The gut skin connection; healing acne from the inside

I’ve always had ‘good’ skin, and have been very grateful for that. But I know that acne and other irritated skin conditions cause a lot of distress and can be very difficult to deal with, both for young people and for adults. We published three articles on acne on our blog recently, but I know not everyone is online, so I thought I would share some thoughts with you here as well. 

Let’s start by talking about the health of the skin barrier, your outermost layer of skin. The skin barrier regulates the skin’s moisture levels and protects the delicate layers underneath from harsh external elements. If the skin barrier isn’t strong, all sorts of epidermal disruptions can occur including eczema, rosacea, and acne.

Researchers are realising that the use of conventional acne treatments — including benzoyl peroxide, topical retinoids, and antibiotics — can actually work against the skin by attacking the microbiota of the skin, drying the skin out, and weakening the skin barrier.

In the quest to rid the skin of acne-causing bacteria, these treatments destroy the skin’s beneficial bacteria and antioxidants and make the skin barrier vulnerable to inflammation and free radicals.

So how do you keep your skin barrier healthy and fight acne at the same time? Well, as you probably know, acne is an inflammatory condition, and most — if not all — inflammatory conditions can be traced back to the gut.

We now know there’s such a thing as a ‘gut-skin axis’ —or, a relationship between the gut and the skin. Studies have shown a high correlation of gastrointestinal issues among people who are affected by acne. These issues include abdominal bloating, gastric reflux, constipation, and dysbiosis.

There’s also evidence showing how the gut-skin axis relationship can go sour when an imbalance of the gut microbiota expresses itself as an inflammatory condition (aka acne) in the skin.

The complexity of the gut-skin axis isn’t fully understood, but one way an unhappy gut is thought to lead to acne is through the production of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). When the gut microbiota go out of balance, their production of IGF-1 goes into overdrive. This triggers an increase in the body’s level of sebum (a fatty substance secreted by the glands in the skin) and sets the stage for blocked pores and acne.

So how do you keep your gut healthy and happy to benefit your skin? When setting out to increase your gut health, start by taking a long, hard look at what you’re putting into your body. What you eat and drink on a daily basis has a huge impact — for better or worse — on the condition of your digestive system.

Diet plays a massive role in gut health. It’s thought that the typical western diet — thanks to its high glycemic load from an abundance of refined carbohydrates — prompts the body to increase the production of IGF-1…which eventually leads to the development of acne.

So to begin crafting a gut-friendly diet, look at all the places that refined carbohydrates and sugar show up in your diet. It’s not just sweets and desserts that carry a high glycemic load: white bread and all refined grains, potatoes, white rice, white pasta, refined cooking fats and oils, sweetened drinks, wine, and beer can all trigger inflammation.

To reduce inflammation, fermented foods with natural prebiotics and probiotics are great additions to your diet. This includes fermented dairy products with live cultures (like cheese and yogurt), raw krauts and kimchi, tempeh, miso, and raw vinegars (locally-made April Danann’s vinegars are very popular in Organico).

The following anti-inflammatory foods are also great for the gut: non-starchy vegetables (especially green vegetables like broccoli and kale) in abundance, root vegetables, starchy vegetables (like pumpkin and sweet potato) in moderation, mushrooms, berries and cherries, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, meat and fish in moderation, high-fibre whole grains, and high-cocoa percentage dark chocolate (but in small quantities to keep your sugar intake low). Also not to be under-estimated is the value of adding handfuls of fresh herbs (parsley, coriander and others – preferably locally grown!) as well as garlic and ginger to your food – they all bring their own benefits, not least in nourishing our microbiome. 

Drinking the right kind of tea can help heal the gut, as well as increase the skin’s hydration levels. The polyphenols in green tea contain anti-inflammatory properties. They also promote good bacteria while acting as an antimicrobial toward harmful bacteria. Studies have suggested that the polyphenols in tea are even able to reduce acne by regulating the skin’s production of sebum. Drink one to two cups of good quality (organic) green tea a day, remembering it contains caffeine so avoid it late at night.

Bio-Intestin, a daily ‘pre-biotic’ capsule from organic medicinal mushroom company Hifas da Terra, provides digestive help with active compounds from shiitake, lion’s mane, oyster and king trumpet mushroom powders. The superfood blend of mushrooms contains optimal sources of enzymes, amino acids, sterols and fibres that work together to support and maintain the healthy functioning of the digestive system. Taking a course of Bio-Intestin followed by a course of broad-spectrum probiotics (for example Super 8s from Udo’s Choice) would give your gut health a good boost. 

Omega 7 Sea Buckthorn Oil contains Omega 3,6,7,9 and vitamin A, which maintain normal structure and function of the skin. The active ingredients in sea buckthorn oil —which include antioxidants, vitamin C, flavonoids, polyphenols and polysaccharides — are great for the skin. Sea Buckthorn Oil supports the digestive system and the metabolism of nutrients.

It’s also rich in linoleic acid (LA), which strengthens the skin barrier and protects against water loss. LA, which is a natural component of healthy sebum, has been shown to reduce acne breakouts by stimulating the function of sebaceous glands to unblock pores and decrease blackheads.

For more information and tips on natural care for acne, look up our Blog posts on – there are two more articles in this series with a lot of suggestions on holistic approaches. 

Keep in mind, when you take on a holistic approach to acne, your progress may seem slow. But it’s the changes that occur deep inside us that last the longest and come with the greatest benefits. Hang in there!

Hannah Dare

Hannah Dare co-runs Organico, the café, bakery and health shop in Bantry, West Cork.

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