Originally published as a three part series of articles for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa
Part One: Five Detox Strategies for Better Skin
When you think about people, chances are you think about skin. Most of what we see that isn’t covered up by clothing is skin, after all. Humans are skin bags. Sorry, did that make you feel kind of gross? Anyway, like it or not, the quality of our skin can have a big influence on how others perceive us. It’s why we get so distressed by things like acne, wrinkles, birthmarks, warts, and scars, even though they don’t actually compromise our function or health.
When people come to me for help with a cosmetic skin issue, they often act a bit sheepish about it, as if they believe I’ll consider them shallow for caring about their appearance. But I recognize how much our feelings about our appearance affect our happiness and the way we relate to others. I think that as long as we’re not obsessive about it, we should do whatever we need to do to feel pretty or handsome.
More importantly, skin health is an expression of overall health. This doesn’t mean you won’t get wrinkles if you’re healthy, but even a wrinkly face can look vibrant if it’s part of a vibrant body and spirit. Last month I discussed some basics of vehicle maintenance – i.e., taking care of your body – with regard to nutrition and digestion. Now I’m going to cover basic mechanics and maintenance of your skin.
There are a number of factors that affect skin quality, including genetics, climate (wind, dryness, sun, chlorine, smoke, pollution, etc.), and our internal environment, to name just a few. We have more control over certain factors than others. Obviously, your skin will need different things in a dry, windy place than in a hot, damp place. But regardless of your particulars, there are two main things worth focusing on for healthy skin: good nutrition and good detoxification.
This week I’ll focus on detoxification. Most naturopathic physicians see dull skin and chronic skin problems as an expression of internal toxicity, which often results from digestive imbalance and/or a sluggish liver, plus a history of exposure to chemicals and/or problematic foods. When we cleanse the liver and gut (and support the lungs and kidneys while we’re at it) skin problems frequently clear up. Even without rashes or other obvious problems, our skin tends to be flat, dry, or irritated when our detoxification mechanisms aren’t at their best.
Here are four basic starting points for supporting internal and external detoxification:
Give these strategies a try and report in the comments section on your results.
Part Two: Seven Nutrition Tips for Glowing Skin
Last week I wrote about the importance of getting the garbage out of your system to promote healthy skin. In Chinese Medicine, the skin is sometimes referred to as the “third lung,” because it “breathes” through its pores – excreting toxins and absorbing what’s put on it. The lungs work as a pair with the colon: while the lungs take in oxygen and let go of carbon dioxide, the colon takes in water and lets go of solid waste. Like the skin itself, these two organs are sort of the “frontier” between the inside and outside of the body. They need to be functioning well in order for our skin to glow.
The flipside of clearing out the waste is feeding the body with everything it needs for healthy skin. Here are some nutritional measures you can take to promote clearing of rashes and youthful and elastic skin.
Don’t expect overnight changes in your skin from dietary modifications and supplementation, as it takes a while for internal changes to manifest on the surface. But, everything I’ve recommended here is good for you in numerous ways, so, do expect that these changes will have benefits beyond nice skin.
Part Three: You’re Not Alone – Heal Your Skin With Help From Some Friends
The human microbiome is the total collection of organisms that live on and in your body, and there’s a growing recognition among scientists that they have quite a lot to do with our health. Different organisms live in the armpit versus the toe creases. In fact, every part of the body – the ears, the mouth, the elbow crease, the navel, the forehead, the groin, the chest, etc. – has its own bacterial culture, each with different species that tend to live there. The emerging field that studies these microbes and how they affect us – microbial ecology – is poised to dramatically change medicine.
One of the most vital functions of these organisms is to help maintain the health and integrity of our epithelium. Epithelium, or epithelial tissue, forms the surfaces of structures throughout the body, as well as the linings of cavities. The skin, the respiratory tract, the digestive tract, the mouth, nostrils, genitalia, and other mucous membranes are all composed of different kinds of epithelium. And through the intelligence of the microbiome – and what’s now being called the gut-brain-skin axis – theyare all connected.
Emerging research links health issues as diverse as depression, anxiety, acne, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, fibromyalgia, and autism (to mention just a few) to a disruption of our microbiota (the microorganisms that constitute our microbiome). We’re beginning to understand that this is especially true of epithelial problems – respiratory problems, digestive problems, skin problems, etc. And most often, the disruption begins with the intestines.
This isn’t exactly new science. Two dermatologists, John Stokes and Donald Pillsbury, started proposing the gut-brain-skin connection in the early 1900s. But the medical institution can be a slow moving machine. Traditional medical systems, such as those of China and India, even without understanding the microbiome concept, have long viewed the digestive system as central to the health of the skin and the whole body/mind.
There are now numerous studies supporting the role of intestinal health in skin health. In particular, inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema tend to occur in people with gut inflammation and imbalance of intestinal flora (microorganisms). And they almost always respond positively to administration of probiotics (beneficial microorganisms used to bolster those in the gut) and other nutritional measures for intestinal repair. When the gut is inflamed, unhealthy bacterial excretions can leak into the blood stream, causing inflammation elsewhere. Probiotics can reestablish a strong population of healthy bacteria that keep the unhealthy strains in check, and they also serve to stimulate repair of the intestinal lining.
Historically, people didn’t have capsules of bacteria to take for this purpose; they just ate cultured foods. Cultured foods should be a part of everyone’s diet. Some cultured foods include yogurt, crème fraiche, and kefir (“keh-FEER” – a sort of drinkable yogurt), pickled vegetables (cucumber, carrots, ginger, mushrooms, peppers, beets, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplant, sauerkraut, kimchee, etc.), fizzy drinks such as jun and kombucha, and fermented soy as miso and tempeh.
If you buy these foods premade, be sure that they aren’t in jars that have a lid that “pops” when you open it. This means they’ve been heat-sealed, which likely killed the beneficial flora in there. By the same token, you shouldn’t cook these foods, since that, too, would kill them. Also, look for vinegar on the labels of pickled foods – it shouldn’t be there. Things pickled in vinegar generally don’t contain probiotics. Traditional fermentation is done in just water or vegetable juice (such as cabbage or celery) or the juice of the material that’s being fermented, plus some kind of starter culture or naturally occurring microbes.
Get some cultured foods, or better yet, make your own, and then incorporate a little bit with each meal. Sometimes a probiotic supplement can be of great help, especially when you are really out of balance. They’re available in liquid, power, and capsule form. When purchasing a probiotic, I recommend choosing one with a wide array of microorganisms, since not every strain “takes” well in every person’s gut. One of my favorites is Proflora Concentrate, made by Integrative Therapeutics. We carry it at our spas. Another good one is called Primal Defense.
Recently, skin care companies have started making topical probiotic preparations, which can be beneficial in inflammatory skin conditions. We carry some in the Epicuren line that are worth trying. However, they’re not a substitute for also getting your gut healed. In addition to using probiotics and/or cultured foods, if you have health concerns that you think might be gut-related, I encourage you to see a naturally-oriented healthcare practitioner who can help you identify foods or drugs that may be contributing to gut inflammation and recommend a more comprehensive gut healing plan.
Wishing you well, inside and out,
Dr. Peter Borten