So You've Heard Of "Leaky Gut," But What About "Leaky Skin"? A Derm Explains
Quick recap: When you have "leaky gut," the walls of your intestines are injured, which allows irritants, microbes, and undigested food particles to "leak" into the bloodstream. From there, the immune system often marks them as foreign invaders and attacks (which can lead to painful digestive conditions). This we know, and while it's not yet a widely recognized medical condition, the term has been used a lot more lately by integrative and functional nutrition experts alike.
But did you know you can face "leaky skin" as well? According to board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., the process happens in a similar fashion to a leaky gut—when your skin barrier becomes compromised, the skin is less able to trap moisture and keep allergens, pollutants, and irritants from seeping in. "When they penetrate through the skin, they trigger inflammation, and they make things like acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasi worse," she shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
Not a fun situation in the slightest, but there are ways to help manage your leaky skin and strengthen the barrier. Below, Bowe weighs in.
What causes leaky skin?
Before diving into how to help leaky skin, you should know what habits actually exacerbate the issue. As it turns out, leaky skin stems from a compromised skin barrier; just as how the walls of your gut can become more permeable, irritants can sneak into your skin barrier when it's injured (The result? Leaky skin). Put it this way: Your skin barrier is like the "bricks and mortar" of your skin, the foundation that keeps allergens from getting inside and moisture from seeping out. You want to keep this barrier sturdy and strong, but here's what makes it permeable:
- Stress: Stress causes an uptick in cortisol, and "when we have too much cortisol, that's going to dial down our skin's production of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and lipids," says Bowe (all good things for the skin barrier). When all of these substances decline, the dermal layer can actually thin out over time. "It impairs wound healing," Bowe adds. "That has tremendous consequences for the health of the skin, and when our skin doesn't make enough liquid, that compromises the skin barrier."
- Foods: Just as pro-inflammatory foods can kick-start a leaky gut, the foods you eat can affect your skin barrier as well. Bowe says that high glycemic-index foods, like refined carbs and sugars, can actually degrade collagen. "It leads to a spike in blood sugar, which leads to a process called glycation, where the sugar actually binds to the collagen—the elastic fibers in our skin—and targets them for destruction."
- Overdoing the skin care: Look, skin care routines are wonderful, but Bowe says those with leaky skin might be doing far too much. Specifically when it comes to cleansing and exfoliating: "Stop over-cleansing, over-exfoliating, and stop throwing the kitchen sink at your skin," she notes. That doesn't mean you shouldn't cleanse or exfoliate your skin at all, but there's a very fine balance that tips the scale for your skin barrier (more in a moment).
How can you help leaky skin?
If you think you may have leaky skin (which can manifest as dehydration, inflammation, acne, etc.), there are some ways to help seal your skin barrier. Take a gander:
- Sleep: Beauty sleep is very much real. "[When the] quality or the quantity of your sleep is compromised, especially over time, that's registered by the body and by the brain as stress," she says. (Remember when we said stress disrupts collagen production?) That said, focusing on good, quality sleep is key.
- Skin-healthy nutrients: Again, just as those with leaky gut want to eat gut-healthy foods, skin-healthy nutrients are a must. Most of these are the same gut-healthy selects anyway: Bowe touts healthy fats and prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods for skin health. "Those are amazing for the skin, as for the gut," she notes. See here for a more robust skin-supporting menu.
- Giving your skin a break: To create a skin barrier-supporting routine, Bowe suggests a delicate balance of pushing your skin and then letting it recover. It's similar to working out—after heavy lifting or blasts of cardio, your muscles need a rest day to recover. Same goes for your skin: Use a hardworking exfoliator (like glycolic acid), but then "give yourself nights when you're just using nourishing, wonderful, hydrating ingredients," says Bowe. "Things like prebiotics, jojoba oil, sunflower seed oil, glycerin, hyaluronic acid—ingredients that are going to nourish the skin, repair the barrier, and replenish the microbiome."
Much like how you can optimize gut health to manage a leaky gut, you can tend to your skin barrier to keep leaky skin at bay. It's not so difficult to manage, and your skin will reward you with a glowing complexion.
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