Can Probiotics Really Help Improve Your Acne?
The search for the cure for acne has driven sufferers, doctors and dermatologists searching high and low for answers. What causes acne and what can cure it are the two ends to the same question that people have been asking for decades. The answer, however, is elusive and seems to be far more complex than even the most brilliant minds have been able to grasp.
Some believe that the cause and cure have less to do with the skin itself, and more to do with the overall health of an individual. As such, it is believed that the secret to acne lies beyond the skin, deep in the inner workings of your body, namely your gut, digestive system and intestinal flora. If this is the case, could probiotics be the cure for acne? In this article, we explore this topic further.
How Gut Health Is Related To The Health Of Your Skin
The human body is one complex organism comprised of several systems made up of organs that work together to perform functions that make being human possible. Your skin is just one organ in this amazing system of organs, and its health is directly affected by the health and state of the other organs in your body. In order to sustain ourselves, we need to consume foods and liquids that replenish and feed these organs, and in order for us to turn food and liquid into building materials for our bodies, our guts and digestive systems have to go to work.
No matter how carefully we eat, we’re bound to ingest harmful bacteria and substances that could wreak havoc on our bodies, but thanks to our digestive systems, we manage to survive. In our stomachs and intestinal systems, acid, bile and enzymes work together to destroy harmful microorganisms, break down proteins and fats and eliminate waste products from our system so that our bloodstreams absorb nothing but the good stuff. Our bodies produce antibodies to catch and attack pathogens and antigens that enter our system, preventing us from becoming sick or dying.
Since most of the harmful bacteria that enter our systems accompanies most of the things we consume, it is the mucosal lining of your gut and your gut flora – beneficial bacteria – that do the bulk of work to rid your body of harmful toxins, substances, and bacteria. So, what happens if your gut health starts to fail or has a serious problem?
Well, if your gut stops working properly, it means that harmful substances in the body won’t properly be destroyed and eliminated from your system. It means that lipids and proteins wouldn’t be broken down the way it needs to be for it to enter your bloodstream in a way that isn’t harmful. It means that your digestive system wouldn’t be able to protect the rest of your organs from being attacked by the antigens and pathogens that have entered your system. One by one, your other organs would start to feel the effects of your unhealthy gut, and that includes your skin1.
Intestinal (Gut) Flora And Why It Matters
As complex as your human body already is, it may surprise you to learn that only 10% of your body is actually human. 90% of what makes up the human body are actually microbial cells, like bacteria and fungi, however, these cells are much, much smaller in comparison to our human cells, which is why we appear (mostly) human. This is actually a huge part of the reason why humans are considered complex organisms; we’re actually composed of many, many organisms2 and systems that work together for the purpose of survival – you can thank evolution for that.
In your gut alone, your intestinal bacteria accounts for about 3 – 5 pounds of your total body weight, made up of trillions of bacterial cells and organisms and referred to as gut microbiota. These good bacteria act like the microbial army that attacks and destroys harmful bacteria, bugs, allergens and undigested substances in your stomach, essentially being a necessary aid for the digestive system.
In fact, gut flora is responsible for many of the functions in your digestive system, such as:
- Helping your body absorb more water
- Dealing with the carbs, fibers, sugars and starchy substances that the body doesn’t have the functions to break down
- Making your colon uninhabitable for harmful bacteria
- Helping healthy gut cells grow
- Assisting in making pathogens and antigens easier for your immune system to recognize and deal the appropriate response
- Repairing and preventing damage to your gut mucosa by stimulating the production of necessary proteins
- Preventing unnecessary allergic reactions
- Synthesizing vitamins like B vitamins, biotin, K2 and folate and helping to absorb minerals like iron, magnesium, and calcium
- Breaking down carcinogenic material found in the foods we eat
- Reducing the chances of system-wide inflammation (which directly affects skin problems like acne)
- As you can see, without healthy gut flora, there is a lot that our systems wouldn’t be able to do. But many people in modern society are suffering from a diminished population of gut flora, which results in a lot of health problems, even those that may seem unrelated. Some of these problems are leaky gut, allergies, malnourishment, tumors, mood disorders, inflammation and other chronic diseases, to name a few.
What Happens When Your Gut Flora Goes Bad
Now that you’ve just learned a bit about what gut flora does to help your body, it should be a bit obvious what could happen when your gut flora can’t do its job.
First of all, bad bacteria grows rampantly in your body and spreads to your intestines, which have far less resistance to these harmful substances than your stomach itself. Impaired gut flora can lead to something called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), which is exactly what it sounds like: your small intestines becoming overridden with bad bacteria, like E. coli. This causes problems like diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea and the increasingly common leaky gut.
Leaky gut is caused by food particles, that are not broken down and digested, and pathogens entering your intestines. Since the mucosal wall of your intestines becomes damaged by SIBO, these particles and pathogens are now able to enter your bloodstream directly through the mucosal wall. This is very dangerous; your blood was not designed to have large particles of food in it. As a result, your immune system begins to fight these agents in your blood, leading to things like system-wide inflammation – a huge contributor to acne.
Some dermatologists have even been able to make the connection between low gut flora populations, or unhealthy gut flora, with psychological problems, emotional disorders, seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff), and practically every skin condition that actually exists3.
Treating Your Gut Flora And Improving Gut Health
Since the 1930’s, dermatologists have begun speculating about the possibility that there’s more to acne than just what’s on the surface of your skin. Of course, your skin does have its own set of microbiomes that exist on the surface, and that too plays a role in the health of your skin. But what goes on inside of your body has a greater impact than many people realize, and some dermatologists have been studying this phenomenon for years. Unfortunately, the most common and accepted cures have always pertained to treating the skin directly. While this has worked for many acne sufferers, there have been so many more that continue to struggle with acne despite the best topical and skin-related treatments.
This is where looking at improving the health of your gut flora becomes necessary.
So, how does one go about treating their gut flora for better health and clear skin?
The answer is probiotics, not to be confused with prebiotics.
Probiotics are bacteria that facilitate digestion and healthy guts. It is the good bacteria. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are the foods that feed the bacteria in your gut, like cruciferous vegetables. Essentially, you should take prebiotics when your gut flora is healthy. If your gut flora is impaired, however, then prebiotics will only help the bad bacteria multiply. So, for now, we’re going to focus on probiotics only.
Probiotics For Optimal Health
In 1961, Dr. Robert Siver studied 300 patients who were prescribed a commercial form of Lactobacilli, a type of bacteria that feeds on sugars in the body, mainly lactose. Of the group, 300% of them showed a significant improvement in their acne. This was a huge indicator of the gut health – skin health relationship4, that unfortunately wasn’t more widely adopted at the time. However, subsequent studies in the 80’s and early 2010 also showed the same results, confirming the connection between probiotic treatments and improved skin.
The main takeaway here is that when your good bacteria thrive, your bad bacteria don’t have the chance to make you sick by infecting your other organs.
Here is a quick list of the benefits of probiotics that directly affect the skin and acne:
- Reduces skin inflammation caused by a reactive immune system
- Reduces triggers of inflammation and oxidative stress (such as from heavy smoking as one study suggests)
- Reduces IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor one). This is a substance similar to a hormone that causes acne, inflammation and sebum production
- Mitigates food allergies, which are often a cause of acne
- Assists the absorption of nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that are essential to the skin
- Strengthens immune responses against pathogens that are harmful to the gut and skin
- Assists in increasing intestinal motility and the ability to absorb water
- Helps to regulate blood-sugar levels
- Repairs and prevents damage to intestinal mucosal wall, thereby curing leaky gut
- Reduces acne lesions
- Reduces chronic psychological stress and mitigates the damages caused by such stress, which is a trigger for various skin conditions and diseases
There are many more benefits to taking probiotics, but these are the ones that pertain most to acne and debilitating skin conditions.
How To Get And Take Probiotics
If you delve more deeply into the world of probiotics, you will discover that there are thousands of strains that exist, and new ones are being discovered daily. This is important to note, as your gut flora is made up of many, many different strains of beneficial bacteria and the combination of these bacteria vary with each individual.
Each person’s microbiome makeup is just as unique as they are, and so different strains of bacteria have varying amounts of benefit depending on the genes and health of the person taking them. However, there are a few bacteria that seem to work well for the majority of people, such as Lactobacillus, or common form of it: L. acidophilus. This particular strain of bacteria is great for helping with the digestion of food5, lowering your colon’s PH, and making it uninhabitable for pathogenic bacteria.
Probiotics In The Pill-Form
There are two main ways to take probiotics. The first is in the form of a pill and recommended if you have been recently sick and on antibiotics. Antibiotics kill off much of the bacteria in your body in an attempt to rid it of harmful bacteria and pathogens that are making you sick. However, antibiotics often kill the good bacteria as well, and so it is extremely important to replenish your body’s good bacteria as soon as you are able too.
Three popular forms of probiotic pills you can take are:
- Primal Defense Ultra by Garden of Life: It contains several strains of bacteria including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
- AOR Probiotic-3: It contains Streptococcus, Clostridium, and Bacillus, among many other bacteria but does not contain lactobacillus. Some recommend you take this with Primal Defense for a complete treatment of antibiotics.
- Prescript Assist: This one claims up to 1229 different symbiotic strains in its formula blend. It also contains prebiotics.
Please take note, however, that there is a downside to taking probiotics in the pill-form. For probiotics to work, the bacteria need to be alive and capable of doing its job. The pill form boasts these bacteria harnessed in the form of a pill, but that does not guarantee the bacteria will be alive. Pills are expensive and can risk being useless, given the conditions they were exposed to prior to you acquiring them. The length of time the pills have been sitting on the shelf, the temperatures the bottle was subjected too and the conditions it was exposed to during manufacturing, bottling and shipping all play a role in how alive and well the bacteria will be by the time you ingest them.
Probiotics From Food
The other way to get your probiotic intake is to take them in the form of food. This method is not only cheaper, but it is also a more guaranteed way to consume bacteria that is still living.
When most people think of probiotics in the form of food, minds almost immediately jump to items such as probiotic yogurt like Activia. However, these conventional yogurts only contain 1 or 2 strains of lactobacillus, but not much else. To truly reestablish the health of your flora, you should intake foods that offer a variety of bacterial strange, such as fermented foods.
Four common foods that are great for probiotic intake are:
- Pickled vegetables or lacto-fermented vegetables: These could be any kind of vegetables, such as cabbage, carrots, eggplant, turnips, cucumbers, squash, onions, etc. Beware, however, that not every kind of pickled food has live bacteria. The ones that contain living bacteria will be kept in the refrigerated section of the store, with the packaging labeled “live.” The other way to guarantee that your pickled foods have live bacteria is to buy it directly from the farmer’s market or another homemade source. Similarly, you can just as easily make your own pickled vegetables at home and letting it sit for a few days to let the bacteria develop. Some doctors agree that fermented vegetables are the most economical and guaranteed route to optimal gut flora health.
- Kimchi: This is another form of fermented vegetables with health functionality6, originally started by the Korean. Kimchi is a spicy and intensely flavored form of fermented vegetables that can become very addictive once you get used to the flavor. When buying kimchi from the grocery store, look for packaging that looks like it’s bulging and ready to explode open. This is a sign that the bacteria is very much alive and producing gases as it continues to ferment the vegetables.
- Raw, fermented milk: Unlike common dairy products that you find in the grocery store, raw milk is not pasteurized. Pasteurized milk is milk that has been refined and purified for the commercial market, but the process kills off the beneficial bacteria that your gut needs to be healthy. Pasteurized milk also has more sugar than raw milk and has been linked to many health problems, including allergies, tooth decay, heart disease, arthritis and even osteoporosis. Instead, look for products like kefir, yogurt, and lassi, but this is only recommended for those who can tolerate dairy in the first place. For some, dairy is a cause of acne.
- Kombucha: This drink has been growing increasingly popular lately, thanks to the viral effect of the internet and the growing trend of dietary-awareness. Kombucha is a sweetened tea with fermented bacteria that consumes the sugar in the tea itself. After the bacteria has properly gone to work on the tea, it results in a bubbly, tasty drink that can be drunk straight as it is or flavored a few different ways. It’s best to let the kombucha sit long enough to let the bacteria break down most or all of the sugar before you consume it. Otherwise, your tea will have more sugars, which can be detrimental to your gut health.
The Habits That Could Be Destroying Your Gut Health
So far, you’ve learned about gut health and how it affects or even causes acne, and how you can take probiotics to improve your gut health and ultimately, your skin. But none of that information will mean very much if you continue to do the things that are destroying your gut health in the first place. In order for your new probiotic regimen to work, you’ll need to cut back on the bad habits that are ruining it in the first place.
The truth is, your gut has both good and bad bacteria. Improving the health of your gut flora is about increasing the population of good bacteria so that they can overwhelm and limit the population of the bad bacteria. An unhealthy gut generally has an imbalance of bacteria caused by lifestyle habits and practices7 that demolish the population of good bacteria. To make sure that the probiotic bacteria have a chance to repopulate your gut, you need to identify how you are destroying it and helping the bad bacteria grow.
These are the following ways that you could be ruining your gut health or sabotaging your new probiotic routine:
- Eating too much sugar, especially fructose
- Consuming refined grains like white flour with fortified iron, which actually can make a great deal of trouble for your gut
- Vegetable oils
- Processed foods and snacks like sliced cheese, cheese paste (think Cheese Whiz), commercial hot dogs, etc.
- Pesticides and chemicals found in foods
- Water with chlorine or fluoride
- Antibiotics and commercial livestock that are fed antibiotics
- Antibacterial soaps and cleansing agents
The alarming thing about the items on the above list is the reality that these are things we come into contact with every single day. Due to the commercialization of the food industry, it can be difficult to find foods that aren’t loaded with sugars, vegetable oils, refined grains, pesticides or processed and refined in some way, shape or form.
On top of that, with all the pollution and contaminants in the environment, it can seem impossible not to ingest or come into contact with them. In the attempt to keep ourselves clean and free from these contaminants, it can be tempting to want to use antibacterial soaps and cleansers to stay healthy. Finally, with public water systems that feature recycled and reused water, it is unavoidable that there will be purifying agents like chlorine and fluoride in many common water sources.
The point is, these gut-destroying habits are so much a part of modern life for many, and as such, it can be difficult to avoid. However, the first step to making significant change is to become aware of what is going wrong, which is what this list should help you do. Your best bet is to minimize exposure as much as possible, wherever possible. Remember, all these habits work against your probiotic treatments and one-time approaches won’t go a long way toward sustaining a long-term cure. You must be willing to make some lifestyle changes.
The Holistic Approach To Skin Care
It may seem unconventional to treat your gut in an attempt to get clearer skin, but when you think of the body as a total system of organs that work together, it all starts to make sense. The body is, in fact, one unified organism made up of many organisms, as described earlier. Just like the cogs in a mighty machine, when one stops working or gets blocked up, eventually all the cogs around it will grind to a halt and fail to work, too. That’s exactly how connected the systems in your body are.
When it comes to illnesses, they all have to start somewhere, but most of the time, they don’t start where the symptoms show up. In the case of many sicknesses, it comes down to what we expose ourselves to and what we consume. Our gut health is generally the first place that has a problem before we start to develop problems in other organs. In fact, when harmful substances enter our system, it generally is encountered by our stomachs first, then our guts, blood, brain and then the other organs. Our skin is one of the last places that symptoms actually show up, and when it does, it’s a sign that something is going terribly wrong at the core of your health, which generally lies in your stomach and gut.
Think about it. A problem like diabetes occurs after the digestive system comes into contact with more sugar than your body can process. Heart diseases are often the result of high cholesterol levels and carcinogenic materials in the food. Even cancer is allowed to grow in a body with low alkaline levels due to poor diet. Many of our health problems come from poor gut health and poor diet.
That’s why a holistic approach to health is the best way to have beautiful clear skin and optimally functioning organs. Attacking your skin directly isn’t necessarily the best way to deal with acne. Instead, taking care of your entire body will give you the best results. That means, not only do you need to watch what you put into your body, but you need to watch how you take care of it, too.
Sleeping, exercising, and reducing stress are all crucial elements to practicing holistic health, and all play a significant role in the health of your skin8.
So, Does This Mean You Shouldn’t Treat Your Skin Directly?
As previously described, the absolute best way to get clear skin is to treat your skin as part of the amazing network of systems that it belongs to, i.e. taking the holistic approach to health. Does this mean that you shouldn’t try to treat your skin directly?
The answer is both yes and no.
In some cases, acne is caused by external factors like contact with contaminants and bacteria. In such cases, it is necessary to treat the microbiome situation on the surface of your skin. As stated earlier, your skin also has a collection of good and bad bacteria that make it function the way it does. That’s why some doctors recommend using topical probiotics to treat skin on the surface.
For everyday pimples, like whitehead and blackheads, these are usually caused by a buildup of dirt, oil, and bacteria on the skin. For these, probiotics aren’t all that necessary, however, they can still aid in balancing skin health.
For deeper and more complex acne problems, such as cystic acne, a topical probiotic may be helpful. But since it is topical, there is no guarantee that this will have the same, long-lasting effect that oral probiotics can provide. Topicals have to be reapplied and can only penetrate the skin to a certain extent. Much of our skin health is related to what is secreted from the pores itself, including sebum and other substances that help to feed the bacteria on the skin’s surface and promote the growth of healthy hair follicles.
That’s why, if you are inclined to use a topical probiotic, you may find that the benefit is even greater if you use it in conjunction with oral probiotics.
As for other acne-treatments, those may also cure acne for a certain amount of time at best, but if your internal gut health is messed up, you can count on the surface symptoms making a reappearance. If your acne is caused by what’s going into your body, or what’s missing from inside your body, the only way to truly cure it is to treat your internal health issues.
Whether you have acne or not, probiotics are a crucial part of optimal health. The health of your gut will determine the overall quality of health9 in all of your organs. When you see a problem arise in certain parts of your body, like your skin, it’s usually a sign that something is wrong at the core of your health. Just like when ridding your garden of weeds, the only way to cure the problem is to get to the root of it. In this case, a healthy gut means healthy skin. It’s rare to find someone who has perfect gut health and skin-related problems because they really do go hand in hand.
Key Learning Points:
- Your gut has 70% of your immune cells and is responsible for processing most of the bacteria, bugs, pathogens and other substances that enter your system.
- You gut flora aids your internal processing of these substances to rid your body of harmful toxins, pathogens and particles that can leach into your bloodstream and make you sick.
- When your gut isn’t healthy, it leads to problems in other areas of your body. As a result, acne is usually a symptom of something going wrong with your gut health.
- When your gut flora is impaired, it gives room for bad bacteria to multiply and wreak havoc in your body.
- To improve gut health, you need to replenish gut flora. You can do that by taking probiotics.
- Probiotics can be taken in the form of a pill or through foods that are fermented. Foods are the most economical and guaranteed way to improve probiotic intake.
- Modern life has set us up to destroy our gut health. Being wary of these pitfalls and making lifestyle changes are necessary to improving gut health and, ultimately, acne.
- The best way to deal with acne is through a holistic approach. Improve overall health and acne will improve. You can still treat your skin topically, but for best results, accompany topical treatments with oral probiotics.
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- Kober M.M., Bowe W.P. The effect of probiotics on immune regulation, acne, and photoaging. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. 2015;1(2):85-89.
- Sivieri K., Villareal Morales M.L., Tallarico Adorno M.A., Sakamoto I.K., Isay Saad S.M., Rossi E.A. Lactobacillus acidophilus CRL 1014 improved “gut health” in the SHIME®
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- Park K.Y., Jeong J.K., Lee Y.E., Daily J.W. 3rd. Health benefits of kimchi (Korean fermented vegetables) as a probiotic food. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2014;17(1):6-20.
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