Probiotics—or the “good bacteria”—have become trendy over the past few years. So much that it’s nearly impossible for you to walk into a grocery store without encountering some product described as a “probiotic”, whereas it’s a supplement, a yogurt or a drink.
But what do they actually do for you? And why are they referred to as “good bacteria”?
Bacteria have inhabited the earth for at least two and a half billion years. Our evolutionary ancestors arrived in a world dominated by microbes, and, as we evolved, so did they.
Maintaining a balance between good and bad bacteria in the body has benefits beyond the digestive tract, it may also affect the health and appearance of the skin. Consuming probiotics similar to the trillions of microorganisms that already live in your body, in foods or as dietary supplements, might help you prevent or treat certain skin conditions, some early studies suggest.
What Are Probiotics?
Bacteria in an average human body number ten times more than human cells, for a total of about 1000 more genes than are present in the human genome. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass (that’s 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria in a 200-pound adult). These microbes are generally not harmful to us, in fact they are essential for maintaining health.
For example, they produce some vitamins that we do not have the genes to make, break down our food to extract nutrients we need to survive, teach our immune systems how to recognize dangerous invaders and even produce helpful anti-inflammatory compounds that fight off other disease-causing microbes.
Probiotics introduce healthy bacteria to the gut and create a barrier to reduce inflammation, which can trigger certain skin conditions, said Dr. Whitney Bowe.
How Can Probiotics Help Clear Your Skin?
At the forefront of Bowe’s research is a connection between the foods we eat—and more specifically, how we digest them—and the impact they have on our complexion.
“The gut and the skin are actually very closely connected,” she says. “We know that refined carbohydrates and foods that are devoid of fiber really seem to slow digestion and gut motility. When that happens, it creates a shift in the type of bacteria that live in the gut. The molecules that are supposed to be kept inside your gut lining are actually seeping out into the bloodstream, and that can trigger system-wide inflammation and increase inflammatory markers in the skin.”
Scaling back on simple carbs and other inflammatory foods can certainly help, but Bowe says that a daily dose of probiotics is the real trick for restoring a healthy balance of bacteria in your digestive tract—and, in turn, seeing a variety of skin complaints disappear before your eyes.
Also called Atopic Dermatitis (AD), Eczema is a skin condition in which dry and scaly patches appear mostly on the scalp, forehead, and face. These patches are very common on the cheeks and are often very itchy. Scratching can lead to a skin infection.
A variety of studies showed that the L. salivarius probiotic strain could be considered as an important adjunctive therapy in the treatment of adult AD.
Small studies from Italy, Russia and Korea have found that probiotics from food or supplements used in conjunction with standard acne treatments may increase the rate of acne clearance, and also helps patients better tolerate acne treatment with antibiotics. Some probiotic strains found to be effective in studies of acne include Lactobacillus, L. acidophilus, and B. bifudum.
Bowe said probiotics — whether they are eaten as foods, taken as supplements or spread topically — are not a stand-alone treatment for skin problems, but could be used by patients in combination with their current treatment.
“Increased numbers of good bacteria may also help to hydrate aging skin, reduce sun damage and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”
What Other “Miracle” Can Probiotics Do For You?
Bacteria in the gut produce vitamins and break down our food. Their presence or absence has been linked to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and the toxic side effects of prescription drugs. Biologists now believe that much of what makes us human depends on microbial activity.
Given the extent to which bacteria are now understood to influence human physiology, it is hardly surprising that scientists have turned their attention to how bacteria might affect the brain. Micro-organisms in our gut secrete a profound number of chemicals, and researchers like Mark Lyte have found that among those chemicals are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These, in turn, appear to play a function in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of major depression and anxiety.
The process of learning about our microbiome is in its early days, but even the most tentative results have begun to transform our understanding of human health.