8 science-backed foods to feed your gut:skin axis

Clinic Icon

By The Gut Health Doctor Team

Dr Megan Rossi in a lab looking through a microscope

Have you ever noticed changes in your skin after one too many alcoholic drinks? Or perhaps after a week of neglecting your 30-plant point goals? Spots, rashes, fine lines, and many other skin concerns have all been linked to how we treat our gut microbiota (GM). This is thanks to the gut:skin axis.

You may already be familiar with the gut’s relationship with the brain, but there’s also a two-way conversation going on between your microbes and your skin. When you think about it, the gut and skin have a lot in common. They’re both key players in defending the rest of our body from pathogenic invaders; they house a community of diverse microbes; and they are also in a constant state of renewal, with parts of their linings shedding roughly every week and month, respectively. Doing all this work for you means that they are both very hungry for good nutrition!

Our skin is an organ that relies on what we feed it to stay alive. One of the earliest observations of this dependency was with scurvy. A doctor in the eighteenth century discovered that citrus fruit (rich in vitamin C) could cure sailors of this disease, one of the first signs of which was skin rashes and bruise-like spots. Since then, scientists have discovered a lot more about this fascinating connection between our gut health and our skin, and found that there are a lot of other skin conditions which can be helped by looking at your diet…

A close up photo of a woman's face with wrinklesSkin ageing

Even if you don’t have any specific skin problems, it’s worth knowing that the gut:skin axis is involved in something many of us would rather slow down – skin ageing. Polyphenols – the beneficial plant chemicals that mostly rely on our gut microbiome for absorption in the body (and therefore into the skin) – have been shown to improve the appearance of ageing. One study found that using polyphenols from cocoa (yes, that’s the key ingredient in 70%+ dark chocolate) showed reduced facial wrinkles and improved elasticity after just twenty-four weeks, while another found that eating more plants was linked with improved telomere length, which is a marker of ageing.

AcneA close up image of a woman's face with pimples

For skin conditions like acne, there is evidence to suggest that inadequate intake of ‘healthy’ plant-based foods and excessive consumption of the ‘unhealthy’ types – including fruit juice, white bread, and large quantities of non-fermented dairy (particularly skimmed milk) – may worsen acne by affecting hormones and other pathways. But it is important to note there is no indication that diet alone is the cause of acne, nor that moderate amounts of these foods as part of a varied diet will exacerbate acne. In fact, the pressure to achieve dietary ‘perfection’ can itself lead to breakouts due to the pesky stress hormone, cortisol. There is fascinating research emerging on topical probiotics as a therapy for acne. Although it’s still in the clinical trial phase – I’ll keep you updated when/ if it’s ready for translation. For more on probiotics join our mailing list here.

A photo of a magnifying glass on a woman's face revealing redness and dilated blood vesselsSkin and inflammation

Most of the communication between your skin and gut occurs via the immune system. This means that an unbalanced gut microbiome (dysbiosis) could trigger a response from the immune system. This response often manifests as inflammation, which is a natural defence mechanism against injury or illness. However, similar to the stress response, inflammation becomes problematic when it occurs too frequently or remains at a low level for an extended period. Many skin conditions – such as eczema, rosacea, acne, psoriasis, dermatitis, and even premature ageing – have inflammatory origins. Therefore, it stands to reason that a limited gut microbiome, lacking in diversity, could play a role in triggering these conditions. That being said, the role of diet mustn’t be overstated as a treatment, given there is currently no clinical evidence to suggest diet can ‘cure’ any of these conditions (outside of food allergy-related eczema).

A little boy scratching his skin with mosquitoes in the airMosquito bites and B.O.

Are you always the unlucky one who gets bitten by mosquitoes? Or perhaps you suffer from bad body odour at times? Well, it turns out that your skin microbes play a role in both! The microbes on our skin (and even in our sweat glands and hair follicles) are responsible for turning odour-less compounds from our sweat glands into a range of odour-forming compounds, including some that attract mosquitos.

In fact, without bacteria, sweat simply doesn’t smell. Any smells – and how attractive you are to mosquitoes – depend on the microbes living on your skin. But before you consider lathering yourself in antimicrobial soaps, keep in mind that your microbiota plays a vital role in protecting your skin from the environment, as well as regulating immune cells within the skin. So just like taking unnecessary antibiotics isn’t great for your gut health, it’s probably not a good idea to wipe out all your skin microbes either. Studies have shown that switching to more of a veg-heavy diet, along with fruit and garlic, can increase the rate of ‘attractiveness’ and ‘pleasantness’ of a person’s sweat. So if you do struggle in that area, might be worth upping your plants for at least two weeks and seeing if you (or your partner) notice a difference.

There’s still so much we don’t know, but more studies are underway and researchers are currently investigating more targeted solutions including specific probiotics – watch this space!

8 science-backed foods to help your skin

If you want to boost your skin game through gut-nourishing plants, try adding these foods to your diet:

A photo of a pile of avocados


This popular fruit is high in beneficial fats and contains vitamin E, which is important for healthy skin. They also pack compounds that may protect your skin from sun damage. And if you need some inspiration beyond avocado toast, click here.

A pile of cherry tomatoes


These are a great source of vitamin C, as well as all of the major carotenoids, especially lycopene, which have been shown to help protect your skin from sun damage. Vitamin C is also needed by your body to produce collagen, the structural protein that keeps your skin strong.

Green tea leaves

Green tea

The antioxidants present in green tea, known as catechins, could benefit your skin in a multitude of ways. While most of the research is still limited to test tube studies, these catechins, have been shown to help enhance hydration, thickness, and elasticity. If you are caffeine sensitive though, be aware that green tea contains a similar amount to a cup of black tea.

Bars of dark chocolate

70%-plus dark chocolate

As one of the richest sources of polyphenols, it does come with a bitter bite. So check out these gut-loving chocolate recipes to help you and your tastebuds switch to the dark side.

A photo of pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds

Not just for Halloween season, these are a good source of skin-nourishing micronutrients, including vitamin E and zinc all year round. Why not sprinkle some over your morning porridge or your salad at lunch?

A photo of sweet potatoes

Sweet potato

An excellent source of beta carotene, these are also another natural sun blocker. And if that’s not enough to convince you to add them to your diet, these mouth-watering recipes might be.

A photo of sardines

Oily fish

Varieties such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Not only have these been linked with decreased inflammation and skin moisture, but fish is a great source of high-quality protein and zinc. If you don’t eat fish, then consider an algae oil supplement to ensure you’re getting enough of two particular types of omega-3 – DHA and EPA.

A photo of soy beans


This nutrient-dense legume contains isoflavones, which have been shown in test tube studies to exert beneficial effects on the skin including defence against oxidant damage and stimulation of collagen synthesis. More recently, one clinical trial reported that it improved facial pigmentation and hydration, after 24 weeks.

Illustration of person considering dietary changes to improve gut health and help manage symptomsTakeaway

Your skin is your largest organ. Its two-way connection with the gut via the gut:skin axis is a hugely exciting area of research right now. While the science still has a lot to learn, studies show that a plant-diverse diet can help the skin’s microbes thrive, which can have a positive impact on some of the skin issues highlighted above. If you want to elevate your skin game, try incorporating those eight, science-backed skin-loving foods into your diet each week. If you need some inspiration to get started, check out our free recipe hub.

Now, as important as our diet is, don’t forget that stress, sleep and exercise can also have a big impact on skin health (and of course genetics, but it’s probably more constructive to focus on what we can influence rather than dwelling on what we can’t). As well as enjoying these foods, your skin will thank you if you welcome some form of meditation into your day (including forest bathing), get your 7-9 hours of shut-eye, and move your body for at least 30 minutes most days. We always recommend speaking to a dermatologist if you need specialised skin care advice. And of course, we’re always here at The Gut Health Clinic to help you optimise your gut:skin connection via your diet, with our team of gut specialist dietitians.


Related articles

The Gut Health newsletter shown on an iPad

Sign up for our free newsletter & gut health guide

Not sure where to start on your gut health transformation? Sign up for free and we’ll empower you every month with the latest educational blogs, gut-loving recipes, research updates and helpful resources delivered straight to your inbox. You’ll also receive a downloadable guide with an intro to gut science, practical advice and exclusive recipes. Lots of support and no spam.