When it comes to acne, diet is one of the foundational tools to help replete key skin-loving nutrients, counteract inflammation, promote healthy liver function, and restore healthy and robust gut flora. These are all key components that need to be addressed when trying to clear the skin.
It’s worth noting that this approach to diet is much more than just singling out a problem food. It can be especially beneficial if someone falls into the camp of “I tried skipping dairy (or chocolate, for example) and that didn’t work for me.” The most effective diet goes beyond symptom management and instead begins to address more of the core imbalances that may have led to the skin flaring.
Therefore, what is it, from a diet perspective, that is affecting the skin? More importantly, be sure to read on to find out what steps a person can take to encourage healthier, clearer skin.
3 Principle Ways in Which a Standard Diet Is Detrimental to Acne Prone Skin
Unhealthy principle #1: refined/processed foods and nutrient deficiencies
A review article in 2014, concluded that patients with acne should decrease their intake of high glycemic foods. The reason is that foods high in refined carbohydrates increase insulin which can begin a cascade of events resulting in hormonal shifts promoting acne, like increased testosterone, for example.
In addition, most high glycemic foods are stripped of real nutrition. This includes foods like white pasta, white bread, and starchy potatoes unlike nutritious foods like kale, quinoa, and lentils. The mineral and nutrient content is much different. Therefore, a diet that is predominantly based on empty calorie foods will not provide enough dietary sources of key nutrients like vitamin A and zinc which are important for skin health. On the other hand, nutritionally dense foods like orange veggies and dark leafy greens are rich in vitamin A and beef, eggs, and seafood are great sources of zinc.
Unhealthy principle #2: poor gastrointestinal health
The skin-gut connection is multifactorial and connects primarily by the health of the gut flora. Impaired gut flora has far-reaching consequences affecting nutrient assimilation, inflammation and even insulin signaling. In order to have healthy gut flora, one needs to minimize feeding the harmful bacteria and introduce good bacteria on a regular basis.
With that in mind, a 2016 study showed that supplementing with probiotics improved adult acne via insulin regulation, and another study showed that probiotics helped with skin inflammation by regulating the immune response.
Unhealthy principle #3: insufficient liver detoxification and low antioxidant activity
The liver is a workhorse when it comes to neutralizing toxins, digestion, and hormonal balancing. Traditionally, in naturopathic medicine, the liver is always considered when looking at skin symptoms because poor liver function is connected to increased inflammation as well as disrupted hormonal health. For example, the progression of acne is affected by levels of testosterone, progesterone, cortisol, insulin, and estrogen. It is the liver that recycles and plays a key part in metabolizing these hormones. Furthermore, studies looking at the role of oxidative stress have suggested that lower antioxidant activity is found in patients with acne.[7,8] One example is that glutathione, one of the antioxidants in the skin, was found to be low in the superficial layer of the skin in those with acne. If antioxidant activity is low, the burden on the liver will increase making it harder and harder to sort through toxicity, manage hormones, and cool inflammation.
With a good understanding of the pitfalls of a standard diet, we can suggest steps to transform a diet to be more skin loving.
4 Tips to Start Eating Right for Acne
Healthy step #1: eat a Mediterranean diet sans dairy or gluten
The Mediterranean diet is delicious, balances blood sugar, and incorporates nutritionally dense foods like extra virgin olive oil. The key components are vegetables, legumes, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and olive oil. In particular, extra virgin olive oil is a wonderful source of potent antioxidants that protect against oxidative stress. Although done only in rats, a 2011 study showed olive oil had a liver protecting effect due to its high antioxidant activity. Another study showed that people who consumed a Mediterranean diet were less likely to have had acne.
Healthy step #2: include gastrointestinal healing foods like bone broth or fermented vegetables
Bone broth is an ancient food that is incredibly soothing to the gastrointestinal tract and full of easily absorbable nutrients. One of the chief features of bone broth is gelatin which may help seal and soothe the gut lining, creating a healthy environment for good gut bugs to flourish. Additionally, adding in fermented veggies may promote healthier skin. Fermented foods are a great source of natural and live probiotic cultures. Consider adding a tablespoon or two of sauerkraut, kimchi, or other fermented veggies on a daily basis.
Healthy step #3: skip sugar, processed foods, and industrial oils
Skin health may rely on a healthy gut. The chief enemies of healthy gut flora and drivers of inflammation are most notably refined sugars, processed foods, and industrial oils like canola, soy, or corn oil.[15,16] By replacing those items with whole foods (see step 1), there will be a stable environment for good and healthy bacteria.
Healthy step #4: load up on garlic, onions, and cruciferous veggies
As discussed above, low levels of glutathione were associated with acne. Garlic, onions, and cruciferous veggies (think broccoli, kale, and brussel sprouts) are excellent sources of sulfur compounds needed to build glutathione.