“Francesca looks like she could use a snack," my husband said, staring fixedly at my chin with a sly smirk. The fact that my blemish had a nickname—and seemed hangry enough to take down a Kind bar—should give you some indication of the severity of my problem. "Francesca," as my other half coyly called her, first reared her ugly white head seven days previous, shortly after I had polished off a round of antibiotics for a staph infection on my foot. Despite repeated assaults from every manner of drying potion (sulphur, salicylic acid, AHAs, benzoyl peroxide), my pimple had shown no signs of expiring. In fact, on that cold rainy Monday evening in November, it felt as though she had developed a heartbeat.
The hostile colonization of my chin wasn't the only sign that my body was under siege. After weeks of unmitigated stress punctuated by ill-planned, carb-heavy "meals" (my son's leftover pepperoni Bagel Bites, the dregs of my daughter's mac 'n' cheese), the skin around my nose was red and inflamed, and tiny bumps had spread across my forehead. The backs of my hands were cracked and rubbed raw, my long-dormant eczema seeping out like rogue tufts of grass under buckled concrete. My nose was itchy, and I sneezed in double digits every time my Roomba whirled around the living room. Did I mention I was feeling anxious?
It was about then that neurologist David Perlmutter's new book, Brain Maker (Little, Brown and Company, $28; amazon.com), landed on my desk. Full disclosure: I had forced my book club to read his first best seller, Grain Brain, and they never quite forgave me for spoiling their enjoyment of "healthy" whole wheat. In this, his eighth book, the doctor continues to explore the complex interplay between intestinal microbes and the brain, showing how an imbalanced gut may play a role in everything from depression and Alzheimer's to acne and eczema. "Your microbiome [aka the bacterial ecosystem of your body] relies on a delicate balance of good and bad microbes," he says. "When something disrupts that balance, it can upset your whole system." When he heard my symptoms, Dr. Perlmutter wasn't surprised, noting that inflammatory skin conditions were frequently red flags for a troubled gut. "The antibiotics you took for your foot infection, though necessary in this case, probably wiped out all the good bacteria in your stomach," he explained. Add to this a diet high in processed carbohydrates and a lifestyle overflowing with stress and you have a perfect storm, he said. Though I had tested negative for celiac disease, I might be sensitive to gluten, he speculated. "It's possible a lot of people are," he said, "even those who don't have celiac disease." In addition to ridding my diet of sugar, grains (even if you're not sensitive to gluten, too many refined carbs can throw off the equilibrium in your microbiome), and pesticide-laden produce, I was told to eat fermented foods (which help restore the balance of good bacteria), exercise more, and avoid potential gut saboteurs like chlorinated tap water, stress, and genetically modified foods (which you can do by buying only organic food; go to nongmoshoppingguide.com for more information).
The next morning I choked down some kombucha tea and called integrative-wellness expert Frank Lipman. "Sweets and starchy foods can cause problems with your intestinal environment," he confirmed. This imbalance can cause inflammation, which can lead to skin issues and allergies. Could the unchecked bugs in my belly also be affecting my mood? Quite possibly, he said. "The gut is often called the second brain. More serotonin [a neurotransmitter, dubbed the feel-good chemical] is manufactured in the gut than in your actual brain," he said.
Research into the widespread role our microbiome plays in every aspect of our health is exploding, which may explain why many brands have started incorporating probiotics into their skin-care products (see "Germ Warfare," below). "We've been looking at how this technology can help skin for almost 20 years now," says Tom Mammone, vice president of research and development at Clinique. When applied topically, he says, probiotics attack the P. acnes bacteria that cause pimples. Studies show they also strengthen the skin's immune response, so there's less redness and swelling during the healing process.
I decided it was time to put my own research to the test. For the next two weeks, I was going to live a probiotic-rich lifestyle even if it killed me (and I suspected the nasty-tasting kimchi Dr. Perlmutter prescribed might). That night I reviewed the coming week's shopping list: all-organic produce, kombucha tea, pickles, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, dandelion greens, raw chicory root, garlic, onions, yogurt. "The pasteurization process kills a lot of the good bacteria in many commercially available brands of yogurt," says Lipman, who recommends buying plain, raw varieties. "Make sure it's full fat too. That helps keep blood-sugar levels stable."
It wasn't easy sticking to the regimen. Breakfast consisted of a green smoothie (made with kale, lemon, cucumbers, celery, yogurt, water, and ice), a kimchi omelet, or a bit of smoked or broiled salmon and dandelion greens washed down with kombucha tea. For lunch and dinner I ate a lean protein (usually wild shrimp or free-range chicken) accompanied by a heaping plate of colorful veggies. To make sure I got a healthy dose of prebiotics (indigestible fiber that nourishes good bugs), I used raw garlic in my salad dressings. For insurance, I took the Lamborghini of probiotics: Garden of Life's Raw Probiotics for Women ($37; vitacost.com), which teems with 85 billion live cultures and 32 probiotic strains (see "Simple Ways to Boost Your Microbiome," at bottom, for another effective but less expensive option).
Two weeks into my self-imposed gut-flora boot camp (which also featured daily runs and nightly meditations to reduce stress), my skin looked better than it had in years. Francesca had moved on, and so had the redness around my nose. My eczema had disappeared, and a healthy flush had returned to my cheeks. Even my mood seemed lighter. Whether all of this could be attributed to a newly balanced microbiome, a stabilized blood-sugar level, or solely a placebo effect, I'll never know. But guess what? I don't really care. Pass the kombucha.
Made with Greek yogurt, this paraben-free, probiotic-rich formula cleanses, moisturizes, and calms even the most irritated skin while removing all traces of makeup.
Korres Greek Yoghurt 3- in-1 Cleansing, Toning & Eye Make-Up Removing Emulsion, $24; sephora.com.
For soothing hydration that also keeps acne under control, check out this ultralight moisturizer formulated with tea-tree oil, shea butter, willow-bark extract, and probiotics.
Éminence Clear Skin Probiotic Moisturizer, $58; eminenceorganics.com
This oil-free foundation instantly hides redness while calming and strengthening skin with probiotics, magnolia bark, and caffeine. Bonus: It doesn't leave a hint of cakiness.
Clinique Redness Solutions Makeup SPF 15 with Probiotic Technology, $27; clinique.com.
SIMPLE WAYS TO BOOST YOUR MICROBIOME
1. Take a Daily Probiotic
Dr. Perlmutter suggests a formula that contains at least these five strains: Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, and Lactobacillus plantarum (try Nexabiotic Advanced Multi-Probiotic, $25; nexabiotic.com). Keep in mind: Different people (and conditions) require different strains, so you should also consult your doctor.
2. Eat Fermented Foods
Kefir, kimchi, miso, pickled ginger, tempeh—acquired tastes, to be sure, but all brimming with gut-friendly bacteria.
3. Cut Down on Carbs
Don't exceed more than 80 grams of carbs per day, says Dr. Perlmutter, who believes even healthy carbs like whole grains can cause cortisol levels to spike, triggering leaky gut and inflammation.
4. Don't Forget the Prebiotics
Onions, garlic, leeks, chicory root, dandelion greens, to name a few, all help good bacteria flourish.