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Acne vulgaris. The name sounds as bad as the white heads, black heads and cysts make you feel. While not uncommon in the teen years, the prevalence of adult acne has been increasing, with up to half of American women being affected, making it the most common skin condition in the United States.1 2 No matter the age, acne is painful, embarrassing and frustrating. I know. I used to have acne. After trying every conventional over-the-counter product and medications recommended by my doctor, I finally came to realize that, despite my doctor’s insistence to the contrary, my acne was caused by my diet. I learned that the skin is a window to the inside of the body and that acne—and other skin conditions—are signs that the body is out of balance. If you’re suffering with acne, stop trying to scrub it off or cover it up and instead get to the root of what is causing it. With a one-two-three punch of diet, supplements and the right topical products you can reclaim your clear, blemish-free skin.
Acne is complex because there is no single cause for it. It can be triggered by hormonal changes, like those brought on by puberty or the menstrual cycle, but also when there is an excess of androgens (e.g. testosterone) such as in adult men with acne and women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Diets high in sugars and refined carbs also trigger acne by increasing insulin which in turn increases androgens and insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), both of which promote acne.3 Fried foods and damaged fats like refined and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils are also problematic because these oils are easily oxidized and set off an inflammatory cascade in the skin and elsewhere in the body. The health of the gut is also strongly connected to the health of the skin. Researchers have long noted a strong correlation between people with intestinal issues (like constipation, heart burn, halitosis and bloating) and acne.4 5 We are just beginning to understand exactly how the bacteria in our intestines influence the condition of our skin, but to put it simply, healthy intestinal bacteria help to keep our skin smooth and clear.6 Finally, stress has been show to trigger and exacerbate acne by altering blood sugar balance, increasing inflammation and triggering the release of substances that increase breakouts.7 For most people with acne, the cause is likely to be a complicated interplay of two or more triggers, but at the root, acne is an inflammatory condition. So as you begin to correct the different underlying causes and bring balance to the body, you are also helping to reduce the underlying inflammation.
Cleaning up the diet is absolutely the first step in clearing up the skin. Several studies have connected a high intake of sweets, fried foods and refined carbohydrates with an increased risk of acne.8 9 Getting rid of these foods is a great place to start. Beyond simply cleaning up the diet, many acne sufferers should consider eliminating foods that commonly cause reactions, especially gluten and dairy. A higher intake of dairy, especially low and no-fat dairy and sweetened dairy, like ice cream, has been connected to acne, possibly because it is more likely to cause a blood sugar spike and subsequent insulin spike.10 11 Fermented full-fat dairy, like plain yogurt and kefir, appear to be better tolerated for many acne sufferers.12 Try building your diet around simple real foods like grass-fed meats, wild fish, pastured eggs, vegetables, unrefined olive and coconut oil, nuts, seeds and fruits. And don’t forget plenty of clean water to assist in flushing toxins from the skin. Not only will this diet help to keep the blood sugar stable, keeping insulin in the normal range, but it also supplies abundant vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that act as antioxidants to help fight inflammation.
A simple supplement routine can do wonders to correct deficiencies, bring balance back to the body and clear the skin.
Once you clean up the diet and start supporting skin health with some targeted supplements, you’ll likely want to add a supportive topical routine as well. As tempting as it may be to try to scrub or dry blemishes off your body, this approach can lead to more breakouts in the long run. Remember that at the heart of each blemish is inflammation, so a more gentle approach is a better option. Begin by cleansing the skin both day and night with a gentle, non-drying cleanser. The herbs neem or tea tree help fight the bacteria that can contribute to acne and are good ingredient choices either in your cleanser or as a spot treatment. After cleansing look for serums and light creams with the same antioxidants you might be taking internally such as vitamins A, C, E, alpha lipoic acid or green tea. Aside from when you are actively cleansing or applying product, resist the urge to touch your face and definitely avoid picking or popping, which spreads acne-causing bacteria and leads to more inflammation.
Acne is often the body’s cry for help. Answer its call by correcting the imbalances that cause it from the inside out and you’ll be thanked with better health in general and clear, blemish-free skin to prove it!