Acne is its own special kind of beast. Fewer health conditions plague and torment like acne. Most people dealing with acne feel like they are playing a game of whack o mole, trapped in an endless cycle of trying to treat, cover up, heal and avoid new blemishes.
And it’s not just a physical ailment. In fact, individuals with acne suffer higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety, anger and suicidal thoughts (*).
Watch just 10 minutes of TV and you’re sure to see a commercial for some magic skin clearing elixir, promising to end acne forever. But, how much sense does it make to try and cure an internal problem with something you slather on the outside of your body?
Think of acne as the canary in the coal mine. Something else is amiss when you’re dealing with acne. And no cream or scrub is going to work unless you fix what’s going on inside the body causing the problem in the first place – inflammation, nutrient deficiencies and haywire hormones. Sure, it might take a bit more effort but it will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
So, let’s dig in shall we and tackle the root cause of acne once and for all.
Acne is a Disease of Western Civilization
Acne is a highly prevalent inflammatory skin condition involving areas of your body where sebaceous glands live – this includes face, chest, scalp and back. Ever wonder why you don’t get acne on the palms of your hands? That’s because there aren’t sebaceous glands there.
Acne involves many factors including hormones,diet, inflammation, personal hygiene and the microbiome. People dealing with acne commonly have:
- Elevated markers of inflammation (*)
- Disturbances to the microbiome (*)
- Hormone imbalances (*)
- Personal care products like lotions and makeup
- Personal hygiene habits
In westernized societies, acne is nearly a universal skin disease afflicting 79% to 95% of the teens and 40% to 54% of adults of the age of 25 (*). In populations around the world that do not eat a western diet, acne is virtually zero (*).
Personal hygiene aside, there are several lifestyle factors that may improve acne so let’s get to it:
#1 Get your Vitamin A
If you have acne, vitamin A is one nutrient you don’t want to skimp on. Vitamin A supports healthy skin and immune function. Your immune system is connected with both the microbiome and the inflammatory response factors that can contribute to the development of acne.
Vitamin C and zinc aren’t the only superstars when it comes to immune function. In fact, vitamin A was originally nicknamed the “anti-infective” vitamin almost a century ago because of its importance in normal immune functioning (*).
The body’s barrier tissues including the skin and linings of the digestive tract and airways rely on vitamin A. Vitamin A is required for the creation of the cells that make up those tissues as well as the mucous they produce (*). These tissues are the first line of defense for keeping out harmful substances like some types of bacteria and viruses and maintaining an ecosystem of beneficial bacteria.
The organs of the immune system need a constant supply of vitamin A to produce cells that help to fight off infections in the body. Research shows that vitamin A reduces infection and death of many serious illnesses including tuberculosis, pneumonia, measles, and malaria (*).
Vitamin A also helps maintain healthy, vibrant skin through:
- Production of new skin cells
- Promoting collagen production
- Preventing sun damage
- Supports oil glands around hair follicles
Because vitamin A protects skin cells from damage, it stands to reason that it may also reduce the speed of skin cells falling off and clogging pores.
Adequate vitamin A helps maintain moisturized, supple skin. So it makes sense that individuals with acne have been shown to have reduced levels of vitamin A in the skin (*). While some traditional acne treatments involve vitamin A based creams, you can also get enough vitamin A through your diet.
Carotenoids found in orange, red and green vegetables are a precursor to the active form of vitamin A. Human conversion of carotenoids is low so you’ll want to make sure you get plenty of the active form of vitamin A.
Active vitamin A is stored in the liver and in fat, making animal liver and fats the best sources for this nutrient. Beef liver, for instance, is the best source of Vitamin A retinol known to man. Just 100g (about ¾ cup) of beef liver contains over 15,000 IU of Vitamin A.
There are a few other foods that contain active vitamin A and they are all animal foods. Why? Because animals take care of the conversion – they eat the plants and convert the carotenoids into active vitamin A. The highest natural sources of retinoids include:
- Oily fish
- Cod liver oil
- Whole milk
- Egg yolks
#2 Cut out processed foods
Acne is an inflammatory disease, processed foods like industrial seed oils, refined sugars and flours all contribute to the inflammatory nature of the standard american diet (aptly nicknamed the SAD diet).
Seed oils are high in inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. Sugar and white flour contribute to elevations in blood sugar and hormones like insulin and cortisol that can wreak havoc on your skin.
Processed, convenience and fast foods are the number one contributors of these components to the diet:
- Fried food
- Chips, crackers, pretzels
- Cakes, cookies
- Ice cream
- Sweetened coffee and energy drinks
- Donuts and sweet breads
But there are also other foods that are typically thought of as “healthy” that contain these highly refined oils and sugars like:
- Salad dressing
- Protein bars
- Breakfast bars
- Breakfast cereals
- Marinara sauce
- Whole grain breads and crackers
- Sports drinks
Not only do these foods increase inflammation and blood sugar but they also disrupt the gut microbiome, a newly recognized factor in the development of acne (*).
Let’s keep this real simple – if you want clear skin, fast, you need to ditch the processed foods you grew up on. These foods can be addictive so it’s best not to wean but simply rip the band aid off. Your brain will play tricks on you and you’ll probably wonder aloud how frosted flakes can really be that bad for you. But, keep your eyes on the prize, clear skin that has been elusive up to this point is within your reach but you’ll need to suck it up and get through a little withdrawal first.
#3 Go easy on the caffeine
Caffeine increases your heart rate and body temperature so you may sweat a bit more than normal which can exacerbate acne. Caffeine also increases your circulating stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
And its not only the caffeine that is a problem, most people load their coffee up with milk and sugar or even worse flavored non dairy creamer. Have you ever checked out the label on one of those bottles? Hydrogenated vegetable oil, corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors. I’ll save you the lecture, check out my rant in #2 above or #4 below for why neither of these are very good options.
#4 Leave milk for the calves
Multiple studies have shown an association between dairy and acne (*). The purpose of milk is to grow a small calf into a large cow weighing several hundred pounds. And how is this accomplished? Hormones in the milk. Hormones occur naturally in milk to signal to the cells of the calf to grow. Researchers speculate that these hormones contribute to the dairy/acne connection.
The probable cause of possible comedogenic effects of milk and its products is the content of hormones produced by cows during pregnancy. It is believed that the constituent of milk that mostly stimulates the pilosebaceous unit is insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), whose concentration in the blood varies depending on the severity of acne. Insulin-like growth factor 1 levels increase during puberty under the influence of the growth hormone and it positively correlates with the clinical course of acne. (*)
#5 Eat some fat
It’s no secret that omega 3 fats are anti-inflammatory. So it’s not really surprising that these fats can also help acne, a condition where inflammation is a distinct feature. Research shows that acne lesions can be improved with the addition of omega 3 fats (*). This is a huge reason why I love salmon roe.
While studies often use supplementation to maintain consistency between study participants, these anti-inflammatory fats can also be obtained from foods:
- Wild fatty fish
- Animal fat from grazing animals (animals that eat grass)
- Ghee or butter from grazing animals
- Organ meats
- Eggs from grazing animals
Supplements can also be beneficial but, you have to eat anyway, so you might as well get some from your food.
#6 Get some sunshine (or red light)
According to research, the verdict on sunshine is mixed, some studies show improvement and others show no change or exacerbation of acne (*). However, anyone with acne will tell you a little sunshine goes a long way for creating clear skin. There may be an underlying factor at play here – vitamin d, the sunshine vitamin.
One study showed that nearly half of people with acne have vitamin D deficiency compared with only 20% of healthy controls (*). Like omega 3 fats, vitamin D has strong anti inflammatory properties. Vitamin D also plays a role in maintaining a healthy gut through positively influencing the gut microbiota composition and the gut barrier (*).
Red light therapy has also proven to be effective at improving acne through disrupting bad acne causing bacteria, disrupting sebaceous gland activity and reducing inflammation (*).
#7 Manage stress and get some sleep
Yea, yea this is an article about diet but stress and sleep don’t get a pass here. There is no way to sugar coat it – acne is stressful. So while you’re hyper focussed on diet, make sure you are getting enough shut eyes too.
Sleep is your body’s recovery time. There is 0 chance of you repairing your skin, restoring gut health and reducing inflammation if you’re a sleep deprived ball of stress.
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