We have all heard of the gut-brain axis, in which the state of our digestive tract and the bacteria which live in it can affect our brain health and mood regulation. In research, the gut has been linked to depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns. We also may recognize that our digestive tract harbours a major part of where our immune system lies and where damaging pathogens get filtered out and neutralized1. Recent studies have linked digestive health to autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease, which is a severe allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat and similar products.
Recently, more attention has been focused on the gut-skin axis, in which the relationship between the gut microbiome, intestinal permeability and overall gut health has been implicated in chronic skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.
It is always a good idea to assess whole-body health when talking about any condition, including skin health. What is going on internally is often a good reflection of what appears externally on our bodies2,3. The gut-skin axis can be affected for a number of reasons including:
There are a wide range of symptoms which may indicate an imbalance in the gut-skin axis and it may be important to look out for these signs if we have a chronic skin condition. These signs can be linked to symptoms of a food sensitivity or "leaky gut".
A leaky gut occurs when there has been some sort of damage to the intestinal tract, causing leaks between the gap junctions of cells in the intestines. When this occurs, food particles can leak into the blood stream, causing an immune reaction to something we may normally eat, but is not necessarily supposed to be in the blood1.
Symptoms can range from mild digestive symptoms to vague whole-body symptoms such as a headache, fatigue, brain fog, body aches, hives, itchy skin or chronic skin disease flare-ups.
This could mean in the case where there are blatant changes to the gut microbiome which can occur from the use of antibiotics or intestinal disease (ie. Irritable bowel syndrome, food-poisoning). We are able to replenish and recover “good” gut bacteria through consuming foods high in probiotics and prebiotics.
Probiotics are sources which already have bacterial cultures in them, and are supportive to normal, healthy bacteria in the body. Food sources include, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha. Prebiotics are essentially sources of food for the probiotics which help them thrive and grow. This includes foods which are rich in fiber, such as leafy greens, garlic, onions, and lentils.
In severe cases of microbiome disruption, we may need to turn to supplemental replenishment in the form of probiotics and gut-healing protocols to remove the damaging offenders and heal the gut lining. This can include certain herbs, or general anti-inflammatory support.
A food sensitivity is a subtle reaction to a certain food which may trigger mild digestive symptoms, or whole-body symptoms (as we discussed above). For some folks, we may already know what our food sensitivities or triggers are when it comes to skin flare ups. For example, a common food trigger for acne is dairy products such as milk, cheese or ice-cream . If we continue to consume these foods that we are sensitive to, it can cause a build-up of inflammation over time and result in skin flare-ups, or show up in other areas of the body . One way to determine if we have any food sensitivities is simply to cut out a certain food for a few weeks and see if our symptoms reduce. This could be through incorporating an anti-inflammatory diet, or undergoing an elimination/hypoallergenic diet, which is the gold-standard for teasing out any food sensitivities!
It is well-known that stress can affect the immune system. In short bursts of acute stress, the immune system is heightened, preparing us for any imminent danger, which can be beneficial. However, with long-term, chronic stress, our immune system can actually become suppressed, which is likely to be the reason why we have seen an increase in autoimmune diseases . Stress can not only come from what we experience physically and mentally, but actually physiologically what occurs in our bodies such as through food sensitivities, underlying health issues . Aside from addressing any food sensitivities or hidden conditions, it would be helpful to support our stress levels and hormonal regulation through self-care and appropriate stress-management. This includes mindful meditation, deep breathing exercises, spending time in nature, or engaging in meaningful connection with loved ones.
The digestive system is an important connection between various parts of the body, from the brain, to the skin, to immune function. It is imperative that we understand how it works in order to best support our whole body optimization. Please speak with your healthcare practitioner to learn more about how your digestion may be affecting your overall health!