Acne and Diet

Acne is most common in teenagers and young adults but does affect many people to some degree or another, for their entire lives.  Acne Vulgaris is the medical term for this skin condition.  Sounds awful!  You didn’t need to know that, right? 🙂  But, acne means ‘eruption’ and ‘vulgaris’ means common.  These common skin eruptions can take a variety of forms and severity.  Mild acne consists of whiteheads and blackheads, moderate – pustules (pimples) and severe acne – cysts and nodules that may leave scaring.   Whatever the severity, most sufferers feel that this condition, which can affect the face, neck, chest, shoulders and back, puts them in the spotlight of attention, and not in a good way!  We know that beauty is not just skin deep but we also have a tendency to feel very conscious of skin blemishes when they show up. The psychological impact of the condition, especially with the more severe type, may cause anxiety or depression and this should be acknowledged and addressed as part of any treatment programme.  If you take the conventional medicine route with problematic acne, you may not find support for this idea that what you eat matters.  However, science is now showing us that certain foods are a factor in causing and perpetuating acne but there are also foods that can help fight it.

Anatomy of Acne

This is the simplified version just to give some background before we get to the nutrition.  There are a number of physical factors involved in the formation of acne which are, keratin (skin cells), the sebaceous glands (oil producing glands in the skin) that produces sebum, and the hair follicles (from the root up to the surface of the skin).

An overproduction of keratin (forming dead skin cells) and/or sebum (connected to androgen hormones) can clog up the hair follicle at its opening onto the skin.  This can produce mild acne.  If the follicles remain blocked this can lead to overproduction of bacteria deeper down that have nowhere to go and therefore increase in number.  This increase in bacteria is a red flag to the immune system which consequently produces pus (dead immune cells) and inflammation (sore, red inflamed skin – pimples) as a response.

From a functional and nutritional perspective therefore, we would be looking at the underlying systems involved in a) skin production, b) hormone balance, and c) the immune response.   So how come some people get away with eating rubbish and have no acne?  Well, there is of course a genetic element which makes one individual more susceptible to acne than another, but on the bright side we are now discovering our genes are not set in stone.  A new area of study called Epigenetics shows us that our genes can be influenced and modified with dietary and lifestyle changes.

The Hormone Connection

Both male and female bodies make hormones called androgens.  Androgens are known to trigger increased production of both keratinocytes and oily sebum.  They increase during puberty and women’s bodies produce more of them during pregnancy as well as with oral contraceptive use.  Acne is one of the signs of increased androgen production in women with PCOS (poly cystic ovarian syndrome).  Acne often signals hormone imbalance.  There are a number of dietary and lifestyle factors that can throw male/female hormones off balance.  In a complicated series of processes hormones are made, used and eliminated by the body.  Hormones can be considered as ‘messengers’ delivering a message to a part of the body to initiate a response.   An overproduction of two hormones in particular can disrupt normal function, these are cortisol and insulin.  Long term unresolved stress, diet and other lifestyle habits may increase production of both cortisol and insulin.   These two are very much connected to our ‘survival’ response which trumps reproduction every time.

The immune factor

The immune response is also an automatic survival response.  An army of immune vigilante detect an overproduction of bacteria in the skin and the immune system sets to work.   The skin becomes inflamed, swollen and painful.   The white pus from the pimple is a collection of dead immune cells.  This is the body’s way of expelling the infection.  This buildup of bacteria is also why a doctor will often prescribe antibiotics.  It makes sense except it doesn’t resolve the problem long term.  While antibiotics kill pathogenic bacteria they also kill your friendly bacteria which ironically work closely with your immune system to keep you well.  Taking antibiotics may only make matters worse in the long run.

On the Surface

It might seem logical then that ‘unblocking the pores’ would solve the problem entirely but acne is not just a skin deep condition.  That said, exfoliating the surface skin is an important step in removing the keratin layer of dead skin cells.  There are natural ways to achieve this without going to a lot of expense.  For example, mix some baking soda and little water to make a paste.  Add 1-2 drops of pure essential oil of Lavender.  Start with 1 drop.  Rub it into the skin and leave it for 5 to 10 minutes.  Wash it off with lukewarm water.  You can access lots of homemade natural exfoliates for acne prone skin online.   Baking soda has a low pH to sooth inflamed skin.  The Lavender also has a soothing, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory effect.   Apply a little Aloe vera gel after exfoliating as a soothing and natural toner.  A little coconut oil will help moisturize and heal the skin.

Below the surface

You might by now accept that a diet high in sugar, processed foods and factory farmed animal products can fuel heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer but you could easily add acne and immune and hormone imbalances, to this list.

Treating only the surface will not be enough to banish acne.  Researcher have found certain foods specifically, dairy [milk, cheese, milk chocolate], white refined carbohydrates, sugary products and fast food contribute to acne.   Dairy promotes the production of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which may contribute to increased production of keratinocytes, and foods with a high glycaemic load increase the production of insulin, which can stimulate androgens, known to cause an increase in sebum production.

Remove, Reduce or Replace

Dairy:  Where possible remove or reduce especially milk and milk products.  Replace with plant milks and yogurts.  You can get cheese made from nuts, for example, almond, cashews, coconut, soy, hemp and peas.  Or choose different options, like nut butter, hummus or guacamole instead of cheese.

High GL food:   Remove or reduce high glycaemic load foods.  These include white refined products like bread, pasta, rice, cakes, sodas and fruit juices.  Replace with low glycaemic load foods.  A link to a pdf list of common foods is provided below.  Examples of low GL grains are quinoa, millet, barley, oats and buckwheat (which is not wheat by the way)

Fast food:   The problem is you’re never sure what’s in there.  Convenience food is made to taste great with chemicals, highly processed oils, salt, sugar and cheap ingredients.   Increase home cooked meals in place of convenience foods.

Stress:  Stress can come from worrying, rushing around, anxiety, not getting enough sleep, over exercising and large gaps between meals or skipping meals.  Whatever the source, your body responds to stress with increased production of cortisol.  Remember it knocks reproductive hormones off-kilter.  Do a mindfulness or relaxation practice daily.   Make sleep a priority.  Eat regularly.

Nutrients that help flight acne

Now to the good news!  Increasing your intake of plant foods especially vegetables with some fruit, that are rich in antioxidants and critical nutrients, can do a lot to fight acne.  And, whilst restoring beautiful clear skin you’ll have the added benefit of restoring health to every cell in your body.  Here are some specific nutrients and foods that have been widely researched and shown to help clear up acne.

Zinc – top food sources pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, chickpeas, beef, lamb, wholegrains, beans and spinach.  Best supplemental forms zinc acetate, gluconate or sulfate.

Turmeric – add it to soups, curry dishes, golden tea, smoothies or stir-fries.  The supplemental form is called curcumin and is now widely available.  It has excellent anti-inflammatory properties.

Probiotics – Gut health has become increasingly associated with the health of the skin and immune system.  Taking a probiotic helps to increase your army of friendly bacteria to win the fight against infection.   An imbalance in microflora with more pathogens (bad bacteria) resident than good ones, can be a contributing factor to acne.  Probiotics can be found in supplement form or in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, live natural yogurt and kombucha.  Consider taking a course of probiotics especially if you have taken antibiotics to treat acne.

Green tea – The polyphenols in green tea have been shown to reduce sebum production and skin inflammation, even when applied topically to the skin.  Drink it daily for a few weeks to see the effects.

Omega 3s – These fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.  Freshly milled flaxseed or chia seeds are a good plant source.  Oily fish such as wild salmon, mackerel and sardines are also a good source.  It can be taken in supplement form.

Vitamin A, D & E:  These are the fat soluble vitamins that are found to be low in individuals who have acne.  Vitamin A is present in orange, red and yellow foods in particular, for example, carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin apricots but also in dark green leafy vegetables.  Vitamin E is abundant in peanuts, fresh seeds like sunflower, broccoli and hazelnuts.  Adequate Vitamin D levels are not so easily achieved through food sources or sun exposure.  This is one you could consider  supplementing for sure.  If you do, choose Vitamin D3.

These nutrients have one thing in common – they have anti-inflammatory properties and the root cause of acne is inflammation by various means.

Finally, avoid using chemical products on the skin as these may irritate and inflame the skin further.  Treat the skin gently and with natural products.

I hope you find this helpful.  If you want to read more about treating acne in a natural way I have provided a link to Dr. Axe’s  website below.

© Limelight Nutrition 2019

Further information:
  • Dr. Axe link to – Home Remedies for Acne
  • Glycaemic Load of Common Foods – link to PDF list  Here
  • Photos Source:  Google Images

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