What is the gut-skin axis and how can it help boost your glow?

By Rebecca Dufour Partanen
A model walks Moschinos McDonalds-inspired AW14 runway show

A model walks Moschino's McDonald's-inspired autumn/winter '14 runway show.

Did you know the secret to a perfect glow sits in your gut? Below, experts talk us through the little-known gut-skin axis and why good gut health can lead to lit-from-within skin

So much happens in our gut. We’ve been told that listening to our gut leads to better decisions. When stressed, taking deep breaths down to the belly is recommended to calm our minds. Much of our general well-being stems from our stomachs: most of our immune system is made in the gut, not to mention serotonin – a vital part of our mental well-being as it counteracts the stress hormone cortisol.


But why should we really care about what goes in our gut? Call it gut feeling; we knew we had to dig deeper and let the experts weigh in on why the gut-skin axis should become part of your beauty vocabulary. And one thing is for sure: it is safe to say that skin health could all start in the stomach.

What is the gut-skin axis?

There is ongoing research exploring the possibility of a connection between your gut and the quality of your skin: “The theory is that there is something called the gut-skin axis,” says Hanna Baurén, MSc Nutrition Science from Karolinska Institutet. This would mean that what we eat affects our gut health, which affects our skin health. But it isn’t always clear-cut black and white. A complex area of study, many things can influence the skin – from a lack of sleep to stress. That said, experts are increasingly seeing a connection between inflammation in the gut and skin issues.

In the past, skin imbalances have been associated with gut dysbiosis, a state where there is an imbalance of the gut microbiota explains Baurén. When the gut microbiome falls out of balance and becomes dysbiotic, pro-inflammatory substances can enter the bloodstream. This can affect both general skin health and flare up inflammatory skin conditions.

It is a well-established sentiment that the gut microbiome plays a vital role in managing inflammation in the body. “In many ways, the gut really is the boss of our bodies,” says health and beauty journalist Maria Ahlgren. It impacts not only skin health but also physical and mental health. And so, fuelling our bodies with the right foods is crucial to living a well-balanced life.

How does good gut-health affect your skin?

“The barrier of the skin and gut are surprisingly similar,” Baurén explains. Both our gut and our skin are hosts for microorganisms such as friendly bacteria, fungi and viruses called the microbiota. These species live in symbiosis with us and are crucial for our health. A disruption of the balance of the microbiota can lead to a worsened barrier function, both in the skin and gut, and ultimately lead to other issues.

“When the gut microbiome is weakened, the skin’s defence lines can weaken too, meaning that the skin barrier can’t function optimally,” says Ahlgren. A weak barrier loses its ability to lock moisture in the skin and to protect it against harmful bacteria, irritating pollution particles and allergens. This can trigger inflammation in the skin.After all, we are what we eat.

What foods should you avoid for a healthy gut?

In the case of the microbiome and good gut health, the old idiomatic expression “you are what you eat” rings true. As a nutritionist, Baurén always says that her most important advice is to eat a varied, balanced diet, adding that the food that is good for our health is also good for our skin.

Research also indicates that high-glycemic, sugary foods can worsen inflammatory skin conditions and speed up skin ageing. “I hate demonising foods, but refined sugar is a baddie – the word refined is key here; natural sugars from whole fruits are fine since they come with many skin-friendly nutrients,” explains Ahlgren.

The good news is that there is no need for total restriction, but you should be aware of some healthy alternatives:

  • Opt for naturally sweetened treats.
  • Choose kombucha over sodas.
  • Indulge in dark chocolate instead of highly processed candy.