While one chocolate bar, a couple of drinks, or a few evenings of fried food won’t permanently alter your health, you’ll probably “feel” those diet decisions immediately, and it’s not going to be comfortable: You might bloat up, get a headache, or experience a disconcerting dip in energy. Keep up the unhealthy eating and drinking for more than a few weeks, and your skin will likely start to reflect your behavior in the form of breakouts, blotchiness, dryness, or unhealthy pallor.
That’s because your skin—all 21 square feet of it—isn’t just the largest organ in your body. It’s also the canary in the coalmine for your digestive health. Skin conditions like acne, rosacea, and eczema are often a sign that something serious is going on deep within your gut. Robin Nielsen, a certified integrative nutritionist in Capitola, California, suggests the most effective way to improve your skin is to tackle it from the inside-out, which has the added benefit of improving your overall health.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, your digestive system is home to 70 percent of your immune cells, and Nielsen agrees. “Everything that happens in our bodies can be tied back to our gut health—our gut is where we metabolize, digest, and extract all of our nutrients,” she says.
Nielsen points out that many people who suffer digestive ailments such as gas, cramping, bloating, or other pain consider it “normal” when these symptoms are anything but. It’s harder to ignore what’s happening at the skin level, though, since that’s the organ we most often display to the world. Fortunately, restoring good gut health, and thus allowing for healthier, more radiant skin is not difficult, with simple changes to diet and lifestyle and an addition of key vitamins and supplements.
The path to healthy skin begins with cutting out junk food and alcohol, and adding in more water. Nielsen recommends drinking half your body weight in ounces per day. The more ambitious can even do food allergy testing to find out if anything they regularly consume is causing aggravated inflammatory response in the digestion. But dietary changes can take time to settle in, so for the person who needs to start slowly, Nielsen recommends simply diversifying your diet.
“When it comes to skin, focus on eating whole, real foods. Eat a rainbow of vegetables every day.” She also emphasizes the importance of healthy fats—those that come from wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, coconut and macadamia nut oils, and avocados. When you focus on your food first, you “eat your vitamins and antioxidants” she says, which are better absorbed and utilized in the body in food form.
But to take your gut health to the next level, many people need to add vitamins that they’re not getting from their food. Nielsen says to start with Vitamin C, which when taken regularly can help keep the immune system strong and rebuild the skin’s natural collagen. Then add in zinc—a mineral found in every cell of the body, though often in short supply—and vitamin D3 in combination with vitamin K for proper absorption. “What builds healthy skin builds healthy bones,” Nielsen says. “Skin health, bone health, and immune function all go together.”
Women in particular need to remember that hormone changes or imbalances can impact the skin. “Balanced hormones support healthy glowing skin,” says Nielsen. “The cool thing about that is how you eat will help you manage your hormones and produce the right balance.”
The person who’s ready to get even more serious about the gut-skin connection, or who suffers more severe digestive issues, can also add in the amino acid glutamine—which helps restore damaged stomach lining, mucilaginous herbs that soothe inflammation in the gut, such as slippery elm bark, marshmallow root, and licorice root, or probiotics like acidophilus, bifidus, and other key good bacteria. Oral probiotics have been shown to reduce the cytokines that cause skin inflammation, according to Dr. Chris Kesser. Probiotics can also be found in fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut, tempeh, tofu, kefir, pickles, and kombucha—not just in yogurt.
But at the end of the day, there is one major aggressor when it comes to good skin health that must be addressed because it affects every system of the body and almost every person today suffers it, and that’s stress. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can wreak havoc on skin health, throwing a body out of balance and cutting into key replenishing activities like sleep and relaxation.
“What’s good for the inside, is good for the outside,” Nielsen concludes. Indeed, beauty is more than skin-deep: it might just be a sign of a life lived in balance.