Science now confirms what common wisdom suggests: diet and skin health are closely connected. Whether you have premature wrinkles, dry, patchy skin or even acne, research shows that a nutritious diet can help. This emerging science links complex body systems with skin health. For instance:
Your Skin, Your Gut and Your Brain are Interwoven
Your brain, your skin and your gut are constantly communicating among themselves, a network known as the “skin-gut-brain axis.” A healthy gut is a linchpin for glowing skin. It sends positive messages to your brain — and vice versa.
Your Gut Rules Your Immune System
Your immune system is a hub for this busy cross-talk. Seventy percent of your immune system resides in your gut. When your gut bacteria are out of whack (a condition known as dysbiosis, characterized by a lack of diversity and too many “bad guys”) your immune system suffers. A dysbiotic gut has been linked with numerous skin conditions, including acne, rosacea, atopic dermatitis (eczema) and psoriasis.
Skin is your body’s largest organ. Disruptions in its communication with your gut ruffle your immune system, potentially manifesting in redness, rashes or more serious inflammatory skin diseases. Research shows that boosting the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your gut supports your skin.
Beneficial Bacteria Improve Skin Health
Supplementing with certain strains of beneficial bacteria quickly spikes bacterial diversity, potentially improving skin health. Taking specifically targeted probiotics and applying topical products containing these bacteria have been shown to mitigate conditions like acne and eczema. However, over the long-term a nutritious diet, weighted toward fiber-and-polyphenol-rich plant foods is the best strategy. It helps to build the robust microbiome that supports healthy, glowing skin, in part because it fights inflammation.
Bacteria Manage Inflammation
Inflammation is one of the key connectors between gut and skin health. The bacteria inhabiting your gut help to regulate inflammation throughout your body, to some extent by producing compounds known as metabolites. Beneficial bacteria tend to generate anti-inflammatory compounds like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and the “bad guys” are more likely to produce substances that promote inflammation, like endotoxins. Various metabolites have been linked with skin health — for better and for worse.
Processed Foods Stoke Inflammation
Diets emphasizing processed foods sabotage microbial diversity and promote inflammation. Acne is a case in point. Westernized diets (high in refined grains and sugars and unhealthy fats have been linked with the condition. Acne is a chronic inflammatory disease. Predictably, people with acne have been shown to have higher levels of endotoxins and lower levels of SCFAs.
Gene Expression Affects Your Skin
Scientists are actively studying the connections between inflammatory skin diseases and a part of your body known as the epigenome — the network of compounds surrounding your genes. Your genes don’t change but external influences like the food you eat and the stress you experience influence how they behave.
Unhealthy patterns of gene expression have been linked with skin-specific symptoms of inflammation like premature aging and diseases like psoriasis. Although this research is in the early stages, it suggests that a whole foods diet built around phytonutrient-rich plant foods can improve skin health by improving gene expression.
A Nutritious Diet Promotes Healthy Gene Expression
Scientists have been studying compounds in foods, including polyphenols, known to modulate inflammatory processes. Studies have shown, for instance that extra-virgin olive oil and foods high in resveratrol, a phenolic antioxidant, can rein in inflammation and improve gene expression in ways that slow down skin aging.
Good Nutrition Protects Against Sun Damage
UV damage from the sun promotes wrinkles, age spots, and of course skin cancer. It is one sure-fire mechanism for looking older before your time. The good news is, certain components of food, like the healthy fats in olive oil, protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, helping to keep it youthful.
Recognizing that many plants have well developed UV protection mechanisms, researchers are exploring components of food that may offer sun-protection benefits. These include carotenoids, a type of plant pigment found in brightly-colored fruits and vegetables. Dietary interventions with subsets of these phytonutrients, including lycopene (tomatoes are a rich source) and lutein and zeaxanthin (abundant in leafy greens) have been shown to protect against sunburn.
Other studies have shown that the antioxidant astaxanthin (prevalent in shrimp and salmon) has similar benefits. Lignins (found in whole grains, nuts and seeds), silymarin (found in artichokes, cardoons and several spices), cocoa flavanols (found in dark chocolate) and certain types of algae are also being studied, along with many others.
This is an emerging area of research but we’ve understood some basics for quite awhile. A nutritious diet helps to control “inflammaging” (the age-related boost in chronic inflammation) and it improves gene expression, both of which impact skin health. In the meantime, ample evidence suggests that a whole foods diet that includes extra-virgin olive oil can help you to maintain your youthful glow well into old age.
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.
Salem, I, et al. The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin Axis. Frontiers in Microbiology 2018
He, Hailun et al. Natural components in sunscreens: Topical formulations with sun protection factor (SPF) Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy 2021
Alla J Ahola, et al. Dietary patterns reflecting healthy food choices are associated with lower serum LPS activity. Scientific Reports 2017
Vaughn, A et al. Skin-gut axis: the relationship between intestinal bacteria and skin health. World Journal of Dermatology 2017.
Penso, L. et al. Association Between Adult Acne and Dietary Behaviors. JAMA Dermatol. 2020
O’Nieill, C. et al. The gut-skin axis in health and disease: a paradigm with therapeutic implications. Bioessays 38: 1167-1176 2016