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A Naturopathic Approach to Healthy Skin

Sep 30, 2021 ● By Marisa Marciano
A woman wearing a hat squating down to smell some veggies

Photo credit Ponomarenko Anastasia for Shutterstock

Skin health reflects whole body health. Its appearance can have profound effects on our psychological well-being, while also serving as an indicator of the body’s internal health status and physiological resiliency. Skin complaints such as acne, aging, eczema and rosacea are some of the most common and recurring presentations in clinical practice, and according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, in 2013 an estimated 85 million Americans (or one in four individuals of all ages) were seen by a physician for at least one skin disease. Most conventional approaches to skin health involve the use of topical and/or oral medications, which offer temporary relief from symptoms quite successfully; however, exacerbations and recurrence upon their withdrawal can often occur. In these cases and many others, a holistic, preventive approach to skin health and healthy aging can help minimize the need for more invasive therapies and/or potentially harmful interventions, while serving the health of the body as a whole.


Gut-Skin Connection

Multiple studies have linked gastrointestinal health to skin health, particularly for inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis, according to Frontiers in Microbiology. Both organs share functional similarities, serving as primary interfaces with the external environment and being essential to the maintenance of physiologic homeostasis. The gut and the skin are also both densely vascularized and richly innervated, having important immune and neuroendocrine roles. Additionally, the intestinal microbiota facilitates both local and cutaneous inflammatory responses. Evidence appears to demonstrate a bidirectional relationship between the skin and the gut, whereby in cases of intestinal dysbiosis and disrupted gut barrier integrity, this connection can result in a positive feedback cycle of metabolic inflammation.

Addressing inflammation within the gastrointestinal tract includes healing disturbed intestinal barriers; promoting beneficial gut microbiota and their metabolites; and identifying and avoiding food allergies and sensitivities to help reduce inflammatory immune responses, thus allowing the skin and the mucosal linings of the gastrointestinal tract to heal.

Modulation of the microbiome with probiotics and prebiotics (synbiotics) can be incredibly beneficial in the prevention and/or treatment of many inflammatory skin diseases, along with demulcent and anti-inflammatory herbs and foods which have the potential to influence both gastrointestinal and cutaneous immune defense mechanisms.


Herbal Support

Herbs can play a vital role in supporting skin health, and multiple studies have shown positive results with either equal or superior benefits compared to conventional therapies for a variety of skin disorders when used topically or internally. Tissue healing involves the development of new circulation, followed by the laying down of new connective tissue, and medicinal herbs are notably rich in various phytochemicals with key therapeutic actions related to these processes, including controlling inflammation and oxidative stress; slowing down collagen degradation; improving microcirculation; improving tissue detoxification; and decreasing edema and improving lymphatic drainage.

Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) has been used traditionally in Ayurvedic medicine to support moisture balance and provide overall nourishment to the skin. Its leaves are rich in triterpenes (mainly asiaticoside, asiatic acid and madecassic acid) which have been shown to act upon fibroblasts to improves the synthesis and maturation of collagen and stimulate collagen remodeling, while improving microcirculation and decreasing endothelial cell damage. Both oral and topical administration of gotu kola extract have been shown to produce more rapid skin growth and a higher rate of wound healing when compared to controls in animal models.

Grapeseed (Vitis vinifera) is rich with oligomeric procyanidins which also have several key actions related to improved stabilization of connective tissues. In vitro and in vivo studies demonstrate its ability to support connective tissue by protecting collagen and elastin within the walls of the microvasculature and facilitating the formation of collagen microfibrils and collagen crosslinking.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is another herb with therapeutic properties associated with tissue healing. Known for centuries as a powerful plant antioxidant, recent research suggests it to be a Nrf2-activator, in addition to supporting microvascular development and improving circulation in the arteries, veins and capillaries.

In addition to promoting tissue healing, supporting detoxification (liver, lymphatics and digestion) with Nrf2-activators via herbs, collectively (referred to as alteratives or depuratives) can also help reduce toxic burden and subsequent inflammation upon the skin and body as a whole. There are multiple pathways by which the body eliminates waste, and many herbs that can be of help include hepatics and gentle laxatives which support bile flow and bowel elimination such as Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus); lymphatics such as cleavers (Galium aparine), echinacea and calendula (Calendula officinalis); and nutritive and mineral-rich herbs like stinging nettle (Urtica diocia).

Dr. Marisa Marciano is a licensed naturopathic doctor and registered herbalist with expertise in the education and clinical applications of therapeutic nutrition and phytotherapy. She is co-author of The Botanical Medicine Manual: A Quick Reference Evidence Based Guide and is recognized for creating the online herbal resource