When you hear the term 'gut health' you can be excused for assuming it is limited to stomach related conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, though we're only now truly understanding how the gut is linked to health concerns in other (and most) parts of the body.
"The link between gut health and the health of the rest of the body actually isn't new, certainly not in naturopathic medicine anyway, but it has been closely scrutinised in allopathic medicine over the past 10 to 15 years," BioCeuticals naturopath Amie Skilton told The Huffington Post Australia.
"It has reached such a groundswell that it is spilling out into mainstream media and everybody now knows that gut health is key, even if they don't quite know how or why."
When we refer to gut health we're not talking about a flat stomach, the fat on our abdomen or having tummy troubles. We're referring to the health of the stomach and intestines in relation to bacteria.
"More and more evidence is accumulating [around the importance of gut health] and so there's now more understanding about how it works, properly, as opposed to just knowing that it is important."
"When we talk about gut health there are obvious gut diseases that come to mind such as IBS, Crohn's disease and Ileocolitis, and they indicate very obviously that something is wrong in the gastrointestinal tract, however not everyone with an inflamed gut necessarily gets gut-related symptoms. For example, damaged lining of the gut often shows up as lactose intolerance," said Skilton.
It was actually Hippocrates who said 'all diseases begin in the gut' and while Skilton says that might be a bit of an overstatement, we're learning now it is pretty close to the truth.
In addition to the term 'gut health' you'll often hear of 'leaky gut', a very common diagnosis. But what is leaky gut?
"Leaky gut is the common term for what is called increased intestinal hyperpermeability. Essentially our gut is supposed to be 'leaky-ish', to allow the absorption of nutrients, however if it is too leaky we start to see an absorption of things from the gut that shouldn't be entering into our body, such as toxic waste byproduct and larger fuel molecules. We are all born with leaky gut but the colostrum in our mother's breast milk seals that up. So if we take care of our gut, and live a perfect organic stress free life it would be fine. That's not realistic, so we often need to restore the integrity of the gut," Skilton said.
Specifically touching on the topic of skin, Skilton often sees patients in her clinic who have tried topical treatments for their dermal concerns, to no avail.
An inflamed gut is going to have trouble absorbing all of the good stuff our skin needs such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
"If someone with a skin condition such as eczema, psoriasis or acne has been to a dermatologist and have tried treating the problem with traditional topical or oral medication and it either didn't work or it came back after they come of the medication, then there's clearly a deeper source of the problem that needs to be identified," Skilton said.
"The next step would be to see a doctor who specialises in gut health, and the type of tests that should be run would be ones that check for leaky gut, tests that look for pathogens in the gut such as parasites or an overgrowth of undesirable bacteria. Low stomach acid production can also have an impact. From there the patient might need to undergo a gut repair and regeneration program to look to tackle those gut problems."
Skilton, who is currently travelling around Australia lecturing on the link between gut health and skin health, explains that the way that the gut directly links to the skin is a three pronged.
"Firstly, an inflamed gut is going to have trouble absorbing all of the good stuff our skin needs such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. If your gut is not in tip-top shape you're unlikely to be getting all the nutrients you need for your skin to look fabulous," Skilton said.
The second key part is what the gut keeps out.
"All of the bacteria and metabolic byproducts that is produced and also the toxins our liver is excreting is excreted via the bile in the gut, so the gut needs to keep that from being reabsorbed into the system. If it does get reabsorbed -- this is what happens when the gut is not healthy -- it clogs up our own sewer system which is our lymphatic system, which then spews out through the skin. This is especially the case with acne but also with eczema and psoriasis to a degree."
"The third and final link between the gut and the skin is to do with our immune system. Most of our immune system sits within our gut, and the walls of the gut are only one cell thick. That's because so much of what our immune system has to deal with comes via our gut. Not through our lungs, not through our skin, but through our gut. The majority of the army that is our immune system is sitting there behind that really feeble gut wall, to make sure that nothing comes in that shouldn't, and if there's things going on in the gut which is inflaming it, it tells the immune system which trigger other inflammation in the body, and that can include the skin. This can present as a flare up of eczema, or psoriasis or a breakout of acne, or worsening of acne," Skilton said.
So, your pimples or flakey skin might be due to a less-than-perfect gut. Now what?
"As far as supplements to repair the gut go, you have to feed the gut itself and give it what it needs to heal. Colostrum, from a cow in this case, is amazing at instantly sealing the gut. It is taken in powder, chewable tablet or capsule form. Powder is the most effective at coating the whole gut."
"The other major ingredient for strengthening the gut is glutamine. It's an amino acid that is easily found in food, but not at the levels we need to repair a broken barrier. Glutamine is to our gut cells what petrol is to our car. It's the fuel that those cells feed themselves with, so it's important."
"The other things that can help are things that will calm and sooth an irritated gut such herbs like marshmallow, licorice, aloe vera, inner leaf gel, slippery elm and pectin. These are nourishing and soothing and act like a band-aid for your insides to help it heal," Skilton said.
"Beyond those, when the gut barrier is healthy it secretes its own mucosal defence which is a mucusy substance that acts like a chemical barrier. To put that back you require key nutrients such as omega fatty acids from fish, vitamin D and A, zinc, and a specific type of pro-biotic called saccharomyces boulardii. That's the most powerful pro-biotic we know of that when we take it it stimulates to reproduce that mucosal barrier."
Skilton says to ensure your pro-biotic contains bacteria for the small intestine and the large intestine as well. As a rule, anything with 'laco' in front of it is for the small intestine and bifidobacterium are for the large intestine.
Lastly, an overall healthy diet and lifestyle is paramount for a healthy gut and therefore healthy skin.
The absolute key thing people need to be mindful of to make sure they are feeding their gut's bacteria is getting enough good fibre.
"Diet wise things like yogurt, kombucha or kefir or sauerkraut are all awesome when it comes to maintaining a healthy gut once it's there," Skilton said.
"The absolute key thing people need to be mindful of to make sure they are feeding their gut's bacteria is getting enough good fibre. The recommended daily intake for fibre is between 15-30 grams a day, but most Australians only get around 10 grams of fibre a day. Its really not difficult, it's as easy as eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Even tinned and frozen are okay, just make sure you get lots of fruits and veggies in your diet."
Drinking enough water is also very important, and Skilton emphasises that things that aren't great for the gut are sugar, alcohol, and then lower down the ranks are coffee, tea, artificial sweeteners, colours and flavours.
"The other two factors that people probably don't realise are important to good gut health are stress and sleep. When we're are stressed out caveman 'flight or fight' response kicks in and the adrenaline diverts a lot of our oxygen and blood to the heart, lungs, eyes and muscles, and away from digestion. Because people live in a constant state of stress, where only the degree varies, this means we're not producing enough stomach acid and we are chewing too quickly. Trying to turn off the TV, laptop or radio when you eat and being mindful when we consume food will go a long way to improving digestion," Skilton said.
"Sleep is so important because all of our organs and tissue repairs and regenerates at night, and our gut is exactly the same. This is the reason that if you have several nights of bad sleep or you're jet lagged, you might experience fogginess, headaches and a sensitive stomach, and that's because the toxins are able to leak through the gut barrier when it's compromised," Skilton said.