Ever wondered about the role baccteria plays in the healthy skin equation? This week, we asked our resident Medical Herbalist and Nutritional Consultant Jennifer Derham to flesh out just how vital beneficial bacteria is in maintaining glowing skin and vibrant health......
Bacteria, believe it or not, are the foundation of life and health, fundamental to our immune system and general well-being. Bacteria, along with yeasts and viruses, as well as a range of 'parasites', make up our internal mircrobiota or 'microflora' and are considered to be the 'hidden organ', being more active than the liver. There is an estimated 100 trillion different types of microbial species weighing about 3lbs, each with different roles to play, residing throughout the body, including in the digestive, respiratory and urinary tracts, mouth and the surface of the skin.
The beneficial bacteria residing predominantly in our guts include lactobaccili and bifidobacterium, which some of you may be familiar with from taking probiotic capsules. Others include E. coli, Helicobactor pylori, Salmonella, Klebsiella, as well as yeasts such as candida. It is normal to have a few of these but the good guys should always outnumber the bad. Ideally your intestinal flora exist in a balanced ecosystem, where the beneficial health promoting bacteria balance the harmful bacteria, and disease is kept at bay. Imbalanced microflora can lead to a wide range of health problems, including a multitude of digestive problems, a range of chronic diseases, low immunity and susceptibility to infection, as well as predisposing us to obesity and weight gain, insulin resistance, and skin conditions.
Skin is the body's largest organ and, as mentioned previously, there is a wide range of bacteria and yeasts which naturally reside here; yes we actually have a 'skin flora'. The beneficial bacteria and yeasts, along with our skin's natural pH and oils, form a protective physical coat which is essential to the health of our skin generally and prevents attack by unwanted bacteria, viruses and yeasts. Many skin conditions such as spots, acne, boils, psoriasis and eczema are in fact related to an imbalance in our internal microflora or changes in our skin ecology. It is worth noting that although blackheads and white heads may be filled with bacteria, the beneficial bacteria normally present on skin do not cause spots or blemishes.
What Bacteria Do and How They Affect Our Skin
Beneficial bacteria in our guts help breakdown fibre, carbohydrates and fats, extract energy from food, regulate cholesterol, are responsible for producing enzymes and neurotransmitters (such as serotonin), play a part in training and modulating the immune system, and produce antimicrobial agents. They are responsible for activating certain pharmaceutical drugs, including the birth control pill, and apparently, if taking antibiotics the pill can pass through the digestive tract inactivated. Worth noting!
Our microflora are also responsible for vitamin and mineral absorption, including: zinc, essential for skin repair and healing; Vitamin C, which helps strengthen and protect the skin generally; and Vitamin A, which is essential for building and maintaining healthy skin, and helping it fight infection. Bacteria also produce B vitamins and vitamin K2. Interestingly, Acne Rosacea has been linked with vitamin B deficiencies.
Bacteria are also important for the production of progesterone, therefore a deficiency in beneficial bacteria may result in hormonal imbalance. Spots, blemishes or redness apparent on your chin area and also related to your menstrual cycle, may provide an indication of this.
Our microflora are also imperative for detoxification. Not only do they help process toxins, they help maintain regular bowel movements, necessary for the excretion of toxins. If there is insufficient gut bacteria to detoxify there is an extra burden on the liver and skin as these are the two other major detoxifying organs in the body. Therefore, your skin too may become overburdened resulting in various skin conditions. Often, spots along the jaw line can indicate a compromised or over-worked liver.
Symptoms of Bacterial Imbalance
Common symptoms of an internal microbial imbalance include IBS type symptoms, such as diarrhoea or constipation, abdominal bloating, belching, flatulence, nausea, headaches, fatigue and food intolerances, as well as a variety of skin conditions. A yeast overgrowth, for example, can lead to broad ranging and seemingly unrelated symptoms, including fatigue, poor memory, insomnia, anxiety, mood swings, muscle and joint pain, alcohol intolerance and itching skin.
Signs of an imbalance in our skin flora typically include yeast and bacterial infections, spots, acne, dermatitis and wounds that are slow to heal.
Causes of Microbial Imbalance or ‘Dysbiosis’
Generally, our microflora are affected by many factors, including age, environment, lack of enzymes, low stomach acid, not chewing properly, medications including steroids and antibiotics, excessive exercise, stress, nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, toxins, lack of good quality sleep, a diet high in processed foods or low in fibre and 'probiotic' foods, excessive hygiene, and the list goes on. Generally speaking, there is a lack of exposure to beneficial bacteria in everyday life.
Importantly, conventional skin and hair care products disturb our skin ecology as they rob the skin of its natural pH, bacteria and oils that protect it. The use of medicated shampoos ironically can leave the scalp completely susceptible to yeast and bacterial infections, leading to scalp 'dysbiosis' resulting in symptoms such as an itching scalp and dandruff, and a need for frequent washing.
Rebalancing Gut Flora
Start by eliminating processed foods and simple carbohydrates from your diet. That is all white foods including sugar, white rice, white flour, white bread.
Include fermented or cultured foods (otherwise known as 'probiotic foods') into your diet regularly, with each meal if possible. Fermented foods include yoghurt, kefir, cottage cheese, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, umeboshi plums, natto, kombucha (available instore at Content), sourdough bread, Korean kimchi, raw cheese (especially from traditional breeds of cows and goats), lacto-fermented drinks made from grains or fruits, raw vinegar, naturally fermented soy sauce such as Tamari or Shoyu sauce.
Increase fibre rich foods as these are the main energy source for most bacteria and are the most effective way of increasing the levels of anaerobic bacteria. Insoluble fibre foods include ground flaxseed, chia seeds, psyllium and wholegrains.
Increase prebiotic foods such as artichoke, leek, onion, chicory and garlic, as these foods help beneficial bacteria thrive. Polyphenols found in vinegar, blue berries, green tea and dark chocolate (a resounding 'yes!' from Content HQ), can up-regulate beneficial bacteria, including lactobaccillus and bifidobacterium, help suppress pathogenic bacteria and balance the gut generally.
Supplement with a good probiotic. The word probiotic is derived from the Greek ' for life'. A good probitoic can help relieve a wide range of digestive complaints and improve digestion, improve tolerance to dairy and wheat products, enhance your immunity, and last but not least, help in the treatment of numerous skin conditions.
Rebalancing Skin Flora
To enhance and protect our natural skin flora, start by using natural skin care products and shampoos. Try the Aurelia Probiotic Skincare range which fuses organic plant extracts with probiotic technology. And to really increase the diversity of beneficial bacteria and infuse some new life into your skin flora, get gardening, get mucky and get into nature.
It is worth knowing that a stool analysis and various other tests can be conducted which provide a window into your individual microbial profile. With this, a personalised treatment plan can help re-stabalise and rebalance microflora. Stool testing and analysis is conducted with Jennifer Derham, Medical Herbalist and Nutrition Consultant at Content.
Image Credit: Antique Wall Prints