by Dr. Will Cole
With an average surface area of more than 21 square feet and 6 to 10% of your body weight, your skin is actually your largest organ, and a key player in detoxification. Part of your integumentary system, which also consists of your hair and nails, your skin can say a lot about your health and some people consider it a barometer for health.
Skin conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis are typically a symptom of something else going on in the body, so if you want to clear up your complexion, it makes sense to look for the cause of the problem, rather than keeping your efforts focused on the skin itself.
Having struggled with acne breakouts since I was a teenager, my complexion was a source of intense insecurity for me. From soaps and lotions to creams and pills, there’s no shortage of products on the market designed to target whatever skin problem you have, but none of these “fixes” address the root of the problem. “What’s going on with your skin” is a question that is much greater than skin deep.
Since I coach people all around the world as a functional medicine practitioner, sometimes I am able to apply what I learn to my own health, and that was certainly the case with my complexion. I have a deep conviction that healthcare practitioners should practice what they preach, and unaddressed skin problems are no exception. I realized I needed a comprehensive plan to get rid of my skin problems for good.
Another word for functional medicine is “systems medicine,” in which we look at the underlying causes of all the independent, yet interconnected systems of the body. In this case, I delved into the exciting research examining the gut-skin axis and how the health of the microbiome can determine the health of the skin. Functional medicine sees acne and many other skin conditions as inflammatory disorders on the autoimmune spectrum, and this is what was going on in my case.
Here are some of the tools I implemented in my own case, and in the cases of many of my patients, to reverse and heal their skin problems:
1. Run labs
Lab tests can help determine gut problems directly. The two I recommend are:
Stool test: This test analyzes your unique microbiome population, to look for problems that could be manifesting on the skin. I recommend a two- or three-day collection to look at your good bacteria levels and rule out (or rule in) any bacterial, yeast, or parasitic infections.
Immunological blood test: This blood test assesses any breaches of your gut’s defense system, which could let undigested food particles and bacteria into your bloodstream, causing an inflammatory response throughout the body. This condition is commonly referred to as “leaky gut.”
2. Fix your gut issues
If you have an obvious gut issue, fixing it with condition-specific natural medicine protocols (see #4 on this list) could result in clearer skin without doing anything else. Here are some common gut problems that can also cause skin issues:
SIBO: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth happens when bacteria from the colon grows into the small intestines where it doesn’t belong.
Dysbiosis: Whereas SIBO is an overgrowth of normal bacteria, dysbiosis happens when there’s an imbalance of good to bad bacteria. An increase in harmful bacteria has been shown to be a factor in skin problems.
Hypochlorhydria: This decrease in stomach acid has been shown to be a problem in people suffering with skin problems such as acne.
Parasite or yeast infections: Chronic low-grade infections can be a source of chronic inflammation along the gut-skin axis.
Leaky gut syndrome: All of the previous gut problems can lead to an increased permeability of your gut lining, causing a cascade of ill health effects, including skin problems.
3. Avoid damaging foods
What will damage your gut will damage your skin, so it’s wise to avoid inflammatory foods and foods to which you have a known intolerance if you want a healthy and glowing complexion. Check out the top microbiome-, brain-, and skin-damaging foods here.
4. Heal your gut-skin axis with food medicine
Here are some of the foods I recommend and use myself for repairing the gut and the skin:
Fermented vegetables: Sauerkraut and kimchi are great sources of beneficial bacteria to re-feed your microbiome.
Swedish bitters: I’ve found this herbal tonic to be very effective in healing chronic infections. It’s also good for increasing stomach acid production, for those who aren’t making enough.
Kefir: Fermented dairy (also can be non-dairy) drinks like kefir, rich in the beneficial probiotic Lactobacillus acidophilus, have been shown to improve complexion over a period of 3 months.
Fermented cod liver oil: Another ancient healing food, this nutrient-dense oil is a great source of skin-healing vitamins A, D, and K2. It’s also a great source of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids in just the right balance.
Coconut oil: Fats are essential to heal the gut-skin axis. Coconut oil also has natural antimicrobial benefits, so you can take it internally and you can also use it on your skin!
Liver: One of nature’s multivitamins, per ounce, liver is one of the best sources of bioavailable nutrients on the planet. If you eat meat, I hope you will include liver in your diet once or twice a week. It’s a fantastic whole food source of skin-essential nutrients like zinc and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5).
If clearing up your skin sounds like something on your to-do list, consider functional medicine. Finding out the underlying factors to your skin condition and addressing them specifically with a customized and comprehensive functional medicine program just might be the natural solution you have been searching for.
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