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Acne flare-ups are becoming more and more common, affecting almost 10% of the population worldwide, regardless of age. And no matter how common they are, they still cause much dissatisfaction and embarrassment. There are numerous factors that may contribute to your acne, such as genetics, hormones, bacteria, inflammation, and sebum that clogs your pores, among others. But did you know that the food you eat might be the root of the problem?
Although there's been a lot of debate about whether there's a link between diet and acne, recent studies suggest that certain foods can indeed exacerbate acne and breakouts. In this article, we'll explore this connection and find out what foods are most likely to cause acne breakouts, as well as foods that might have a positive effect on your acne-prone skin.
Foods That May Make Your Acne Worse
Research suggests, and dermatologists agree, that the so-called Western diet, rich in saturated fats, foods with a high glycemic index, and dairy products, plays a major role in exacerbating acne in people with acne-prone skin.
The problem with acne is not, however, limited to Western countries, but it has become an increasing issue around the globe. This is because the western type of diet is adopted worldwide. Due to the modern, fast-paced lifestyle, fast food is, unfortunately, becoming more and more popular outside the U.S.
However, to try and not generalize things, we can't focus on a specific diet and make it responsible for skin issues, including acne. Acne is usually the result of a variety of factors, one of them being particular foods inside a diet. So let's see what those foods are:
According to a 2016 study, dairy products, cow's milk in particular, have a potential comedogenic effect on the skin, causing or exacerbating acne. It's believed that this is due to the hormones produced by cows during pregnancy. These hormones stimulate insulin-like growth factor 1 (or IGF-1), which also increases during puberty due to growth hormones, hence, puberty acne.
The high concentrations of IGF-1 in the blood also stimulate the production of androgen hormones, like testosterone, which triggers a chain reaction in the body, causing sebaceous glands to produce more oil. More sebum and oil on the skin can lead to clogged pores and inflammation, ultimately resulting in more acne and breakouts.
Foods With a High Glycemic Index (GI)
High GI foods mainly refer to carbohydrates that our bodies break down quickly, causing the spike in sugar and insulin levels in the blood, the so-called hyperinsulinemia. High insulin levels in the blood stimulate the production of androgens, which causes increased sebum production and worsening of acne [source]. In addition, it also causes the dilation of the pores and increases inflammatory reactions.
Foods with a high glycemic index or high glycemic load are foods with refined sugars and grains, such as bread, pasta, and other foods made with white flour, white rice, sodas, and other refined sugar-packed drinks, candy, and sweeteners like maple syrup and honey.
Foods Rich in Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Studies suggest that the so-called Western diet is rich in omega-6 fatty acids and deficient in the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Compared to the Mediterranean diet, a typical Western diet has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of up to 20:1. Omega-6 fatty acids are known pro-inflammatory agents and are often associated with the formation of inflammatory acne.
Foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids are corn, some meats, as well as plant oils, such as sunflower oil and safflower oil.
Foods like processed meat, deep-fried foods, and high-caloric foods can all contribute to acne. For example, according to a 2012 study, frequent intake of fast food, like hot dogs and burgers, was linked to the development of inflammatory acne in participants aged 13 to 18 years.
This is because these foods contain a lot of pro-inflammatory fats, and they have a high glycemic load. In addition, processed meat contains a lot of nitrates, or salts. Salts draw the moisture out of the skin, leading to dehydration and disrupted skin moisture barrier. All of these factors lead to the skin that's more sensitive to outside influences and prone to irritation, inflammation, and, eventually, acne.
Unfortunately, studies suggest that our beloved chocolate can exacerbate acne sores and lesions in acne-prone subjects. Namely, the study went on for four weeks where male participants with acne-prone skin ate 25 grams of dark chocolate daily. The worsening of their skin condition was detected after only two weeks into the experiment.
Another study suggests that chocolate consumption may exacerbate acne because it stimulates specific inflammatory cytokines, the key mediators for inflammatory and bacteria-caused acne.
However, don't give up on dark chocolate just yet, as a third study suggests that dark chocolate, when consumed in moderate amounts, may improve cardiovascular health thanks to the abundance of flavonoids in cocoa.
Skin issues and alcohol usually go hand in hand. Regular alcohol consumption may lead to dark circles and eye puffiness, worsened rosacea, cellulitis, hives, psoriasis, and acne. In addition, alcohol increases inflammation and causes the pores to enlarge, leading to blackheads, whiteheads, and cystic acne [source].
Moreover, drinking alcohol can lead to hormonal imbalance, disrupting testosterone and estrogen levels. As we already mentioned above, an increase in androgen levels can cause your skin to produce more sebum, leading to clogged pores, and eventually, acne. Furthermore, alcohol may weaken your immune system and your body's response to inflammation.
Although there's still not enough evidence to support this claim, some studies have found that foods rich in iodine, like iodized salt and seafood, can cause acne. While iodine is necessary for the normal functioning of the thyroid gland and is even recommended during pregnancy as it supports a healthy development of bones and the brain, too much of it can trigger inflammatory papules in certain individuals.
So, if you're sensitive to iodine, be mindful of iodine-rich foods as well as certain supplements that are likely to contain iodine, such as certain protein powders, meal replacement shakes and powders, and some probiotic supplements.
Discover the Link Between Your Diet and Acne
If you suspect that certain foods may be triggering your acne, you can start a food journal, tracking the foods you eat and your dietary habits over the course of one day, week, and month. It would be most helpful if you kept your journaling for at least three months, to observe your eating patterns and how your skin reacts.
You might end up discovering that it's not your diet that triggers acne and breakouts but rather a deficiency in certain minerals or vitamins. So, in any case, food journaling can be very helpful and insightful.
On the other hand, you can try an elimination diet to discover if there's a link between certain foods and your acne. The elimination diet consists of two phases, the elimination phase and the reintroduction phase. In the elimination phase, the goal is to remove all the foods from your diet that you suspect might trigger your symptoms, like milk and sugar. You should refrain yourself from eating these foods for 2 to 3 weeks. If your acne subsides during this period, it's already a good indicator that it's indeed some of these food groups that trigger your skin issues.
In the reintroduction phase, you should start eating the foods you eliminated again, but reintroduce them one by one. For example, if you introduce milk back into your diet, and after 2 to 3 days, you don't notice your acne worsening, it's safe to assume that milk is not your culprit and that it's fine to continue eating it. Then move on to the next food group you eliminated, and observe how your skin reacts over the period of two to three days again, and so on.
However, be mindful not to eliminate too many foods at once because it may lead to nutritional deficiency. So, if you think that an elimination diet could help you discover the link between certain foods and acne, it would be best to consult with your doctor beforehand.
Foods You Should Eat
Just like some foods can be the cause of the problem, other foods might be the solution to it. There are certain foods and food groups that have anti-inflammatory and protective properties, which may help you fight against acne. Some of these foods are:
Foods With a Low Glycemic Index
In 2007, a 12-week study examined the effects of a low-glycemic-load diet in 43 acne patients. The results clearly showed a dramatic decrease in acne lesions compared to the control group, as well as a reduction in weight and improved insulin sensitivity.
So, try to replace foods with a high GI (white sugar, white bread, and white rice) with those with a medium or low GI (like legumes and whole grains, fruits, and vegetables). In addition, foods containing plenty of dietary fibers (oats, lentils, and others) can also help regulate insulin, helping you with acne in the long run [source].
Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for our overall health. However, the problem occurs when these two fatty acids are out of balance. As people now consume more vegetable oils (for example, sunflower oil), the balance of acids in our body has shifted in favor of omega-6 fatty acids, which causes inflammatory reactions and, therefore, acne.
To counteract this, researchers suggest that we consume more omega-3 fatty acids as these inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory compounds and have a therapeutic effect on acne.
Omega-3s are mostly found in fish oil (and fish oil supplements), fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, and mackerel), as well as nuts and seeds (such as chia seed, flaxseed, and walnuts).
Free radicals and oxidative stress cause inflammation and a suitable environment for acne-causing bacteria to thrive, preparing the ground for acne to develop [source]. In addition, research suggests that people with acne-prone skin have lower concentrations of vitamins A and E in their blood.
Therefore, eating fruits and vegetables rich in these antioxidants may help you fight free radicals as well as acne. Dark fruits and berries (like black grapes and blueberries) are rich in antioxidants and have a high fiber content, which can help you regulate insulin levels.
Watercress and avocado oil are good sources of vitamin E, while foods high in beta-carotene, or vitamin A, are orange foods, such as pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and carrots.
Zinc is extremely important for healthy skin. It's known to help alleviate inflammation and act against P. acnes, an acne-causing bacteria. There is also research that indicates that people who suffer from acne have zinc deficiency [source].
It's been shown that oral supplementation of zinc has positive effects in treating acne. However, since the daily dose of zinc supplements necessary for treating acne is pretty high, it can cause vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. Therefore, it would be best to get this nutrient from other sources, such as cashews, legumes, eggs, seeds, meat, and whole grains.
Polyphenols found in green tea and some herbal teas, like peppermint tea, have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, studies show that these compounds can reduce sebum production on the skin, significantly improving acne and preventing acne overgrowth [source].
Turmeric, or Curcuma longa, is a bright yellow or orange aromatic spice common in Asian dishes. However, studies suggest that it also has numerous benefits for the skin due to its rich content of polyphenols. One of these polyphenols found in turmeric is called curcumin, with strong anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties. Therefore, turmeric, both ingested and applied topically, can improve various skin conditions, including acne.
Probiotics are responsible for the health of our gut which is in close connection with the health and appearance of the skin. Probiotics reduce inflammation, regulate intestinal function, and support flushing of the toxins and absorption of essential nutrients [source]. You can get them in the form of supplements, but again, it's best to have a diet rich in foods that are natural probiotics, such as yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, and the like.
Some Final Words of Advice...
Bear in mind that everybody's different and that you might be sensitive to other foods that we didn't list above. So, if you're struggling with acne, it's important to keep track of your dietary habits with food journaling or whatever method works best for you.
And above all, you shouldn't self-diagnose. So, ask your dermatologist for advice on how to address your skin concerns best. Besides avoiding some of the acne-triggering foods, you might need prescription skincare and medication as well.