Your Complete Functional Medicine Guide to Clear + Glowing Skin
When someone has radiant, glowing skin, people notice. It’s that wow-factor we all desire, but for many of us, it’s difficult to achieve. Those of us who have suffered from complexion problems know how much this can diminish confidence because you can’t hide your face from the world. Of course, the beauty industry has responded to this natural desire with an endless barrage of expensive creams, elixirs, ointments, and makeup marketed to zap away or cover up blemishes, minimize the signs of aging, and brighten dull skin. However, what you put on top of your skin may not be the answer (or the entire answer). It’s easy to forget that outer appearance is a reflection of inner health, and this is no more apparent than on our skin.
The skin is the largest organ and makes up 10 percent total body weight. It is also an active organ with the very important job of detoxification. Your skin is not only a barrier which keeps toxins out, but a permeable barrier that releases toxins through, for example, sweating. When you have a high toxin load, inflammation, or problems detoxing properly, this can show up on the surface of your skin as acne, psoriasis, rashes, eczema, or rosacea. You could also consider the skin an early warning signaler, as all these skin issues are symptoms of something going on beneath the surface.
As a functional medicine practitioner, I see many patients who struggle with skin problems, and surprisingly, the one thing almost all of them have in common is gut dysfunction. Your gut and your skin are inextricably linked through the gut-skin axis. Research has shown that underlying gut dysfunctions such as leaky gut syndrome, yeast overgrowth, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and microbiome imbalance (dysbiosis) all contribute to poor skin health. (1) When your skin breaks out, this is your body’s way of calling out to you for help. It’s a red flag from your insides to your outsides.
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Functional Medicine Tools For Healthier Skin
Thankfully, there are many lifestyle changes you can easily incorporate into your daily life to help heal your gut and achieve vibrant skin – no pricey beauty creams required because you will be tackling the source of the problem, which comes from the inside. Here’s where to start:
1. Quit the skin-damaging foods.
Sugar, including too many natural sweeteners like coconut sugar and honey, can contribute significantly to a poor complexion by feeding the bad bacteria in your gut. Grains also contain amylose sugars and similar proteins to gluten that can continue to perpetuate gut dysfunction and increase gut permeability.
2. Discover your food intolerances.
Each individual’s biochemistry is unique, and so are each person’s particular food intolerances and sensitivities. Learning which foods trigger an inflammatory response in you can help you to structure a dietary plan that optimizes your health and minimizes internal dysfunction. Once you know what to avoid, replace those personal inflamers with the superfoods that make your skin glow. An elimination diet is the gold standard for finding out which foods work for you.
3. Soothe, repair, and prevent skin damage with coconut oil.
Why spend hundreds of dollars on fancy skin creams when coconut oil does it all? Not only is this oil a great choice for cooking due to the fact that it doesn’t oxidize at high temps and become inflammatory, but it is also antimicrobial, (2) making it a great choice for a makeup remover or moisturizer, slaying bacteria in the process.
4. Take probiotics.
Fermented foods contain the beneficial bacteria that helps tip your microbiome and gut health in the right direction. Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir can provide a daily dose of gut-boosting good guys to shore up your health from the inside out.
5. Support your skin with collagen.
Collagen is a type of protein comprised of three amino acids – glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline – and it is the primary building block in connective tissue, which includes cartilage, bones, blood vessels, tendons, and skin. Supplemental collagen helps to regulate the body’s natural collagen production while also promoting skin elasticity to keep you looking more youthful. Since most people only get about 3 grams of dietary glycine (we need about 15 grams per day through diet), adding a collagen supplement to your wellness routine can be a real boost to skin and all connective tissue health and strength. You can add collagen powder to your morning tea or smoothie.
6. Tap into the power of adaptogens.
The plant and herb medicines known today as adaptogens are some of my favorite tools to help bring balance to every system in the body, skin included. Pearl powder in particular is packed with amino acids that help nourish skin. Holy basil is another one of my favorites because of it’s anti-inflammatory power and the way it promotes a more youthful appearance. With adaptogens increasing in popularity among celebrities and the wellness world as a whole, it is easier than ever before to find these magic powders. You can experiment with adding them to elixirs, smoothies, or organic coffee. Or, just sprinkle them over your favorite dishes to add skin-boosting magic to your meals.
7. Sip on bone broth.
Dense with nutrients like skin-enhancing minerals and skin-strengthening collagen, bone broth soothes a damaged and inflamed gut and restores dull skin by encouraging elasticity. Bone broth is easy to make and there are a ton of fun, creative bone broth recipes available online. You can also buy quality versions in your favorite health food store, so go ahead and incorporate this superfood medicine into your daily routine.
8. Add a boost of biotin.
Biotin is a B-vitamin that helps your body synthesize fatty acids that work to (among many other things) protect skin from harsh environmental elements like sun and wind. Because your skin cells rely on fat (3) for protection, biotin is essential for resilient skin. You can take biotin supplements, but you can also get biotin through whole food sources such as avocados, wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef liver, and eggs.
9. Give EGCG a try.
Epigallocatechin gallate is a type of antioxidant polyphenol that fights cell-damaging free radicals that lead to signs of aging. Found in abundance in green tea, especially matcha, EGCG has been shown to rejuvenate skin cells (4) that are dying. Power in a teacup!
10. Tone up and firm up with apple cider vinegar.
For an after-cleansing toner, you can’t beat good old apple cider vinegar. This kitchen staple can help clear up blemishes by balancing your skin’s pH level, but that’s not all. One study showed that apple cider vinegar reduced the appearance of eczema (5) in just three weeks.
11. Heal your microbiome.
Your microbiome refers to the collection of bacteria and yeast in your gut. Research shows that the health of your gut impacts almost every area of your health – skin included.
Start off by running diagnostic labs including a comprehensive stool test which looks for any bacterial imbalances and yeast overgrowths. It also looks at a few other conditions that can play a role in poor complexion.
- Small Instestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) occurs when bacteria grows outside of your colon into your small intestines where it shouldn’t be.
- Dysbiosis is when there is an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in your microbiome and has been linked (6) to skin problems.
- Hypochlorhydria is when there is a decrease in stomach acid. This condition is often found (7) in people with acne.
- Candida overgrowth can wreck your gut and perpetuate inflammatory skin issues.
- Chronic infections such as parasitic infections continue to fuel inflammation.
12. Assess for leaky gut syndrome.
It’s also essential to look at the health of your intestinal lining, as well as what is in your gut, since it is the defense system of your gut. Leaky gut syndrome happens when your gut lining is compromised allowing undigested food particles and bacterial endotoxins to enter your blood stream where they don’t belong. This fuels inflammatory health problems including skin issues. You can have a blood test run to see if this is a problem for you.
13. Look at your hormones.
When miscommunication happens between your brain and endocrine system it can lead to hormone imbalances and contribute to skin problems. High testosterone, also known as androgen dominance, has been shown to cause skin problems. Adrenal fatigue can also hinder your body’s ability to handle stress and can contribute to poor skin health. With a few lifestyle and dietary changes, you can begin to rehab adrenal fatigue.
14. Support any genetic weaknesses.
Methylation is your biochemical superhighway that ensures your gut, brain, and skin are in optimal health. Certain genetic methylation impairments such as the MTHFR gene mutation can inhibit this extremely important process. This specific gene mutation can make it difficult for your body to convert the B vitamin folic acid into activated methyl-folate which is needed to fuel methylation pathways. But once you are aware of any genetic weakness you can begin to support them with targeted supplementation and superfoods rich in B vitamins.
15. Stay away from inflammatory foods.
Anything that damages your gut can also damage your skin. Sugar and gluten are the top offenders but everyone has different tolerances to other foods.
16. Eat more egg yolks.
Egg yolks from pasture-raised, organic eggs are loaded with vitamins A, D, E, and B as well as choline, iron, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus which are all essential for clear skin and healthy hormones. Certain people with inflammatory health problems can’t tolerate the albumin protein in egg whites but don’t have issues with the yolk.
17. Eat more avocados.
Avocados are abundant in healthy fats and vitamins such as A, D, E, and K2 as well as magnesium and B vitamins – all of which are necessary for healthy methylation, hormones, and skin.
18. Take Swedish bitters.
This herbal tonic works to build up low stomach acid production and helps heal infections.
19. Spend more time outdoors.
Vitamin D is often referred to as the sunshine vitamin as our bodies convert sunlight into usable vitamin D which is needed for healthy hormones and skin. (8)
20. Include more fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Green vegetables such as celery, spinach, and Swiss chard are filled with nutrients that nourish your methylation pathways and the gut-skin axis. Up your intake of green juices and smoothies to pack in more of these superfoods.
Low-fructose berries like blueberries are rich in antioxidants that help to fight free-radical damage that contributes to signs of aging.
21. Drink coconut kefir.
Fermented dairy is also loaded with probiotics to nourish your microbiome. In fact, Lactobacillus acidophilus which is abundant in kefir has been linked (9) to an improvement in skin health.
22. I turned to turmeric.
This spice works to calm inflammation in the body. Use it to season your favorite meals and include it in your favorite golden milk recipe – coconut milk, black pepper, turmeric, and a dash of raw honey.
23. Supplement with fermented cod liver oil.
This oil is a great source of omega fats and contains vitamins A, D, and K2 to help heal your skin.
24. Eat grass-fed, organic liver.
Liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods for skin health as it contains zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin B.
25. Supplement with vitamin A.
True vitamin A, known as retinol, is only found in animal products like grass-fed liver and wild-caught fish. Carrots and sweet potatoes contain plant carotenes which are a precursor to vitamin A but the rate that it converts to usable retinol is weak.
26. Eat more wild-caught fish.
To get in more omega fats, eat more wild-caught fish that are low in toxins like Alaskan salmon, pole-caught albacore tuna, Arctic char, and rainbow trout.
7 Healing Elixirs For Youthful and Glowing Skin
The health of our skin goes beyond skin issues like acne. We also all want our skin to look vibrant and youthful as we age. And we've seen just how much true vitality starts with what we put into our bodies. There are plenty of ways to look and feel younger, all through the power of delicious food medicines.
Here are some of my favorite recipes featuring some of the world’s most potent beauty foods. I recommend having one every day…minimum! Rotate these throughout the week for the greatest (and most beautifying) variety.
1. Immortal mermaid latte
Ever wonder why mermaids always look so gorgeous? I’m pretty sure it’s the blue-green algae. The aquatic hues from aphanizomenon flos-aquae and spirulina are antioxidant rich, decrease inflammation, (10) and protect your cells to keep your skin and body looking younger every day.
- 1 1/2 cups full fat coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon blue-green algae powder
- 1 teaspoon honey (or more to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon organic vanilla
Place all ingredients in a saucepan and heat over low until warm. Stir gently until all the ingredients are dissolved. Pour into a mug and enjoy with additional cinnamon sprinkled on top.
2. Adaptogenic mushroom hot cocoa
Elevate your boring old hot cocoa with a super blend of adaptogenic mushrooms. You’ll not only be getting a rich chocolate experience, but you’ll be fighting inflammation and cellular damage with every sip. Both chaga and cordyceps contain powerful antioxidants and decrease pro-inflammatory lipid peroxidation, for an anti-aging one-two punch. Keep your brain healthy as well with lion’s mane, which has been shown to decrease cognitive decline.
- 1 1/2 cups coconut or almond milk
- 1/2 teaspoon chaga powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cordyceps powder
- 1/2 teaspoon lion’s mane powder
- 2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
- 2 tablespoons medjool date paste
Place all ingredients in a saucepan and heat until warm, stirring gently to dissolve the solids. Pour into mug and enjoy!
3. Dewy-skin smoothie
Stress and dryness are two of the worst things for your skin, but this smoothie will help you manage stress with adaptogens, which are great for balancing stress hormones, and healthy fats, which are also needed for a radiant complexion. Plus, the avocados and coconut milk in this recipe make this skin-saving green smoothie extra creamy.
- 1 cup kale, chopped
- 1 avocado
- 1/2 teaspoon holy basil powder
- 1/2 teaspoon mucuna pruriens powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ashwagandha powder
- 1/2 organic apple
- 2 stalks celery
- 1/2 cup full-fat coconut milk
Combine all ingredients in blender, blend, and enjoy.
4. Skin-brightening lavender tonic
In the kingdom of adaptogens, pearl is the monarch of beauty. It’s a powerhouse source of aminos that strengthen (11) your hair and nails and nourish your skin. Add lavender to calm the skin from the inside out and you have a tonic that will erase years.
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon pearl powder
- 2 to 3 drops lavender essential oil
- 2 drops of liquid stevia (optional)
Add lemon juice, pearl, lavender essential oil, and optional stevia in water and stir until combined.
5. Youthful glow bee-pollen iced tea.
Bee pollen helps to reduce inflammation through its antioxidant activity, helping skin de-flame and rejuvenate. Plus, the B vitamins (no pun intended!) in bee pollen support healthy methylation pathways, which are essential for both your gut and skin health. The surprise addition of dandelion leaves also gives your liver a boost, promoting healthy detoxification, so your whole body will feel refreshed.
- 1 1/2 cups hot water
- 1 to 2 teaspoons dried dandelion leaves
- 1 teaspoon manuka honey (or more to taste)
- 1 teaspoon bee pollen
Place dandelion leaves in tea ball and steep in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove tea ball and let sit to reach room temperature. Stir in the honey and bee pollen until they are completely dissolved, then refrigerate. Serve over ice.
6. Wrinkle-crushing well milk
Grass-fed collagen and marine collagen are good sources for protein, which helps skin retain its elasticity, reducing the appearance of wrinkles. Combine this with papayas and blueberries for an extra boost of antioxidant phytonutrients for a double dose of anti-aging power.
- 1/4 cup blueberries
- 1/4 cup papaya, chopped
- 1/2 cup almond milk
- 1 teaspoon grass-fed collagen or marine collagen
Blend blueberries and papaya together in blender and then stir in fruit puree and collagen into almond milk.
7. Anti-inflammatory sipping broth
Bone broth is a super gut healer and inflammation buster, and both those qualities improve skin because to have healthy skin, you need to have a healthy gut. Turmeric and black pepper work synergistically to calm inflammation throughout your body, including your skin. Make a big pot of this to sip throughout the day or have as a calming, warm drink before bedtime.
- 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
- 1 cup bone broth
- 2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Pinch of black pepper
- 1 teaspoon raw honey
- 1/4 teaspoon ginger powder
Blend ingredients well in a blender. Pour into a saucepan and heat for 3 to 5 minutes over medium heat until warm.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our consultation process. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- Bowe, W.P., Logan, A.C. Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis - back to the future?. Gut Pathog 3, 1 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1186/1757-4749-3-1
- Shino B, Peedikayil FC, Jaiprakash SR, Ahmed Bijapur G, Kottayi S, Jose D. Comparison of Antimicrobial Activity of Chlorhexidine, Coconut Oil, Probiotics, and Ketoconazole on Candida albicans Isolated in Children with Early Childhood Caries: An In Vitro Study. Scientifica (Cairo). 2016;2016:7061587. doi:10.1155/2016/7061587
- Tong L. Acetyl-coenzyme A carboxylase: crucial metabolic enzyme and attractive target for drug discovery. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2005;62(16):1784‐1803. doi:10.1007/s00018-005-5121-4
- Medical College Of Georgia. (2003, April 25). Green Tea Linked To Skin Cell Rejuvenation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 26, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/04/030425071800.htm
- Lee NR, Lee HJ, Yoon NY, Kim D, Jung M, Choi EH. Application of Topical Acids Improves Atopic Dermatitis in Murine Model by Enhancement of Skin Barrier Functions Regardless of the Origin of Acids. Ann Dermatol. 2016;28(6):690‐696. doi:10.5021/ad.2016.28.6.690
- Gueniche A, Benyacoub J, Philippe D, et al. Lactobacillus paracasei CNCM I-2116 (ST11) inhibits substance P-induced skin inflammation and accelerates skin barrier function recovery in vitro. Eur J Dermatol. 2010;20(6):731‐737. doi:10.1684/ejd.2010.1108
- Bowe WP, Logan AC. Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis - back to the future?. Gut Pathog. 2011;3(1):1. Published 2011 Jan 31. doi:10.1186/1757-4749-3-1
- Wedad Z. Mostafa, Rehab A. Hegazy Vitamin D and the skin: Focus on a complex relationship: A review Journal of Advanced Research Volume 6, Issue 6, November 2015, Pages 793-804 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jare.2014.01.011
- Kim J, Ko Y, Park YK, Kim NI, Ha WK, Cho Y. Dietary effect of lactoferrin-enriched fermented milk on skin surface lipid and clinical improvement of acne vulgaris. Nutrition. 2010;26(9):902‐909. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2010.05.011
- Ku CS, Yang Y, Park Y, Lee J. Health benefits of blue-green algae: prevention of cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. J Med Food. 2013;16(2):103‐111. doi:10.1089/jmf.2012.2468
- Shao DZ, Wang CK, Hwang HJ, Hung CH, Chen YW. Comparison of hydration, tyrosinase resistance, and antioxidant activation in three kinds of pearl powders. J Cosmet Sci. 2010;61(2):133‐145.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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