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Food and Acne

Foods can greatly contribute to the development and treatment of acne. Find out which food groups trigger acne and which ones can help clear acne.
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Today, just about everyone agrees that food plays an important role in the development and treatment of acne. While some foods are known to promote acne breakouts, some contain bioactive nutrients that help clear acne.

When food is broken down essential micronutrients are released into the body. These nutrients are further metabolized into the different forms in which the body utilizes them.

The bioactive molecules obtained from foods contribute to the various organ-systems in the body. They are incorporated into the structural units of the body, are involved in cellular metabolism and serve as regulators and modulators of systems such as endocrine, nervous, and immune systems.

Some of the most important contributions of food to acne are discussed below.

Water and Acne

Water is all-important to life and living. It is responsible for hydrating the body and, therefore, it can help keep the skin supple.

Water may not directly prevent or clear acne but since it is a universal solvent, it is needed for cellular metabolism and for transporting important nutrients in the body.

Since water supply is seldom pure, water becomes an important consideration in acne treatment. Impurities or contaminants in water can trigger acne breakouts. For example, tap water is often treated with chlorine and fluorine. Groundwater is often contaminated with pesticides and chemicals used in farming practices which leach into the water table.

These contaminants can irritate the skin when used for washing; when drunk, they can interfere with hormonal balance and other biochemical processes to trigger the cascade of reactions that cause acne lesions on the skin.

Similarly, minerals contained in water (the calcium content of hard water, for example) can promote the clogging of the skin pores and render skin cleansers ineffective.

However, filtered water is great for skin. It helps flush out toxins and it serves as a better substitute for sodas, alcohol and other drinks.

Milk and Dairy Products

Milk and dairy products have been shown to cause acne breakouts.

The fat content and the glycemic load of milk and dairy are, however, not the main reason milk products trigger acne breakouts. The real culprits are the hormones contained in milk.

Hormones get into milk and dairy products through two different means. First, animals especially cows are often raised with steroidal hormones to hasten their growth and maturation. These hormones, which are androgens, collect in cow milk and survive in dairy products.

Secondly, even cows raised without hormones still produce hormone-rich milk. This is because cows produce hormones too and since cow milk is meant to help calves grow, it is filled with growth hormones.

The commonest hormones found in milk and dairy products are insulin-like growth factors 1 and 2, testosterone and other androgens. These are the very hormones which trigger acne breakouts.

Insulin-like growth factor 1 mimics the insulin produced in the body. It stimulates an increased production of sebum from the sebaceous glands. Therefore, it causes the secretion of excess sebum on the skin which creates the ideal environment for acne-causing bacteria such as Propionibacterium acnes to thrive.

Testosterone and other androgens also cause the production of excess sebum by enlarging the sebaceous glands. When sebum collects on the skin, it hardens and combines with bacteria and dead skin cells to plug skin pores and cause acne lesions.

Therefore, milk and dairy products are foods that should be avoided especially during the adolescent years when hormonal imbalance is the chief cause of acne.

Milk can also be responsible for adult acne in some people. Therefore, a total abstinence may be required. Some people, however, can still tolerate some dairy products.

Carbohydrates, Sugar, Fats and Alcohol

High carb diets especially sugary food can cause acne. This is especially true of soda drinks and junk foods.

These foods cause acne because of their high glycemic loads. Simple sugars are quick to trigger a surge in insulin production. When the insulin levels in the body rises, it triggers the production of more sebum from the sebaceous glands.

To prevent and clear acne on the skin, it is important to eat more low-carb foods, proteins and complex sugars. These foods do not cause sugar highs and so do not stimulate the release of excess insulin and sebum.

Even sugar substitutes such as aspartame and sucralose may not be healthy for the skin because they are metabolized into compounds regarded as toxins.

Alcohol, on the other hand, dehydrates the body and that is bad for the skin. In addition, alcohol tasks the liver and reduces its ability to detoxify the body.

When toxins accumulate in the body, they affect different organ-systems negatively. They can cause hormonal imbalance in endocrine system; abnormal inflammatory reactions in the immune system; and malabsorption of essential nutrients in the digestive nutrients.

Therefore, alcohol intake should be reduced in order to improve acne.

Fats and Fatty Acids

Some fats can also cause acne. This is why fried foods are not good for acne. Fats that are metabolized into Omega 6 fatty acids may also cause inflammation.

Fats can contribute significantly to acne development especially when their metabolism is reduced. When the body tries to push them out through the skin pores, they can clog these pores and cause acne comedones such as whiteheads and blackheads.

However, Omega 3 fatty acids are actually good for the skin. They are easily obtained from oily fishes, fish oils, nuts and some seed oils.

Omega 3 fatty acids such as EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) are useful in acne treatment because they help reduce skin inflammation. Therefore, they can prevent and relieve inflammatory acne lesions.

Antioxidants for Acne

Antioxidants are important in acne treatment. They help mop up harmful free radicals including reactive oxygen species from the skin and inside the body.

These free radicals are produced as byproducts of biochemical reactions such as the metabolism of fat. They can rupture cells, and disrupt the formation of collagen, which is the protein making up the skin, and cause the sebaceous gland to increase the secretion of sebum. These free radicals promote the breakdown of skin cells, cause injury and leave the skin open to attack by acne-causing bacteria.

Therefore, foods containing antioxidants can help reduce acne breakouts.

There are different antioxidants which are useful in acne treatment. First, there are the antioxidants found in teas such as green tea, chamomile tea and rooibos tea. Therefore, food sources of these vitamins and minerals can improve acne.

Antioxidants found in Teas
  • EGCG or Epigallocatechin-3-gallate
  • Superoxide dismutase
  • Aspalathin
  • Nothofagin
  • Vitamin A 
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E 
  • Selenium 

For vitamin C, the most important food sources are fruits, vegetables and raw liver. Vitamin E can also be found in green, leafy vegetables as well as sunflower oil, safflower oil, wheat germ oil and palm oil.

Vitamin A is found in a wide variety of foods including meat, fish livers, fruits and vegetables. Selenium is found in nuts, eggs, fish, meat, mustard seeds and cereals.

Vitamin A can also help rejuvenate the skin by increasing its turnover; it is also reduces skin inflammation and promotes the hormonal balance needed to reduce acne breakouts.

Other Vitamins Used in Acne Treatment

Besides the antioxidant vitamins and minerals, others are also useful in acne treatment.

The B vitamins are also especially useful in acne treatment. For example, vitamin B5 reduces the clogging of pores by constricting them. It also stimulates fat metabolism to ensure that sebum production is kept normal and the pores are not clogged by fats pushed out through them.

Vitamin B5 is found in a lot of foods including vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, grains and cereals.

Vitamin B6 can also relieve acne lesions. It does this by reducing the production of male sex hormones which are known to cause acne. The vitamin can also reduce skin inflammation by inhibiting the action of prostaglandins.

This vitamin can be found in whole grains, nuts, meat and vegetables.

Vitamin D is likewise effective for reducing acne breakouts. This vitamin is naturally produced in the skin and it contributes significantly to skin health.

Vitamin D reduces the production of excess sebum by inhibiting the enlargement of the sebaceous glands. It also has local anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects on the skin. Therefore, it stops acne-causing bacterial as well as the inflammatory response they trigger.

Vitamin D also has an antioxidant effect, and it can protect the skin from the oxidative stress of harmful free radicals. The vitamin can be found in mushrooms, alfalfa, fatty fish, livers and eggs.

Special Diets and Acne

Some special diets are sometimes recommended as acne cures. These modified nutritional plans are meant to help eliminate the foods known to cause acne while including ones that are known to help “cure” the skin condition.

The two types of special diets that are commonly used in acne treatment are discussed below.

Paleo Diet

Paleo or paleontological diet is a dietary regimen that is designed to approximate the meals of the caveman by using foods available during the paleontological era.

The basis for adopting a paleo diet is because its proponents believe humans are better adapted to the foods present in this era than to modern, processed foods.

Therefore, paleo diet includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, fish and vegetable. Absent from paleo dishes are refined sugar, salt, gluten, milk and dairy products, and any processed food item.

This stripped dietary plan made of low carb, low caloric foods produce lesser total energy than modern diets but it is also free of the high glycemic loads that can trigger acne breakouts. Therefore, paleo diet can improve acne symptoms.

However, since it is just a lifestyle dietary choice and not an actual treatment, it is difficult to recommend it in acne treatment.

Detox Diets

There are different variations of detox diets including Master Cleanse, Lemonade Diet and the 3-day Apple Diet.

Detox diets represents an extreme and abrupt change from a normal diet to a controlled diet for a short period of time. By substituting normal foods for a single, unrefined food item, detox diets aim to cleanse the body of toxins.

In the short-term, detox diets may improve acne symptoms if it is adopted long enough to provide such benefits. However, detox diets are shock detoxification regimens that most people find difficult to complete.

Even when a detox diet is strictly followed, it cannot provide lasting benefits for acne sufferers since it does not permanently address the root causes of acne.

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