A crash course in understanding our “second brain”—and the bacteria that affect everything from staying regular to the state of your skin.
In school, most of us learned that our bodies are composed of cells. That’s true—but purely from a numbers standpoint, we owe much of our existence to the microorganisms living in our gut. “We have more bacteria in our body than we do cells,” says Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in New York City. “Our gut health and our gut microbiome builds our immunity and keeps our digestion on track, which delivers for long-term health.”
Our gut, more scientifically known as the gastrointestinal tract, is host to tens of trillions of microbes. Known collectively as the microbiome, these bacteria not only assist with proper digestion, they support and “talk” to other systems within the body. “It’s really like our second brain,” Shapiro says.
A healthy microbiome is well-balanced, with plenty of beneficial bacteria to keep the body humming along optimally. But when that microscopic world is thrown off (a common occurrence after a course of antibiotics and among people whose diets are high in sugars and processed foods) it doesn’t take much for trouble to set in. Here, a primer on why a healthy gut is so valuable—and how to nurture yours to its full potential.
NYC dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, literally wrote the book on gut health and skin; her 2018 tome, The Beauty of Dirty Skin, is a research-intensive deep dive into the connection between a healthy gut and radiant skin. "When our gut microbiome is out of balance, this results in inflammation, which in turn contributes to chronic skin conditions including eczema, acne, and, surprisingly, even premature aging," she says.
This explains why your complexion may glow when you're devouring vegetables, or why sugary foods seem to accentuate your skin woes. Food choices directly affect the balance of good and bad bacteria in the microbiome, and when it's out of whack, so goes the complexion. Topical treatments are part of a strong skin care regimen, but Dr. Bowe says that our gastrointestinal tract plays a vital role, too. "To have clear, healthy skin, we have to first heal our gut," she explains.
Abdominal discomfort, constipation, and bloating are common complaints—but they really don’t need to be. Digestion and elimination should be a smooth and easy process. If you find yourself dreading your number-two, or just struggling to button your jeans, you may need a gut check. “When you have a balanced gut microbiome, you digest better, which means you eliminate better, which means your belly feels flatter,” Shapiro says. “It all comes into play from the inside out.”
A 2019 research study suggests that chronically constipated people have smaller amounts of “good” bacteria in their number-twos. Inflammatory foods, lack of fiber, and micronutrient deficiencies can also aggravate issues in the digestive system. Along with making dietary changes (more on this in a moment) you may want to consider digestion-supporting supplements like The Nue Co. DEBLOAT+, which includes enzymes to help break down food, while its Regularity Relief formula incorporates magnesium to help ease constipation and keep things moving.
No matter what your gut-health goal, you’ll find that it starts with food. “The fastest way to reboot our gut is to limit the foods that cause inflammation, and add anti-inflammatory, fiber-filled, low-glycemic, nutrient-rich options,” Dr. Bowe says. “Through simple dietary modifications alone, your gut flora—the good and bad bugs living in your gut—can begin to change in as little as three days, with lasting results measurable within two weeks.”
To do this, you’ll want to encourage healthy bacteria growth. You’ve likely heard about probiotics, the beneficial live bacteria and yeasts that help keep the gut healthy. Less heralded are prebiotics: the “food” required for the good stuff to proliferate. Here’s what to look for to support both: Plant foods such as dandelion greens, chicory root, garlic, leeks, onions, and asparagus provide plenty of prebiotics; probiotic-rich choices include fermented foods such as Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha. And don’t neglect your fiber intake, either. Shapiro points out that the standard American diet averages eight to 11 grams of fiber per day—a far cry from the recommended 25 to 35 grams. “Fiber is what keeps the gut bacteria alive and flourishing,” she says. So say à bientôt to daily croissants, and hello to whole grains and vegetables.
For those of you seeking extra support, supplements such as The Nue Co. Prebiotic + Probiotic can further bolster the positive effects of dietary changes. Ideally, Shapiro says, you’ll take probiotics with food for better digestion, but it's ultimately most important to simply remember to take them. “A plant-based diet, high fiber intake, and probiotics all work together to keep us in balance,” she says. With balance comes healthier skin, less bloating, and more efficient digestion. And who doesn't want that?