DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Feed your skin to keep it healthy, plump and wrinkle-free


The mounting obsession with our gut microbes shows no signs of peaking — with study after study looking at the impact that this community of bacteria, viruses and fungi has on our physical and mental health.

Most recently, research has shown they could reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and even affect your desire to exercise.

But more quietly in the background, scientists have also been looking at another group of microbes that we all house — those on our skin.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body, with a surface area of around 22sq ft. And each square inch is covered with microbes — with at least 1.5 trillion of them in this tiny space.

I’ve written before about the importance of looking after your gut microbiome, but your skin microbiome is just as important for your wellbeing.

Among other things, the bacteria that live on skin protect you against invasion by other, more dangerous microbes by making your skin more acidic — which stops pathogens from growing there.

So how can you help these microbes keep you and your skin in great condition? Here are some suggestions, based on the latest science.

Scientists have also been looking at another group of microbes that we all house ¿ those on our skin (file image)

Scientists have also been looking at another group of microbes that we all house — those on our skin (file image)

Eat prebiotics — and probiotics

Although prebiotics (fibre-rich foods, e.g. onions and leeks) and probiotics (foods rich in ‘good’ bacteria, e.g. yoghurt and sauerkraut) will primarily help boost the health of your gut microbiome, the bugs on your skin are closely related (mainly through the influence your gut microbes have on your immune system).

In addition, several large-scale studies have found that those who eat more vegetables have fewer wrinkles and plumper skin, mainly thanks to the fact that plants contain an array of anti-ageing compounds, particularly carotenoids.

Eating carotenoid-rich foods helps protect your skin, and the bugs that live on it, from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light.

As the name suggests, you can find them in carrots — but they’re also in other yellow, orange and red fruit and veg, such as tomato, squash, melon and mango.

Just how much impact a healthy gut microbiome can have on your skin was revealed in a fascinating study in Nature Medicine in July.

Researchers at the University of Montreal Health Centre showed that boosting a patient’s gut microbiome via a faecal transplant could improve their chances of surviving skin cancer.

When patients with malignant melanoma were given a faecal transplant before immunotherapy, it improved the likelihood of them having a positive response to this cancer treatment.

Several large-scale studies have found that those who eat more vegetables have fewer wrinkles and plumper skin (file image)

Several large-scale studies have found that those who eat more vegetables have fewer wrinkles and plumper skin (file image)

Wash behind your ears and between toes

It’s the sort of thing you were probably told as a child, and it turns out that this is really good advice. That, at least, was the conclusion of a study published last week in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

Lead researcher, Keith Crandall, a professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at George Washington University in the U.S., said he was inspired to do the study by his grandmother, who always instructed the kids in his family to ‘scrub behind the ears, between the toes and in the belly button’.

For the study, 129 students were asked to swab different areas of their body, including the forearms, calves, behind the ears, between the toes and in the navel.

This revealed that the skin on their forearm, calves and navels — areas we normally clean thoroughly in a bath or shower — contained a great diversity of microbes, which is a sign of healthy skin. The samples from behind the ears and between the toes, however, were more likely to contain fewer species — and among them were more trouble-making pro-inflammatory microbes, which can lead to skin diseases such as eczema or atopic dermatitis (which causes severe itching).

Indeed a previous review, in the journal Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, found that people with conditions such as dermatitis, acne and a common form of hair loss (alopecia areata) have a different mix of microbes from those with healthy skin.

Fortunately, our skin microbiome also contains viruses called bacteriophages (which means ‘bacteria eaters’), which new research shows help us wage war on trouble-making bacteria.

Scientists at the Medical University of Vienna recently isolated bacteriophages from the skins of people with atopic dermatitis which specifically attack the bacteria that trigger the disease — though there weren’t enough to have much of an impact, clearly.

But now these ‘phages’ have been identified, the team are hoping to grow and use them as a novel way of treating this and similar skin ailments.

…But Don’t clean your skin too much

While washing is important, avoid using harsh skin cleansers or scrubbing vigorously, as these can damage the skin’s natural defences, including the ‘good’ bacteria that live there.

And remember — particularly during the winter months, when skin gets drier and flakier — to moisturise straight after you have washed your face, when your skin is low on natural oils.

A study in the journal Scientific Reports last year found that using a moisturiser for five weeks reduced dryness and boosted levels of good bacteria on the skin.

Choose a partner with healthy skin bugs

People who live together tend to have similar microbial communities on their skin, according to a 2017 study by the University of Waterloo in Canada. In fact, their skin microbiomes were so similar that it was possible to guess, with 86 per cent accuracy, who lived together solely by looking at their skin microbiome.

If you spend a lot of time sharing intimate spaces with another human, you end up sharing lots of skin microbes. So try to choose a partner with a good skin microbiome: failing that, encourage them to follow my other three steps!

High blood pressure is a ‘silent killer’ — most people don’t know they have it until something goes wrong; they have a heart attack, for instance.

While research shows that exercises such as the plank or wall sits can reduce blood pressure, the routine — four two-minute wall sits, with two minutes’ rest in between, three times a week — can be too much for many. 

There’s an easier route: a new study in sedentary older adults found that just increasing their daily step tally, from 4,000 to 7,000, reduced blood pressure by as much as medication. As 3,000 steps is less than 30 minutes’ extra walking, it seems a good investment in your future health.

Benefits of a ginger biscuit

Ginger is one of my favourite spices, whether in ginger biscuits, tea or in a stir-fry. It’s also a traditional remedy for a range of health conditions.

But in modern terms, the best evidence for it is in treating nausea.

One study, published in 2018 in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, showed that ginger was more effective than a placebo for nausea and vomiting in pregnancy (possibly because it has been shown to speed up stomach emptying).

Now researchers at the Colorado School of Medicine in the U.S. have found it can reduce inflammation and could potentially help people with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.

When healthy volunteers took 20mg a day of gingerol (the active ingredient in ginger) — equivalent to 25g of fresh ginger — for seven days, it reduced the activity of white blood cells called neutrophils, which become overactive in autoimmune diseases.

More research is needed, but I feel justified in continuing my ginger biscuit and tea habit.

Ginger is one of my favourite spices, whether in ginger biscuits, tea or in a stir-fry

Ginger is one of my favourite spices, whether in ginger biscuits, tea or in a stir-fry

Harnessing your brain to ease back pain

If you’re one of the 5.5 million Britons regularly taking painkillers, you may well know that they are rarely effective, particularly in the long term. But could tapping into the power of your mind help?

This was the suggestion from a study, published last week in JAMA Network Open, which showed that helping people with chronic back pain where there’s no obvious cause (80 per cent of cases) think differently about it could significantly reduce their symptoms.

The researchers used an approach called pain reprocessing therapy (PRT), where patients are taught that pain signals can be ‘deactivated’.

Therapists encourage them to do gentle movements, while reassuring them that the pain isn’t a sign of danger, and that it will eventually disappear if they keep working away at it. Another important part of PRT is training in managing emotions, such as anger or despair, that may be making the pain worse.

In the study, 151 people with chronic back pain were allocated four weeks of PRT, a placebo injection in the spine or usual care. Results showed 60 per cent of the PRT group reported being pain-free or nearly pain-free afterwards, compared with 20 per cent in the placebo group and 10 per cent of those receiving usual care. And the pain reduction in the PRT group was largely maintained a year later.

If you’re in chronic pain, your GP can refer you to a pain clinic. However, to get PRT you may have to go private.

Could tapping into the power of your mind help with back pain? (stock image)

Could tapping into the power of your mind help with back pain? (stock image)



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