“A problem in your bowels will eventually create jowls,” says naturopathic doctor, Nigma Talib who, in her practice of treating a wide variety of chronic health conditions, noticed a correlation between gut health and skin health. “I realized that all of the evidence was pointing to one thing behind premature aging and that was poor digestive function,” explains the celebrity naturopathic doctor who counts Stella McCartney, Penelope Cruz, Sienna Miller, Kate Bosworth, Rose Huntington Whitley, Charlotte Tilbury and Jeremy Pivenamong her devoted fans.
Whether you’re male or female, “if your digestive system is not performing its waste-removing duties, then it’s pushing that job off to other organs like your skin which is the largest organ in the body,” concurs lawyer-turned-food-healer, Stacey Isaacs, creator of Kitchen of Youth. “And you don’t want your skin to be performing the elimination duties because then you end up with rosacea, acne, cloudy skin, all kinds of problems.” In addition, toxins that pass through the structural layers of the skin can damage collagen and elastin fibers, leading to a loss of firmness and wrinkles reveals Dr. Talib in her book, Younger Skin Starts in the Gut.
It’s all about maintaining the right balance of good bacteria vs. bad bacteria that populate the gut, i.e. the digestive tract which starts at the mouth and includes the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, liver, gallbladder and colon. Otherwise known as the microbiome, this bacteria — about 100 trillion in all, outnumbering the body’s cells 10 to 1 — undertakes a vast array of duties. In addition to digesting our food, it produces vitamins, regulates our immune system and protects us against disease-causing counterparts. And that’s not all. “Your gut is your second brain,” informs Dr. Talib. “It contains an estimated 500 million neurons and releases at least 40 different neurotransmitters [including] 95% of the body’s serotonin [the mood-regulating hormone].”
In other words, even those who don’t suffer from any digestive issues would benefit from a bacteria-balancing diet. “The gut and the mind are connected and it will help people with skin issues including eczema and other dermatitis, brain health and anxiety,” says Dr. Talib. “[It will] reduce inflammation [thereby reducing aches and pains], it is good for your skin, it will boost your energy, and you can more easily keep illnesses under control. It even benefits sleep and mood!” adds Ms. Isaacs.
So, how to achieve peak gut health, thereby optimizing one’s complexion (and perhaps overall health) in the process? Both specialists adamantly maintain that several foods must be eliminated from the diet, namely gluten, dairy, alcohol and sugar. Dr. Talib, relying on face-mapping techniques used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, has even identified the visible symptoms of what she refers to as “digest-aging”: “gluten face,” “dairy face,” “wine face,” and “sugar face.”
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, spelt and barley. While it is imperative for sufferers of celiac disease (an auto-immune disorder) to avoid gluten-based products, “gluten is bad for everybody,” says Ms. Isaacs. Even if one doesn’t have non-celiac gluten sensitivity — something affecting six times more people than celiac disease — it should be avoided because it does cause inflammation in everyone, according to the chef. This can leave the face looking bloated and puffy. And, as a result of its disruptive effect on the balance of reproductive hormones, gluten can also affect the pigmentation of the skin, leading to age spots and darker patches on the chin. “I don’t care how many supplements you take, how many peels you have or what you get from a dermatologist to fix your skin,” declares Dr. Talib. “If you have symptoms of Gluten Face, nothing will make your skin look as good as it can, except removing gluten from your diet.”ng>
Treatment: Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, spelt and barley. While it is imperative for sufferers of celiac disease (an auto-immune disorder) to avoid gluten-based products, “gluten is bad for everybody,” says Ms. Isaacs. Even if one doesn’t have non-celiac gluten sensitivity — something affecting six times more people than celiac disease — it should be avoided because it does cause inflammation in everyone, according to the chef. This can leave the face looking bloated and puffy. And, as a result of its disruptive effect on the balance of reproductive hormones, gluten can also affect the pigmentation of the skin, leading to age spots and darker patches on the chin. “I don’t care how many supplements you take, how many peels you have or what you get from a dermatologist to fix your skin,” declares Dr. Talib. “If you have symptoms of Gluten Face, nothing will make your skin look as good as it can, except removing gluten from your diet.”
If you suspect having an intolerance to gluten, both experts advocate going off grains for four weeks and then adding them back in one at a time to see which ones cause an intolerance. “Usually you can find a couple that you can tolerate well, that don’t cause any digestive issues because that’s where an intolerance shows up first,” says Ms. Isaacs.
“Dairy is just bad as gluten,” stresses Ms. Isaacs. That’s because humans were not meant to consume dairy like animals, she continues. That’s why breast milk is different from cow’s milk and goat’s milk. “Our make ups are different. Humans are the only species that consume the milk of another animal and the only species that intentionally drink milk past childhood,” concurs Dr. Talib. “It’s therefore not surprising that we find it hard to tolerate and that it can have untoward effects in the body.”
Sugar and protein are the two main substances in dairy that cause people to have adverse reactions. It is the latter that is more problematic if you have Dairy Face, according to Dr. Talib. That’s because the proteins in milk are more likely to cause an inflammatory response. In addition, the consumption of dairy has been linked to acne possibly because hormones in milk trigger an overgrowth of skin cells that block pores, subsequently trapping bacteria that causes acne, as Dr. Talib explains in her book.
“If we take cheese [which is derived from milk] out of somebody’s diet who has acne, the acne goes away almost always,” says Ms. Isaacs. “Some people have cystic acne and that’s different, but people who just break out all the time — if you remove the cheese and the milk from their diet for four weeks — their skin clears up.” Symptoms of Dairy Face include swollen eyelids, under-eye bags and dark circles, acne and blemishes.
Treatment: Replace cow’s milk with unsweetened nut and seed milks such as almond, cashew or coconut milk. As for good dairy-free alternatives to cheese and yogurt, Ms. Isaacs gives the lowdown: “There are so many good non-dairy yogurts out there now. There’s a brand called Forager that makes a cashew yogurt that tastes just like regular yogurt. You can’t even tell and there’s a coconut milk yogurt that tastes like whipped cream that’s unbelievable by a small company in Brooklyn called Anita’s. They sell them at Whole Foods and at much more mainstream places.”
When it comes to replenishing calcium, alternative sources of calcium include fish with soft bones like anchovies and sardines, vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and kale, legumes, nuts and seeds like almonds and sunflower seeds and fruit such as figs and rhubarb. There are over 20 plant-based foods that contain calcium reveals Dr. Talib.
“Sugar is bad, almost like a poison,” says Ms. Isaacs. It causes an addiction in the brain for more sweets and it also causes inflammation, a fundamental cause of aging. And sugar substitutes, she adds, are even worse as they contain bleach. There’s only one Ms. Isaacs favors and that’s Stevia because “it doesn’t mess you up.”
Dr. Talib is in agreement. “Sugar is extremely toxic,” she says. In addition to triggering inflammation, it also triggers glycation. Glycation is a process by which excess glucose (which is what sugar turns to in the body to provide fuel) attaches itself to collagen, the protein the keeps skin firm. This makes collagen fibers harden, rendering them rigid and inflexible. And that causes skin to sag and lines and wrinkles to appear. Furthermore, sugar also reduces the microcirculation to the skin, compromising cell turnover and even affecting fat distribution on the skin. “After a while, people who eat a lot of sugar get a gaunt look because their face loses the fat the keeps it looking plump,” explains Dr. Talib in her book. In short, “sugar equals sagging.”
Adding a cautionary note, Ms. Isaacs warns that during digestion, grains are turned to glucose too. So, “if you’re trying to eliminate grains from your diet, you also have to eliminate sugar because it triggers in the sweet center in your brain the need for more. You have to go cold turkey.”
Sugar Face is characterized by, among other things, thinning skin, sagging under the eyes, a gaunt look to the face and pustular acne.
Treatment: To reduce sugar cravings, increase your protein intake advises Dr. Talib. Every meal should have a portion of protein like meat, fish, eggs or legumes. And don’t shy away from fat. Ms. Isaacs is a big fan of avocado, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil recommending “a big glug of olive oil on top of everything because you need the healthy fats to feed your skin and to keep your digestion moving.”
For starters, alcohol dehydrates the skin. This exacerbates fine lines and wrinkles, including the nasolabial folds. Alcohol is also high in sugar, causing skin to sag as explained above, particulalry around the eyes. Darkness under the eyes, according to Dr. Talib, is a sign in Traditional Chinese Medicine that the kidneys are overloaded.
“Alcohol is an irritant,” adds Miss Isaacs. “It irritates your digestive system and it makes it not perform optimally. For some people, it slows it and for some people it speeds it and people end up with diarrhea or constipation. It depends. But either way, you’re messing with your microbiome which is one of the things in your body that can get cleared up so quickly. In three or four weeks we can get people under control.”
Characterisitics of Dr. Talib’s “Wine Face” (which can be triggered by any kind of alcohol) include pronounced fine lines and wrinkles under the eyes, deep nasolabial folds, feathery lines across the cheeks and pronounced lines between the brows.
Treatment: Like Miss Isaacs, Dr. Talib recommends taking a three-week break from alcohol. Then, Dr. Talib likes to follow the 80/20 rule: abstain for 80 percent of the time — at least four days a week — so you can enjoy moderate amounts the other 20 percent. Gluten-free spirits such as rum, tequila, or quinoa- or potato-based vodka are preferable to gluten-based alcohol. Red wine is preferable to white wine as it contains higher amounts of beneficial magnesium, antioxidants and resveratrol. And make sure to drink plenty of water — at least one glass of water for every glass of alcohol advises Dr. Talib.
Now, you may be reading this thinking “Wait a minute, these are all the things that make life worth living! There’s no way I am giving up my Chardonnay and chocolate, pizza and pint of pistachio ice cream.” Is there a less drastic way of testing the waters without complete abstinence?
The good news is that, as Dr. Talib points out, the skin is a very responsive organ. It regenerates approximately every 28 days, so by eliminating the main gut damagers, you will start to see a difference quickly. For the best results, Dr. Talib recommends cutting out whatever food substance is irritating the skin for 28 days, before carrying on with the 80/20 rule. With sugar, even if you just cut your intake in half and gradually wean yourself off sugar, you will notice rapid improvements in your complexion. You can also just remove one food at a time. “But cutting it all out slowly but surely will give you golden results,” she says.
“Plenty of people come to me for problems unrelated to digestion,” says Ms. Isaacs. “I have worked with people who want to increase their athletic performance, decrease their anxiety, improve their mood, boost their immune system, etc. and we do that with food and herbs too. That being said, almost always, some things do have to be eliminated, but perhaps not entire food groups.” Rest assured that if you do choose to consult Ms. Isaacs and follow her eight-week program, she will hold your hand the entire way.
But, it’s not all about subtraction. For both experts, there are some crucial additions to the diet:
1. Healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and wild salmon to help maintain healthy cell membranes and healthy levels of moisture in the body. Fish doesn’t have to be organic, says Ms. Isaacs, but it has to be wild.
2. Take a probiotic supplement to help restore good levels of bacteria in the system. “Almost every one of my clients I put on probiotics – almost everyone,” says Ms. Isaacs. “Years and years ago, you didn’t need them because our food wasn’t messed with so much. Now, because of all the GMOs and all the chemicals and artificial ingredients, there’s no more good bacteria. Everything is dead. So, you have to somehow get that good bacteria back in your gut because that’s what keeps things moving.” In addition, fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles are a very good source of probiotics. They are really good foods to eat if you have acne or eczema advises Dr. Talib. But, warns Ms. Isaacs, you have to read the labels because while pickles, for example, are a great source of probiotics, some of them have a lot of added sugar. And, any product that’s fermented should be organic.
3. Take collagen supplements. It comes in pill and powder form which can be mixed into almost anything. Both Dr. Talib and Ms. Isaacs take collagen every day. Why? It helps preserve the gut lining, preventing leaky gut (aka intestinal permeability), a syndrome that is on the rise. Potential causes include food intolerances and medications such as antibiotics, steroids or over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin and acetaminophen.
Leaky gut occurs when there is damage to the intestinal lining. This results in toxins and undigested food particles leaking into the circulatory system. Not only does this cause malabsorption of nutrients, but it confuses the immune system thereby causing inflammatory and allergic reactionssuch as migraines, irritable bowel, eczema, chronic fatigue, food allergies and rheumatoid arthritis. Because collagen actually heals tissue, explains Ms. Isaacs, it helps to heal your intestinal lining. “When it comes to aging, protecting the lining of your gut from damage is as important as protecting your skin against factors such as UV damage,” asserts Dr. Talib. Bone broth too is a good source of collagen.
In short, these experts consider gluten, dairy, sugar and alcohol to be the ultimate skin agers. “If you want to reverse the signs of aging, if you want a healthy gut, if you want to fight inflammation, if you simply want to thrive,” says Dr. Talib, I urge you to eliminate these foods from your diet.” And as for “going” – once a day is optimal according to the naturopathic expert.
Expert Beauty Tips: I’m interested in topical probiotics, reveals Dr. Talib in her book. There’s a lot of research going on regarding the use of these in skincare at the moment, and it seems they are very healthy to the cellular activity and help boost the skin’s protective mechanism against stress and environmental damage. They also help reinforce the skin’s barrier, and some forms have been shown to fight the bacteria that causes acne. Feeding your skin with probiotics (and prebiotics too which essentially help feed the good bacteria), marine ingredients for UV protection and antioxidant botanical extracts is Marmur Metamorphosis by renowned NYC dermatologist, Ellen Marmur.
“Apple cider vinegar is a big bacteria killer,” says Ms. Isaacs. “So, it’s good for everything. If you have acne, take apple cider vinegar (it’s an acid) and dab it on. I got rid of skin tags with apple cider vinegar by soaking a cotton ball and dabbing it on a couple of times a day for a couple of weeks. I also like to put in into my diet: a tablespoon or two in hot water with honey and make tea of it. It’s good for your immune system and digestion and it’s good for your skin.”
Food Intolerance vs. Food Allergy
Food intolerance occurs when you are unable to properly digest the food. This could be due to enzyme deficiencies, sensitivity to food additives or reactions to naturally occurring chemicals in foods. Common symptoms include diarrhea, bloating, rashes, headaches, nausea, fatigue, abdominal pain, runny nose and acid reflux. A food allergy causes an immune system reaction which can be severe or life threatening. But, because the symptoms of intolerance and allergy can overlap, it is difficult to differentiate between the two without specialized testing. A food intolerance blood test or an elimination diet are diagnostic tools used to pinpoint the source of the intolerance.
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