So last month we talked about natural treatment for eczema and psoriasis and this month I'm diving into natural ways to prevent and treat acne. I talked about this briefly on New Day NW last week, and if you missed it you can catch watch it here. Many people tend to think that acne is a teenage problem but so many adults struggle with acne too.
This is a subject very close to my heart because I struggled with acne from about age 12 until my late 30's when I finally changed my diet. I was prescribed countless rounds of antibiotics and harsh topical treatments, all of which would calm things down a little and none of which ever made it go away. None of my doctors ever mentioned that my diet and food sensitivities could be contributing to my breakouts, so I went along with what they told me to do because I didn't know any better.
Eventually I resorted to Accutane and took two rounds of that (now only available in generic forms such as Isotretinoin and Absorica). If you’re not familiar with Accutane/Isotretinoin, it is a drug designed to shrink the oil glands with the goal of less oil = less clogging of the pores and ultimately less acne. The drug has been linked to birth defects if taken during pregnancy, and has also been suspected of causing psychological side effects including depression and suicidal ideology. Some of its’ other intense side effects include severely dry skin, eyes and lips, nosebleeds, back pain, dizziness, blurred vision, diarrhea and headaches to name just a few.
The result was that I had less severe breakouts but sadly it was at the cost of my gut health and even my mental health for several years. The drug companies are now claiming that the link between Accutane and depression/suicide is weak because people with sever acne are more at risk for depression because of the acne. I don’t buy this argument because my acne was pretty bad, but not bad enough that I was generally depressed because of it. I was a very upbeat, happy kid and it wasn’t until after taking Accutane that I began struggling with depression, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
I am very grateful that I had a supportive mom who got me into counseling and did her best to find doctors who knew how to help me. If it weren’t for her I’m not sure that I would be sitting here writing this today.
So enough of the boring stuff! Let’s talk about what you can do to prevent and treat acne, starting with food. Acne is treated like an infectious disease when it is actually an inflammatory condition that is triggered by hormonal imbalances, food sensitivities and inflammatory foods, nutritional deficiencies, and stress. Your skin is a reflection of what’s going on inside your body, so eating foods that nourish you, reduce inflammation and help keep your hormones happy is the first step to healthy, glowing, clear skin.
Eat More Of This Stuff
Anti-inflammatory foods that are high in fiber, rich in antioxidants, vitamin c, zinc and magnesium,
Organic vegetables - Veggies are everything! They’re nutrient-dense, high in fiber, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory. Get as many different colors as possible and try to eat 1 lb each day. In season, local produce is always the most nutrient-dense and delicious.
Organic berries and low-sugar fruit such as grapefruit, apples and moderate amounts of whatever is in season locally. Berries are particularly high in antioxidants and they’re my personal fave when in season. When not in season I keep frozen organic berries on hand for smoothies.
Vitamin C-Rich Foods - Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and it helps to preserve collagen which keeps your skin nice and plump. Hello anti-aging! If you’re eating enough colorful veggies and fruits you should be getting enough vitamin C.
Healthy Fats - I know people with oily skin and acne tend to shy away from fats, but you need enough healthy fats to prevent your oil glands from overcompensation for lack of oil and internal hydration. Here are the winners: Olive oil, avocado oil, purified fish oils (I like Metagenics), fresh and organic nuts and seeds, coconut (in moderation). Luckily many of the foods containing healthy fats are also high in zinc and magnesium.
Zinc Rich Foods - Zinc deficiency has been shown to cause acne and make it worse. The winners are: Pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, grass-fed and pasture-raised lamb/beef, chickpeas, lentils, cacao powder, cashews, mushrooms and spinach.
Magnesium-Rich Foods - We tend to breakout when stressed and magnesium helps to support your adrenal system and regulate your body’s response to stress. The winners are: Avocado, dark leafy greens, cacao, nuts and seeds, especially almonds and pumpkin seeds, spirulina.
Drink More of This Stuff
Water, water, water! If you’re dehydrated your skin will suffer. You also need enough water to detoxify properly which is crucial for healthy skin and hormones. Invest in a high quality water filter and drink from a glass bottle as tap water and plastics contain toxic, hormone disrupting chemicals. Warm lemon water first thing in the morning is particularly helpful for alkalizing your body and promoting detoxification.
Nettle Leaf Tea - Nettles are loaded with minerals and vitamin c and they help with detoxification. They also block DHT, which is the active androgen that causes acne.
Dandelion Tea - Dandelion is wonderful for detoxifying the liver. Happy liver = happier skin, hormones, everything!
Spearmint Tea - Spearmint (not peppermint) reduces testosterone, and in turn, help reduce acne in women
Green and White Tea - These are both loaded with antioxidants and help to reduce inflammation, balance hormones, and regulate blood sugar. EGCG, the antioxidant polyphenol found in green tea also increases sex hormone binding globulin which works to bind up the excess androgens that can cause acne. These teas can both be effective when used topically as a toner or spritz. However, both green and white tea contain caffeine so if stress is contributing to your breakouts, opt for a decaffeinated version instead.
Tulsi or Holy Basil Tea - Holy Basil is a wonderful adaptogenic herb that helps balance blood sugar and reduces anxiety.
Avoid This Stuff (Except for the Occasional Indulgence)
Dairy! Dairy products may be the most problematic foods for people struggling with acne. Dairy is also one of the most common food sensitivities/allergies/intolerances and is cross-reactive with gluten; This means that if you react to gluten, dairy may cause the same symptoms. The naturally occurring hormones and milk protein (casein) in milk are to blame here, not the milk fat which used to take the blame. Milk is high in androgens and dihydrotestosterone (DHT), both of which make the skin oilier and more prone to clogged pores an ultimately, breakouts. After suffering for nearly 25 years of acne I finally cut out dairy and my skin cleared up in 2 weeks!
Sugary, High Glycemic Foods - These include all of the “empty calorie” foods that cause your blood sugar to spike. Think bread, pastries, pasta, refined grains, sweets/candy, soda (both regular AND diet!), ice cream, alcoholic drinks, fruit juice, and white potatoes. Sugar comes in many forms so read your labels and avoid the following: high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, brown rice concentrate, agave syrup
Processed Foods and Inflammatory Oils - Refined “vegetable oils” like canola, corn, soybean, peanut, safflower and sunflower oil are all highly inflammatory and can make acne worse. These oils are found in many processed foods and are used in restaurants because they are cheap and have a high smoke point (they don’t burn up at high heats), so they are tough to avoid if you eat out a lot. Try to eat at home most of the time and use the healthy oils mentioned above, especially avocado oil and coconut oil for higher heat cooking to help offset the times when you do eat out.
Alternatives to Antibiotics
Antibiotics are responsible for saving countless lives and there is definitely a time and a place for them. However, they do come with side effects and doctors have grossly over-prescribed them over the last few decades. Just one course of antibiotics can wipe out certain types of gut bacteria forever; and since we have yet to identify all the beneficial bacteria that live in our bodies, we may not know if the strains that we killed are even replaceable through diet or probiotics.
To say that my gut health was compromised after taking years and years of antibiotics would be the understatement of the century, and the resulting health problems were definitely not worth the marginal improvement I saw in my skin.
According to this article in sciencedaily: Prolonged use of antibiotics can affect the microbiome (the trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit our bodies) in areas other than the skin, resulting in disease. The report noted that people who use topical and oral antibiotics were three times as likely to show an increase of bacteria in the back of their throat and tonsils compared with non-users. Long-term use of antibiotics in acne treatment also is associated with an increase in upper respiratory infections and skin bacteria and was shown to affect a user's blood-sugar level.
An interesting alternative is guggul (gugulipid/guggulsterone) which is made from the sap or gum resin of the guggul tree. The guggul tree is native to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Traditionally it was used to treat atherosclerosis but recently studies showed it to be as effective if not slightly more effective in for treating acne than tetracycline. Guggul contains plant steroids that lower cholesterol and triglycerides. One of these substances also decreases the redness and swelling that occurs in some types of acne.
I recommend making dietary changes first and if you are still having breakouts after at least 6-12 weeks of eating according to the above guidelines, give the guggul a try. Your gut and your complexion may thank you!
Smith R., Mann N., Braue A., Mäkeläinen H., Varigos G. "The effect of a high-protein, low-glycemic-load diet versus a conventional, high-glycemic-load diet on biochemical parameters associated with acne vulgaris: A randomized, investigator-masked, controlled trial." August 2007. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, volume 57, issue 2, pages 247-256.