Quick, if I were to ask you what’s the single most important thing you can do to have healthy, radiant skin, what would you say? If it’s “invest in a cupboard full of expensive skin products,” sorry; try again. But if “pay attention to my gut” (which, many experts agree, might as well be synonymous with “immune system” due to the enormous number of immune cells it houses) is what came to mind, then kudos! You’re onto something.
Historically, the digestive and immune systems were viewed as entirely separate entities. Today, however, we know that the gastrointestinal (GI) and all other organ systems, including our cutaneous (skin) system, are closely linked. In fact, it is getting clearer all the time (pun intended!) that skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and many other dermatological problems may be caused by imbalances in the microscopic life that calls our gut home (Knight, 2015); likely, a result of the inflammation brought about by an immune system that’s off-kilter.
Simply put, an unbalanced gut equals a suboptimal immune system which, in turn, translates to rampant systemic inflammation and that can mean - you guessed it! - skin problems.
What is the Link Between Inflammation and Skin Health?
When a medical professional talks about inflammation, they are usually referring to the process our body undergoes as it fights against things that are harming it such as injuries, infections, or toxins as it attempts to heal itself. Think back, for example, to the last time you cut your finger while slicing vegetables. As part of the very natural and necessary process of inflammation, your immune system released antibodies and proteins, as well as drastically increased blood flow to the damaged area, in a cascade of events that can last for several hours to several days, depending on the severity of the cut. This is known as acute inflammation and will, if everything goes as it should, cease once our immune system has gotten the inflammation under control.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, happens when this process lingers on and our body is left in a constant state of high alert. This can happen with autoimmune disorders, untreated causes of acute inflammation, long-term exposure to toxins, or even a history of bad food choices. Over time, chronic inflammation will have a detrimental effect on your tissues and organs, affecting not only what you look like on the inside, but on the outside, too.
What many people may not realize, though, is that turmeric, long-known to promote a healthy response to inflammation, can help.
Turmeric: An Age-Old Spice with Modern Applications
If you’ve ever had a curry, you’ve likely eaten turmeric. With its faintly aromatic and spicy odor and pungent, bitter taste, turmeric is best known in the culinary field as a major component of curry powder (Yance, 2013).
As one of the most heavily-researched natural products in the world, turmeric has been shown to help with everything from adrenal health to Zika, and nearly every health condition in-between – including acne and psoriasis. (Dattner, 2015).
Turmeric comes from the root of Curcuma longa, a member of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. Turmeric contains many substances, but one group, curcuminoids, have been shown to have the greatest health-promoting benefits. Bright yellow curcumin, in particular, has been well-studied and is known for its positive effects on many of the body’s functions, including maintaining a healthy immune system.
In fact, extensive research within the last century has demonstrated that curcumin has “an unprecedented number of molecular targets giving it a unique power to control many molecular pathways that could leave to disease processes.” But that’s not all! By affecting these pathways, curcumin has shown “great potential not only for the treatment of skin diseases but also for their prevention” (Gonzalez & Sethi, 2012).
As this systematic review of the research shows, evidence is rolling in that the active component of turmeric, curcumin, may be used medically to treat a variety of dermatologic conditions.
Turmeric for Psoriasis
Psoriasis is a condition in which skin cells build up and form scales and itchy dry patches. Uncomfortable and unsightly, it can have a significant impact on the patient’s quality of life. Research has shown that psoriasis has been linked to systemic inflammation and curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been proven to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. In fact, a study published in the January-February 2013 issue of the journal BioFactors found that curcumin works in several ways to help improve a whole host of inflammatory diseases.
Thought to be an immune system problem, common treatments for psoriasis include topical ointments, light therapy, and medications. Forward-thinking practitioners, however, like Board-Certified Holistic Dermatologist Alan M. Dattner, believe that radiant skin comes from the inside out. He, like a growing number of conventional practitioners, states that curcumin “has a number of protective effects on the skin (Dattner, 2015), especially those conditions with an inflammatory component.
For example, one study found that curcumin, with its antioxidative property, may reduce the oxidative stress of psoriatic lesions. Another found that curcumin’s therapeutic efficacy against psoriasis might also be related to its ability in inhibiting phosphorylase kinases, which are elevated in psoriatic patients. In plain speak, these “anti-proliferative” effects of curcumin are good news for psoriasis patients, who suffer from the build-up of itchy, scaly patches on their skin.
And evidence is mounting that curcumin is not only useful when it comes to improving psoriasis, but desirable when compared to medications due to its status of “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a win-win for those preferring a more natural approach. Indeed, results suggest that curcumin may represent “a low-cost, well-tolerated, effective agent in the treatment of skin diseases.”
Turmeric for Acne
If you’ve never had problems with acne, count yourself among the lucky few. A skin condition characterized by pimples, redness, blackheads – or, in its worst form, deep and painful cysts – acne is most common in teenagers in the throes of hormonal turmoil but most anyone can get it at any time. In particular, women approaching perimenopause often complain of the appearance of acne, many for the first times in their lives, just as their own children are heading into adolescence. For some, the condition becomes severe enough to impact their self-esteem, presenting immeasurable emotional consequences.
What causes acne? Although different types of acne likely have a variety of causes, as Dr. Dattner reminds us, skin conditions are the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong inside and “how your skin looks is a direct reflection of how well your body is functioning” (2015).
A quick Internet search will tell you that acne is commonly treated with over-the-counter creams and cleanser, as well as prescription antibiotics. As the Mayo Clinic points out, “usually the first choice for treating acne is tetracycline – such as minocycline or doxycycline – or a macrolide.” They go on to add, however, that “oral antibiotics should be used for the shortest time possible to prevent antibiotic resistance.”
What Else Can We Try?
People worried about the long-term effects of antibiotics on their health (particularly their gut health) will be interested to know that before the development of antibiotics such as tetracycline in the 1950s, it was routine to treat acne by paying attention to the diet, stressing eating patterns that we today know will help to balance the gut, boost the immune system, and put the brakes on inflammation. During the 1960s, however, the diet-acne connection fell out of favor.
Now, researchers have begun revisiting the topic of medical nutrition therapy for acne, a logical progression following the realization that the food we eat is capable of triggering cascading events within our bodies, both positive and negative, and that our immune system (and its ability to modulate inflammation) is tightly interconnected with our digestive system.
Conventional healthcare practitioners have begun to see the value of ancient remedies and have begun focusing on lifestyle changes as first line of defense in acne remediation. Dr. Nicholas Perricone, in his book The Acne Prescription, does exactly that, stressing a three-tiered program focused on an anti-inflammatory diet, nutritional supplements (including turmeric), and topical anti-inflammatories (2003).
While best known for its general anti-inflammatory properties, not many studies have been conducted yet that look specifically at the effects of turmeric on acne. However, there’s some indication that turmeric may help reduce the inflammation of acne, either when taken orally or used topically.
In addition, curcumin can also accelerate the healing of skin wounds, which is great news for anyone whose condition leaves them with angry red marks even after the lesions have resolved.
What are the Antibacterial Effects of Turmeric?
Curcumin has well-known antimicrobial properties and has been shown to exhibit actions against organisms such as Staphylococcus aureus leading researchers to suggest that it could even be developed into a natural antibiotic for use against drug-resistant bacterial infections.
Its antibacterial effects are so strong, in fact, that it is now being studied for applications as diverse as long-term food preservation (such as for prolonging the life of meals-ready-to-eat, aka “MREs”) and is even being put to work in the development of a food-safe antibacterial surface. After noticing that curcumin packaged inside nanosized vesicles attached to glass killed bacteria on contact, researchers began speculating about the potential development of cutting boards, cleavers, and countertops that could actively prevent contamination during food preparation.
For people who suffer with acne, a skin condition that is often characterized by infected pustules, turmeric’s antibacterial properties could prove to be very beneficial.
What are the Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Turmeric?
Turmeric exhibits a broad range of beneficial activities and is a potent anti-inflammatory agent, fighting inflammation at the molecular level by inhibiting an inflammatory signaling molecule called NF-kB. In fact, it is so powerful that it matches the effectiveness of some anti-inflammatory drugs, without the side effects.
What are the Antifungal Properties of Turmeric?
As the authors of this study point out, “substances and extracts isolated from different natural resources especially plants have always been a rich arsenal for controlling fungal infections and spoilage.” As it turns out, turmeric is among the best, with the addition of turmeric powder in culture studies demonstrating “appreciable inhibitory activity against fungal contaminations.”
What are the Antioxidant Properties of Turmeric?
Antioxidants are molecules which fight and neutralize free radicals in our body. Free radicals are compounds that can cause harm if they build up in high levels but, fortunately, our bodies have their own built-in mechanisms for keeping them under control. Antioxidants are also found in food, especially colorful fruits and vegetables and in plant-based whole foods in general. Several vitamins – such as C and E, for example – are known to be powerful antioxidants in their own right, as are flavonoids, a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables.
In addition to helping our skin, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that ingesting natural antioxidants in the form of herbs and spices such as turmeric can play an important role in multiple disease processes, including preventing the oxidation of cholesterol and even reversing the underlying vascular damage that causes heart disease, currently the nation’s No. 1 killer.
Turmeric Extract is a Potent Antioxidant
Perhaps not surprisingly, curcumin has been demonstrated to protect against free radical damage because it is a potent antioxidant. Researchers have found that extracts of turmeric and its curcumin component exhibit strong antioxidant activity, comparable to vitamins C and E.
Among turmeric’s myriad benefits is its ability to promote healthy, glowing skin. If you have a skin condition you’d just as soon be without, consult your doctor about supplementing with curcumin. Never start supplementing with any nutraceutical before talking with your doctor. The importance of ruling out undetected health problems cannot be overstated.
And never forget that your most powerful defense against any type of chronic condition is the one that is most wholly within your power: leading a healthy lifestyle. A high-quality diet, lots of movement, fresh air, natural sunlight, plenty of relaxation, restful sleep, and a solid stress-management plan is your best bet for leading a long and happy life.
By: Dr. Shari Youngblood | Shari is a Doctor of Clinical Nutrition (DCN) & Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) who writes on all manner of nutrition topics, particularly those related to natural foods, food cultures, dietary supplements, integrative health, and functional medicine. You can find her at www.nutritionwriting.com | May 21, 2020