What your itchy skin indicates about your gut

A month or so ago, I started feeling nauseous all the time.

I had some other gastrointestinal symptoms too, but I won’t go into all the gory details.

At first, I thought it was a stomach bug, but when it didn’t go away after a few weeks I knew it wasn’t. Then I developed itchy red spots on my arm, and I decided to make an appointment with my doctor.

She was baffled by my symptoms too, especially the spots on my arm, so she sent me to the dermatologist. He looked at me briefly and knew it was a mild skin irritation, nothing to worry about. He prescribed me a steroid cream and some antibiotics and sent me on my way.

I mentioned to him that I’d been having stomach trouble too, but he didn’t seem interested in connecting the dots between what was going on with my skin and stomach. I, however, knew the two were connected.

You’ve heard of the gut-brain axis. Well, research shows there’s a gut-skin axis too. That means your skin is constantly communicating with your gut, and your gut is constantly communicating with your skin.

In fact, a new study shows exactly why people with skin problems are more likely to have gut problems and vice versa…

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Scratching your skin may make you more vulnerable to food allergens

Researchers from Harvard Medical School just discovered that the simple act of scratching your skin could prime your gut for allergic reactions.

In their study, they put small strips of tape on the skin of mice to trigger itchy skin. Once the mice scratched their skin, researchers saw that the skin produces a cell-signaling protein called IL-33. This protein enters the bloodstream and makes its way to the gut.

Once IL-33 is in the gut, it works with a protein secreted by cells in the lining of the intestine called IL-25. The two proteins together produce a chain reaction that causes mast cells (cells responsible for allergic reactions) in the intestine to expand.

When mast cells expand, it makes the intestinal lining more permeable, which makes it easier for allergens to get into the tissues. As a result, mice who got the tape also responded more severely to food allergens.

Researchers took biopsies from the intestines of children with atopic dermatitis (an itchy skin condition) too and found that they had more mast cells.

Healing your gut to heal your itchy skin

This research shows the gut-skin axis in action. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an itchy skin condition is causing your food allergies. It means that your gut and skin are constantly communicating with one another.

In my opinion, gut-skin trouble starts in the gut. If your microbiome is out of balance, it can cause itchy skin issues like atopic dermatitis. And if you scratch that atopic dermatitis, you could make your gut more susceptible to allergens and toxins. It’s a negative feedback loop.

If you want to stop this destructive cycle, start by healing your gut. That’s exactly what I’ve set out to do since my experience with gut and skin issues.

Now, healing your gut isn’t easy… or quick. It takes time and dedication. My journey has only begun, but here are some tips I’ve learned about getting gut health back on track:

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  • Get a good probiotic. Often, gut issues and skin issues happen when the good and bad bacteria in your gut are out of whack. A probiotic supplement can help restore order. Research shows that spore-based probiotics are the most effective at healing leaky gut, a condition that’s behind many people’s gut and skin issues.
  • Stay away from alcohol. Research shows that alcohol increases the permeability of your gut (aka causes leaky gut syndrome) and triggers bacterial imbalances in your gut. So, steer clear of cocktails for a while if you want a healthier gut.
  • Get tested for food sensitivities. You can ask for a food sensitivity test through your doctor, a nutritionist or get a DIY one online (like this one). Once you find out what foods your body reacts to, try an elimination diet to determine what’s really making your gut health go awry.
  • Eat plenty of fiber. Fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut. However, most Americans don’t eat nearly enough fiber. That may be why so many of us have gut imbalances.
  • Limit NSAIDs and antibiotics. It’s no secret that antibiotics take a toll on your gut health. But NSAIDs aren’t much better. These common pain relievers can trigger intestinal inflammation and permeability.
  • Maximize your omega-3s. Research shows that people who eat more omega-3s have better bacterial diversity in their guts. So, eat more salmon! Or supplement with fish oil or krill (like fish oil but more bioavailable, without the fish burps).
  • Manage stress. The gut-brain axis is like a superhighway that sends your emotions right to your stomach. That means, when you’re stressed, it triggers changes in your microbiome. If you can keep stress levels under wraps through stress-relieving practices like meditation, yoga, and massage, your microbiome will be much better off.
  • Exercise. A 2017 study found that exercising encourages the production of butyrate, a beneficial short-chain fatty acid that boosts the health of intestinal cells and lowers inflammation.
  • Sleep. Your gut and brain are closely connected… which means your gut and sleep are too. Not getting enough sleep can throw your microbiome off balance. So, squeeze in those zzzzs.

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  1. Scratching the skin primes the gut for allergic reactions to food, mouse study suggests — MedicalXpress
  2. Mechanical Skin Injury Promotes Food Anaphylaxis by Driving Intestinal Mast Cell ExpansionImmunity
  3. The Gut Microbiome as a Major Regulator of the Gut-Skin AxisFrontiers in Microbiology
  4. The Gastrointestinal Microbiome: Alcohol Effects on the Composition of Intestinal MicrobiotaAlcohol Research: Current Reviews
  5. The gut-brain connection — Harvard Health Publishing
  6. Omega-3 may keep gut microbiota diverse and healthy — Medical News Today
  7. Intestinal permeability and inflammation in patients on NSAIDsGut
  8. Unlocking the Sleep-Gut Connection — HuffPost
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.