Acne is most commonly associated to pubescent teenagers as a result of changes in hormonal levels, which in most cases disappears at some point when transitioning into adulthood. However, a survey taken across 92 clinics in the UK in 2015 revealed that adults requesting specialist acne treatment has risen by 200% and women are 5 times more likely to be affected by it. Could our diet, which has increased in refined sugar and processed food, as well as rising levels of stress, be making us chronically breakout? Research is showing that they might well be…
What is Acne?
Acne is caused by overactive sebaceous glands, which produce oil (sebum) that can block pores and lead to an overgrowth of the bacteria Propionibacterium Acnes. This little bacteria is what can aggravate the skin and cause red, swollen bumps, as well as blackheads to appear. In the worst case scenario, these pus-filled bumps can turn into cysts, which are painful and can lead to severe scarring. It’s safe to say that having acne is not for the faint-hearted, and whilst being far from life-threatening, it can lead to a negative long-term impact on self-esteem and can significantly affect people’s lives.
What is the most common treatment?
Common treatment for acne includes antibiotics, which aim to get rid of the bacteria that causes the proliferation of spots on the face, as well as the chest and back. Roaccutane, is also a common avenue of treatment, however it is most commonly the last port of call. This is because this medication has been linked to a long list of negative side effects that include depression, nose bleeding, chapped lips, dry skin and joint pain. There has also been research suggesting that Roaccutane can have a negative impact on fertility in women.
Whilst antibiotics have shown to improve skin, their effects are often transient, meaning that acne commonly resurfaces after some time. Recurring use of antibiotics can also lead to resistance, as the bacteria eventually adapt to the medication and are no longer affected by it. Antibiotics can also have a negative impact on our ‘good’ bacteria, which is also important for preventing an overgrowth of the ‘bad’ bacteria.
What other options are available?
Whilst medication can help to reduce symptoms dramatically, they may not be so effective at providing sustainable changes and can often negatively impact the overall health of the body. You may have been told that diet has nothing to do with skin, however, science is showing that what we eat can have a significant impact on the health of our skin and in preventing acne.
Here are a few dietary strategies that you can start implementing now to address acne:
Eat a Low-Glycemic Diet
A diet that is low in glycemic index means that the foods in the diet have little impact on blood sugar levels. These are foods such as vegetables, pulses, meat, fish, dairy, healthy fats and wholegrains such as brown rice and wholemeal bread etc. On the other hand, a diet that is high in refined sugars, such as those found in cakes, pastries, fizzy drinks, as well as refined flours like white bread and white rice, is high in glycemic index. These are foods that have a large impact on blood sugar levels, leading to higher insulin levels.
When insulin levels are consistently elevated, due to a poor diet that is high in sugar and processed food, this can drive inflammation, as well as hormones that increase the production of sebum. The increase in sebum leads to blocked pores and increased inflammation drives the proliferation of red spots.
Try avoiding foods that are high in refined sugars, processed foods and refined flours. Replace these with a diet that is high in a variety of vegetables, good sources of protein (whether they be plant based or animal protein), as well as healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocado and coconut oil. In addition, avoid drinking fruit and instead eat your fruit – this is because whole fruit has its fibre intact, which prevents blood sugar levels from soaring too quickly. However, it’s important to prioritise your intake of vegetables over fruit – so try to stick to snacks like crudites, boiled eggs, hummus and nuts and seeds, rather than reaching for sweeter alternatives.
Feed your Gut Bacteria
According to the European Society for Neurogastroenterology and Motility (ESNM), our gut comprises of tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes (150 times more than human genes). These little bugs play a significant role in regulating inflammation in the body. They do this by protecting the lining of the gut by preventing molecules such as proteins and immune cells from crossing over from our digestive tract and into our blood circulation. However, things like eating a poor diet, stress and medications can have an adverse effect on the balance between the ‘good and the ‘bad’ bacteria, leaving the gut vulnerable to damage and inflammation.
This is why it’s important to nourish your bacteria and provide fuel for them on an everyday basis to ward off the bad guys. You can do this by, firstly, eating fermented foods, and secondly, eating foods high in prebiotics.
It’s all about fermented foods…
Fermentation has been used since neolithic times as a means to preserve food and is a metabolic process whereby food such as cabbage or milk, is left for a period of time in an oxygen deficient environment, leading bacteria to feed on its carbohydrate content, which turns into lactic acid. The process of fermentation in food also enhances its nutrient value and turns into a good natural source of probiotics, or in other words, good bacteria. Fermented foods that are regularly seen on the shelves nowadays are sauerkraut, kimchi (korean fermented spicy vegetables), kefir (fermented cow’s or goat’s milk) and kombucha (fermented tea). The best thing about these foods is that they’re easy to make at home – for example, if you wanted to make sauerkraut, all you need is a mason jar, salt and cabbage. Here’s a great and simple recipe to get you started!
Prebiotics are important too…
Lastly, prebiotics help good bacteria to multiply and survive in the gut. They are in basic terms, non-digestible fibre, meaning that the digestive system doesn’t break them down entirely and they therefore add to the bulk of stool. This fibre also acts as ‘food’ for the good bacteria to feed on, which helps to sustain them. Foods highest in prebiotic fibre are vegetables like onions, jerusalem artichokes and garlic. However, they can be found in many other foods.
You may want to consider supplementing with a combined probiotic and prebiotic, to make sure that you are giving your gut a boost. However, don’t choose any old probiotic you see on the shelf, be sure to select one that has roughly 10 different strains and at least 20 billion bacteria in each capsule.
Nourish your Liver
Your liver is one of the largest organs in the body and is a powerhouse of constant activity. It has many functions such as to clean the blood from toxins, by metabolising and re-packaging them to be safely excreted from the body, as well as taking in nutrients, turning them into substances that the body can use, storing them and then delivering them to cells when needed. One of its main functions is in hormone metabolism – it does this by recycling hormones that are no longer needed in the body and packaging them so that they can be shuttled out of the body via the bowel or urine. However, when the liver is overwhelmed by a poor diet, medications, alcohol and too much caffeine, it can get a little sluggish and the result can often be a build up of hormones such as estrogen in women.
Remove Liver Stressors…
Imbalances between estrogen and progesterone are common and can, aside from being a driver in acne, also cause other unpleasant symptoms such as PMS, mood swings, painful periods and sometimes ovarian cysts. In order to support the liver in processing hormones properly, it is important to firstly remove liver stressors such as alcohol, refined sugar, processed foods and toxins that are commonly found in non-organic fruit and vegetables.
The dirty dozen is a list of fruits and vegetables that are the most contaminated and are best bought organic. Instead of feeling the pressure to buy everything organic from the get-go, why not try this list to start off with and see how you go.
Load up on hormone-balancing foods…
Eat cruciferous vegetables:
These are a family of vegetables that have a specific component called indole-3 Carbinol that supports the liver in metabolising hormones. Think about getting some cruciferous veg such as broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, rocket, cabbage and cauliflower part of your everyday diet to give yourself some liver love.
Try Reishi mushroom supplements:
This medicinal mushroom has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine and has been shown to have specific properties that help to reduce the hormones that drive acne. If you’d like to read more on the benefits of Reishi, please click here.
Final words on managing acne..
If you’re not already following these steps, get started on them now and they should take you well on your way to being breakout free! However, dietary and lifestyle approaches are sometimes not enough to help clear acne, which is when medications can give that extra nudge that our system needs. Whilst they aren’t a good long-term solution, in combination with positive changes in nutrition and lifestyle approaches, some miraculous changes can be seen.