Is skin health just skin deep? Ever had a skin condition that wasn’t responding to the best topical treatment and couldn’t work out why? Sometimes treating your skin condition is not always as simple as treating your skin symptoms.
Many people notice that their skin conditions flare up during times of elevated stress, but can’t understood why. More recent research is helping us to better understand the mechanisms behind this. Acne, atopic dermatitis, eczema, pruritus, psoriasis, rosacea, compromised skin barrier function and impaired wound healing are some of the skin conditions that are usually more than skin deep. Even skin dryness and skin tags may be an indicator that something is going on below the surface.
The brain, skin, gut connection
There are two areas of emerging science that are attracting significant attention: the brain-skin connection and the gut-brain-skin connection, particularly the human microbiota. We’re benefitting from more and more fascinating insights into the complexity of the human body and its remarkable pathways of communication. Functional medicine practitioners understand the interconnected, delicate balance of human health and seek to understand underlying causes and restore wellbeing, rather than treat a symptom or collection of symptoms in isolation.
We’ve discovered that there are many links between skin health and our total health. Skin can no longer just be seen simply as the target of the stress response in our bodies; it also can produce its own stress hormones and inflammatory markers!
Acute stress activates our immune response to protect our bodies by releasing hormones such as cortisol. Prolonged stress, however, usually works in the opposite way by suppressing the body’s immune function and creating greater susceptibility to certain allergic and inflammatory conditions, including those of the skin. Unfortunately, this response to sustained stress can cause a vicious cycle that is hard to break.
Even though stress comes in different forms, the body does not distinguish this. Irrespective of whether stress is emotional, mental or physical, it sets off alarms that trigger a range of responses. And when the stress is excessive and prolonged, the body’s ability to cope may become exhausted and an auto-immune disease may develop.
While this is an extreme case, more of us are likely to experience subtle signs that are easy to overlook, such as a worsening of our acne, atopic dermatitis, eczema, pruritus, psoriasis or rosacea. Others may notice their skin simply becomes drier and more easily irritated, and wonder why when they haven’t changed their skin routine or diet. Stress can affect the stress receptors in our skin and capillaries and thereby disrupt the skin barrier and inhibit the production of lipids, necessary for maintaining a healthy skin.
Smoking, environmental pollution and UV exposure are also stressors. Even repeated short-term UV stress on the skin can create Reactive Oxygen Species (free radicals), which you may have seen mentioned elsewhere on the website, and reduce our stores of antioxidants, which help our bodies fight the damage and undertake repair.
The gut microbiota
Another area of study where we’re beginning to understand more is gastrointestinal health and the role the gut microbiota plays in our total health, including that of our skin. About 70% the human immune system resides in our gut, where cells actively patrol to detect threats and bad bacteria are kept in check.
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of research looking at the gut microbiota – a collection of microbes residing in the gastrointestinal tract – and its relationship to numerous health conditions, including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease, IBS and even metabolic syndrome.
We now know that these little guys play an essential role in our immunity, carrying out a number of complex roles to keep us, and our skin, healthy. This was thought laughable by many in the scientific and medical communities not that long ago, and those who carried out research in this area were often thought to be on the fringes and not to be taken too seriously.
Even today, many medical practitioners are still to catch up, but the world of gut microbes is no longer just a curiosity, but rather a serious area of discovery and potentially future treatment. In reading more recent significant journal articles on the microbiota, I’ve been overwhelmed to see the number of references in the appendix, often running to over 200! So no longer can it be dismissed as only part of alternative medicine.
Research shows that gut microbes and their by-products can, through a complex process, activate the immune system and affect our skin, and we see this in certain skin conditions. Our skin is the body’s largest organ. It’s closely connected to the nervous system and gastrointestinal tract from the moment of conception due to the way embryonic cells develop. What’s more, it can communicate with the brain and the gut.
Inflammation in our body and some nutritional deficiencies can be linked to many common skin conditions and even our ability to undertake the repair process after UV exposure. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that an ongoing imbalance in our gut could have an indirect flow-on effect to the skin at some point.
A holistic approach
If your skin condition is not fully responding to your current topical approach, always ensure you have it correctly diagnosed or reassessed by a medical expert. If you’d like to take a more holistic approach to help support your skin’s health, also look at nutrition, gut health, stress load and physical activity. Some things to consider:
- Do you have an appropriate diet rich in nutrients and fibre to support your gut health and microbiota?
- Are your levels of mental, emotional and physical stress manageable, and do you have stress-coping mechanisms?
- Do you need to include antioxidants, prebiotics and/or probiotics?
- Would you benefit from supplements such as flavonoids and proteoglycans, as these have been found helpful for some people with atopic and inflammatory skin conditions?
- Do you get enough exercise? It has been shown to reduce stress, improve digestive function, oxygenate tissues and the brain, strengthen immunity, improve hormonal health, help with detoxification, lower cholesterol, encourage deep sleep … and, of course, burn fat.
Yours in better skin