Skin Deep: Acne and Diet

May 2016 - Nutrition

Acne is a common condition for both the young and old. Many people have had memorable episodes with bad skin in their teen years but many continue to suffer well into adulthood. Our skin is a good reflection of what is going on within our bodies. Adult acne can be caused by multiple factors including hormonal imbalances, elevated insulin, food sensitivities, some medications, and poor hydration and elimination. Depending on the severity, acne can cause emotional distress and lead to scarring of the skin. The emotional scarring from bad skin can lead to increased depression, anxiety, and even a higher rate of suicide attempts. While a common condition, there are few mainstream treatments that are successfully treating acne. The most successful approach to treating acne is to determine and treat the underlying cause, diet being an especially important component of healing the skin.

It has been commonly said in naturopathic medicine that the skin is a reflection of the health of the digestive system. Since the skin and the gut are also two important routes of elimination in the body, symptoms in these two organ systems are often correlated to each other. The relationship between diet and acne has been controversial for many years based on some poorly researched articles published in the late 1960s. Our entire medical belief about there being no connection between diet and acne is based on these publications which have sadly been viewed as legitimate studies for over 50 years!

In recent years there have been more studies exploring the connection between diet and acne. One of the most recent studies have come out of the Harvard School of Public Health. One study involving 50,000 women and another that involved 4,000 teenage boys showed that milk was strongly associated with acne. Fermented dairy such as yogurt seemed less problematic which may have been due to the beneficial bacteria which lowered IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), the main hormone within milk that is suspected to be the link to acne. Eating cheese, milk, ice cream, etc. had a higher association with acne in both groups. After three years of study there was a markedly elevated association between food and skin in these two groups.

Another study was published in the journal Dermatology in 2005 and was focused on whether fish oils were beneficial for acne prevention. The study showed that fish oil could help to reduce inflammatory acne by inhibiting an inflammatory chemical called leukotriene B4. Within the cells of the skin the sebaceous glands produce this chemical and the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in fish oil was able to inhibit its production. Eating fish or taking fish oil supplements could stop inflammation in the skin cells and decrease acne breakouts.

The connection between diet and skin is well researched and reliably traced in the medical literature, and in the changes we can see when diet modifications are added to a whole-person approach to acne. Evaluating a person’s lifestyle, digestive system, skin care regimen, hormones, stress factors, and diet can help to ease the emotional and physical pain associated with acne. Start a conversation about your skin with a naturopathic physician and look to the gut when considering the best treatment options for healing and prevention of this common and painful issue.

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