin health by first turning your attention to your gut.
What we do know is that there are key nutrients that help to promote skin health, including vitamin C, vitamin B5, zinc and probiotics. Vitamin C, for example, is a nutrient that our body is unable to produce on its own—and therefore it’s essential we consume enough of this powerhouse vitamin through our daily diet as it plays a critical role in collagen formation and cell protection from free radical damage. Zinc is also incredibly important for strong, resilient skin as it assists with wound healing as well as skin structure and immune system function—which as we know can impact and influence the state of our skin. While you might not typically associate vitamin B5 with acne—there is building research to support its use in the treatment of acne as this complex B vitamin not only helps to reduce stress (a common trigger for acne), but it has also been shown to help reduce facial blemishes. Probiotics and fermented foods are also another simple way to improve your gut health, skin health and overall wellbeing. Studies have shown that probiotics can not only regulate and support immune function, but they also stem inflammation and can inhibit the development of pathogenic acne due to their ability to produce antibacterial proteins.
At the end of the day, no matter the type of acne you’re experiencing or the skin manifestations you’re looking to manage—improving your gut health by focusing on a nutrient-dense, fibre-rich diet that supports microbial health and diversity is the first step on the road to healthy, glowing, clear skin.
What are some of the most common misconceptions around diet and acne?
I often talk about how our skin is a great barometer for what’s going on inside our gut. And there’s no question that the current research regarding gut health also reflects this philosophy.
The skincare industry is awash with over-the-counter topical acne treatments that promise to cure acne. While prescription medication and topical products such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can certainly play a role in how we treat acne—especially if you’re working with a dermatologist to manage a more severe form of acne—they are just one piece of the puzzle and harbour their own side effects. To maintain healthy skin and manage mild or moderate acne breakouts effectively, it’s first essential to determine its underlying causes–which can be hormonal, digestive or a combination of both.
One of the biggest misconceptions we often hear is that acne happens in high school. Although acne is a condition most commonly associated with puberty and the hormone fluctuations of our youth—unfortunately adult acne is incredibly common and can manifest well into our 30s, 40s and even our 50s.
The key difference between the acne breakouts of our youth and adult acne is that adult acne is more likely to affect women and can also be longer-lasting and more chronic than adolescent acne—which typically improves with age. Although this can feel like disconcerting (and frustrating!) news, there are similarities in terms of its underlying causes. Hormonal changes, for instance, can be a key trigger for adult acne—and is another reason why women are more commonly affected—as during menstruation, as well as during pregnancy, postpartum, perimenopause, menopause or after stopping birth control pills, our hormones can go up and down, seemingly at will.
A poor diet is as detrimental to our overall health and wellbeing as it is to our skin—by causing damage and irritation to our gut. Gluten, dairy, refined sugars and carbohydrates as well as excess red meat, alcohol, caffeine, additives, preservatives and artificial sweeteners may have a negative effect on our digestive health—triggering dysbiosis (or a balance of bacteria in our gut), inflammation and gut health issues. Not surprisingly, these foods are also commonly linked to skin conditions such as acne in certain cases, too. It’s important to note that you should never eliminate any food group without the direct and personal advice of a trusted healthcare practitioner—even if there is clinical evidence to show a connection. The food groups were created and based on clinical evidence as advice for the general population to obtain all required daily nutrients—so, by excluding an entire food group, you also risk missing out on these important nutrients.
What ingredients help with both digestive health and supporting clear skin?
Our CLARIFY formula contains 109% of your RDI of zinc—which is absolutely integral for skin structure, supporting clear skin and assisting with wound healing—as well as 200% of your RDI of vitamin C—which fortifies cells against free radical damage, supports collagen formation and, of course, bolsters immunity. But other key ingredients which we are excited to include are vitamin B5—which works to support hormone metabolism, especially important if you’re dealing with hormone-driven skin concerns—and provitamin A which assists with healing and supports skin and mucous membrane structure.
As always, we have bio-fermented our ingredients using our exclusive Flora Culture™ process to further supercharge their benefits and ensure your microbiome receives a healthy dose of prebiotics and probiotics with every serve. Given that soothing, repairing and strengthening the gut is the gateway to glowing, healthy and clear skin—it was important to me to ensure that this formula also worked as hard for your microbiome, as it does for your skin.
CLARIFY is now available for purchase online and in selected stores with a retail price of $65. For more information, visit the website here.
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