The truth about identifying acne-causing foods in your diet
Acne is a good thing. I know, I know, it may sound crazy. If someone told me this two years ago when my cystic acne was at its worst I would have given them the side eye. But the truth is, our bodies know exactly what they are doing—signaling us to an internal imbalance. Which is why paying attention to what you eat is just as powerful in rebalancing your skin as using holistic natural skincare products.
Understanding what causes an internal imbalance can be confusing. So we put together a list of five common foods that could be contributing to breakouts and explain how. To help bring you the most useful and up-to-date research, we’ve called on pioneers in holistic dermatology, Dr. Alan M. Dattner, and Dr. Trevor Cates.
How to use this list
First, cut out all five of these common triggers from your daily diet. Then, slowly reintroduce them back into your diet on-by-one to observe if any of them are aggravating your system. This is called elimination dieting and Dr. Cates suggests taking at least two weeks off of each food to see results, as explained in her book Clean Skin From Within. It’s not as hard as it may sound, because the less bogged down your system is with inflammation, allergies, and excess hormones, the more energy, clear thinking, and, yes, clear skin you will experience.
Sugar: an addictive culprit
These seemingly innocent crystals are actually one of the biggest offenders when it comes to acne for a few reasons. When sugar enters the body, let’s say in the form of a good ol’ chocolate chip cookie, the hormone insulin rises to help push sugar into cells for energy (a healthy process). “But if glucose is consumed in excess, or not used and metabolized properly, it can bind to skin’s collagen and elastin, which can damage skin,” writes Dr. Cates. This results in weak, slow-healing skin.
Another way sugar causes acne is when insulin levels rise too frequently. In this case, the cell receptors that gobble up sugar become less sensitive requiring higher and higher amounts of insulin to complete the task, explains Dr. Dattner in his breakthrough book Radiant Skin From The Inside Out. “High levels of insulin actually cause another hormone called insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) to get in the game, which is not so hot because it’s said to be responsible for producing fat and oil glands in the skin”, writes Dr. Dattner. So you’ve got your insulin levels going crazy, your skin weaker, and this hormone that ultimately clogs pores.
Pro tip: Before the two week break, taper down on obviously sugar-filled foods like cookies, white bread, and candy containing agave syrup, cane sugar, or corn syrup. Instead substitute with small amounts of local raw honey and real maple syrup (this is okay during the elimination diet too. Also keep an eye on the nutrition label of other products like tomato sauce, granola, and salad dressings. Even some protein powders have a high sugar count. Eliminating the sweet stuff can sometimes trigger irritability, headaches, and cravings because it is highly addictive and affects our brain’s reward system, much like, well, drugs. Leveling out these hormones is key to calming your skin and regaining power over your daily energy.
Dairy: a hormonal culprit
Have you ever went in on an assorted cheese plate with your girlfriends (yum) and felt a little foggy or sleepy after? Then a few days later, oh crap, your skin has three new breakouts? There are a few potential reasons for this. First, milk is generally high in sugar (see above). Second, most dairy products consumed in the U.S. come from pregnant cows, meaning we’re ingesting natural growth hormones they produce to help calves grow big and strong. Not great, as hormone imbalances play a major role in acne.
Sex hormone binding globulin and IFG-I are two big offenders naturally found in dairy that stimulate sebum, or oil, production leading to breakouts. In addition, there are scary added hormones to look out for. “Since 1933, dairy farmers have been using bovine growth hormone (BGH) to make bigger cows with more milk production,” writes Dr. Dattner. And while we’re not exactly sure how this third artificial hormone affects the skin directly, it’s more for the liver, our star detox organ, to process. When the liver is backed up it can’t properly eliminate excess hormones or other skin irritants leaving them to build up in the blood and flair in other ways, like acne.
Pro tip: Today there are so many dairy alternatives from milks, to ice creams, to yogurts making the transition a little easier. Some of our favorites are coconut yogurt, cashew milk ice cream, or almond milk. It’s fun to get creative and try new brands but be mindful of the sugar content in each product.
Coffee: an acidic culprit
How many of you cringed at this one? Don’t forget, this is a highlight of general acne irritants. Not all will apply to you and after two weeks of full elimination dieting, the age-old saying still applies, moderation is key. So let’s dig in. How does coffee relate to acne? First, it’s a nervous system stimulant, meaning it shifts the body into a frequent state of fight or flight and prods the adrenal glands to pump excess stress hormones, like cortisol, epinephrine, or norepinephrine. Which, you guessed it, stimulates oily sebum production.
“Caffeine is also dehydrating and acidic,” explain Dr. Cates. Yikes. Hydration is particularly important for those of us with acne because it helps the liver and digestive system flush toxins from the body.
So why is the fact that coffee acidic matter? As you may know, a healthy skin microbiome is very important to skin health, and the skin microbiome health is closely linked to your gut microbiome health. Unfortunately for us coffee lovers, the acid in coffee does a number on healthy gut systems and here’s how.
Living in your gut at this very moment are healthy and harmful bacteria. When healthy bacteria populate more of the digestive tract, your mood, digestion, and immunity run smoothly—an ideal environment for clear skin. When the harmful bacteria crowd around they cause mayhem and acid, unfortunately, makes the scale tip in favor of harmful gut flora. A common result is inflammation, candida (yeast) overgrowth, and leaky gut syndrome.
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition where the junctions in your intestinal lining weaken and break, which allows food particles and nutrients to leak out. This makes the neighborhood patrol a.k.a. our immune system go into attack mode (inflammation) because those food particles are going where they shouldn’t be. This causes chronic internal inflammation, which over time affects our skin’s ability to heal itself leaving room for redness and acne.
Pro tip: You’ll want to start reducing your coffee intake a week before starting the elimination diet so you’re not pulling out your hair. Some awesome tea substitutes that have added skin-nourishing benefits are green, chicory root and roasted dandelion. We also love mushroom coffee as well.
Alcohol: a dehydrating culprit
Another potential cringe-worthy favorite, but hear us out. “Alcohol is high in sugar and can dehydrate the body,” writes Dr. Cates. We know that high levels of sugar cause our hormones to go cray and dehydration taxes our natural detox system. Alcohol of any kind is also just generally a high inflammatory food. “Addressing inflammation is one of the most crucial things you can do for your skin,” explains Dr. Cates. “When we reduce inflammation internally, skin-flammation subsides and our skin clears,” she adds.
One of the main ways alcohol is inflammatory for acne conditions is through yeast overgrowth. Often triggered from a round or two of antibiotics throughout life, Candida (a genus of yeast) gets a foothold in the gut and rapidly grows throwing off the balance of good and bad bacteria. This spins the immune system into a tizzy releasing chemicals to get control of the infection. And guess what Candida’s favorite snack is? Sugar. “First, stop feeding the yeast that lives in your digestive tract by substantially reducing sugars and simple starches in your diet,” explains Dr. Dattner. The next step is to stop eating and drinking foods that are made of yeast (cough cough beer).
Pro tip: If your social life revolves around drinking, as many of ours do, this may be a good time to experiment with moving a little slower and reconnecting to your personal interests, hobbies, or books. Flowing in your own space will do wonders for relaxing your nervous system and giving your body some time to heal. If going out is a must, order yourself a seltzer and lime so you can sip and socialize.
Gluten: an inflammatory culprit
Pasta, pastries, cereal, oh my! “Whether whole grains or refined, gluten appears to be a trigger food for many people with skin conditions,” explains Dr. Cates. Celiac disease is not the only reaction to gluten. Sometimes it causes what’s classified as a ‘sensitivity’ or ‘intolerance’ response, like low- inflammation or leaky gut. This IgG and IgA (fancy talk for sensitivity) response can weaken the lining of our beloved digestive tract, allowing proteins and particles to get into the bloodstream. Then the neighborhood control immune system comes rushing over causing inflammation and ultimately, acne, explains Dr. Cates.
“Some reactions are not even allergies, according to the strict definition of an immune system reaction,” writes Dr. Dattner. “Rather, foods may contain, or are broken down into chemicals that are psychoactive and put you to sleep or confuse your thinking, in the case of wheat gluten,” he adds. When reintroducing gluten to your diet after the two-week elimination, pay close attention to your energy level, mood, and clarity of thought. These are all signs that your body is not responding well to the food—this goes for all of the above.
Pro tip: This may be the easiest food to cut, especially if you eat out often as gluten free options are popping up everywhere even the bread basket. At home, if you bake try almond or chickpea flour and if you’re a pasta-lover look for brown rice or lentil pasta options.
So, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
If you’re anything like me and wondering what’s left to eat, look to fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, fish, legumes, oats and brown rice—basically a Mediterranean diet. One of my favorite parts about elimination dieting is discovering new foods (like have you tried COYO’s coconut yogurt?). This journey lends itself to a certain creativity, which if approached with an open mindset, can be a lot of fun.
On a fundamental level, you’re simply paying closer attention to what your body likes and dislikes—what fuels you up and slows you down. By doing this consistently, your skin will clear because you’re addressing the root of the flair. The best part? Over time your body will learn how to more gracefully react to these inflammatory foods and you can have them as a treat every now and again (yay, ice cream!).
Written for Apoterra Skincare by Larell Scardelli, Holistic Acne Blogger