Latest posts by Dawn Schenone, MSACN, CNS (see all)
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Acne is very common in Westernized countries, especially among adolescents and young adults. Acne can significantly affect quality of life.
While there are many contributing factors to acne (sebum and keratin production, hormones, blocked pores and inflammation, acne causing bacteria), research shows that dietary triggers for acne can play a significant role in the development of this skin issue.
The following foods have been associated with worsening acne, with the two biggest contributors being dairy and a high glycemic load diet.
- Dairy (including whey protein powder)
- Studies have shown that young adults are four times more likely to have acne when consuming milk or ice cream.
- Consumption of dairy is known to increase insulin levels, independent of its effects on blood sugar, which can worsen acne.
- Cow’s milk has also been shown to stimulate the liver to produce more IGF-1, which is linked to worsening acne.
- Milk is not just a food, but also a sophisticated endocrine signaling system which activates mTORC1. This drives the diseases of modern civilization such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
- Whey protein is rich in the amino acids leucine and glutamine, which makes skin cells grow and divide more quickly, which can lead to acne.
- Consider a Plant Predominant Diet which has limited animal foods and is naturally anti-inflammatory.
- This dietary trigger for acne is at the top of the list for good reason!
- High Glycemic Load Diet
- Glycemic load (GL) is a measure of how carbohydrates affect the rise of blood sugar based on quality and quantity of the carbohydrate, whereas glycemic index does not take into account what a normal serving of food may be.
- High GL foods such as refined carbohydrates and foods with added sugars, are quickly absorbed into the blood stream causing rapidly raising blood sugar levels. This triggers a release of insulin which is needed to move the sugar out of your blood and into your cells. These high insulin levels cause androgen hormones to become more active and increase insulin-like-growth-factor (IGF-1), which causes increased skin cell growth and a subsequent increase in sebum production.
- There are not a lot of studies showing chocolate to be a definite cause of acne, but there have been a few studies showing a positive correlation with chocolate being a dietary trigger for acne.
- Depending on the type of chocolate (and the milk and sugar), it can cause increased blood sugar and insulin levels.
- The caffeine in chocolate can increase androgens in blood and cause adrenals to overact, increasing stress, overproduction of skin cells and clogged pores.
- Coffee doesn’t necessarily cause acne, but it can make it worse. High doses of caffeine can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the flight or fight response, stressing the adrenal glands, and increasing stress hormones called catecholamines. These function as neurotransmitters and hormones in the body. Epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine are catecholamines.
- Cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal gland, is a stress hormone that can trigger acne by causing an increase in the skin’s oil production which can cause clogged pores. Cortisol is released in order to prepare the body for stress. Elevated stress hormones negatively affect insulin sensitivity and blood sugar balance. Excess insulin increases sebum production which interrupts skin cell renewal cycles and triggers inflammation.
- Coffee also can impair vitamin (B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin A) and mineral (zinc, selenium, calcium, iron, magnesium) absorption. Zinc deficiency can lead to acne formation.
- Coffee causes acidity in digestive tract, which can cause overgrowth of bad gut flora, bacteria, yeasts and dysbiosis. This causes an impaired ability to produce B vitamins and absorb nutrients.
- Coffee can cause leaky gut and be a dietary trigger for hormonal acne.
- Coffee consumption in the afternoon can also negatively affect sleep, which causes more stress on the body.
- To summarize: Coffee > increased cortisol (adrenals) > increased blood sugar > increased insulin > increased oil production & inflammation > clogged pores and acne
- Fast Food/processed food and Omega-6 rich diets
- Acne is strongly associated with a fast food processed diet that is rich in fat, calories, and refined carbohydrates.
- The typical Western diet (Standard American Diet) foods such as hotdogs, burgers, chicken nuggets, French fries, sodas, and milk shakes increase risk of acne.
- Research suggests that this type of diet may alter hormone levels or gene expression in a way that promotes acne.
- Diets like the Western Diet, containing large amounts of omega- 6 fatty acids, are linked to increased levels of inflammation and acne
- The diets are abundant in foods fried in corn or soy oil, but contain low amounts of the healthier omega-3 fats found in salmon, walnuts and flax seeds, creating an increased inflammatory response
- Delayed hypersensitivity reactions to any food YOU are sensitive to
- Acne may be related to consuming foods that you have a food sensitivity to. The immune system incorrectly identifies the food as a threat and launches an immune attack against it which increases the levels of pro-inflammatory molecules. This can theoretically influence acne formation.
- This dietary trigger for acne may be difficult to assess on your own. I recommend getting the help of a nutritionist who may use food sensitivity testing or an elimination diet to get to the root cause of your food sensitivity reactions.
There are a few dietary and lifestyle changes that may help reduce acne formation:
- Eliminate any of the above dietary triggers for acne that may be affecting you. Take it out of your diet for 3-4 weeks and see if it helps.
- Drink green tea instead of coffee. Green tea contains polyphenols that are associated with reduced acne development.
- Probiotics or probiotic rich foods like kimchi or sauerkraut help support a healthy microbiome. A probiotic spray used on your face can also help while you are transitioning to a less inflammatory diet (it also helps with body odor too!)
- Try drinking almond or coconut milk instead of dairy milk. These are found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
- Turmeric which contains the anti-inflammatory polyphenol curcumin, can help regulate blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity as well as reduce over-all inflammation. Always consume turmeric with a fatty meal or a good amount of black pepper to increase absorption.
- Zinc is a micronutrient essential for the proper functioning of the skin. It has been shown to inhibit bacteria and to reduce inflammation. Patients with acne are often deficient in zinc. Good food sources of zinc are oysters, beef, lobster, sprouted pumpkin seeds, and pork.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and are generally short in the Western diet. Good foods sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, walnuts, chia seed, and flax seed. If you are unable to eat fatty fish 2-3 times per week, it is a good idea to supplement with fish oil.
- Increase dietary fiber since this helps by reducing the glycemic load of your meal.
- Increase antioxidants rich foods in your diet by including brightly colored fruits and vegetables
If you would like personalized help uncovering your dietary triggers for acne, you can sign up for a nutritional consultation here.
The above statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Check with your doctor or nutritionist before starting a new supplement program
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