Why Do Certain Foods Cause Acne?
Certain foods cause acne for the following reasons:
- They increase inflammation. Inflammation contributes to acne lesions.
- They cause the release of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 is released alongside insulin after meals rich in carbohydrates and/or sugars. People who have a mutation that causes a non-functioning IGF-1 receptor do not get acne. This may suggest that the key to treat acne is in diet.
The examples of food items below do either one or both of the aforementioned causes of acne.
Diet and Acne
There are foods to avoid for acne. These food help cause acne because they can spike your insulin levels and increase sebum production, promote inflammation, and lead to hormone imbalances.
What Foods Cause Acne?
- Refined or processed carbohydrates such as white bread, cake, white rice, and refined grains, all of which cause insulin levels to spike.
- Sugar. Anything with high sugar content such as orange juice and sodas will spike your insulin levels leading to a surge of inflammation throughout the body. This will in turn lead to breakouts.
- Fried and greasy foods such as potato chips & fries are also terrible for your skin as they contain pro-inflammatory omega-6 oils.
- Dairy foods (milk, yogurt, whey protein shakes, etc.) contain simple sugars that cause a spike in blood sugar. Dairy also contains IGF-1 that can be absorbed by your body.
- Alcohol is loaded with carbohydrates and alcohol itself is pro-inflammatory.
- Chocolate contains both dairy as well as saturated fats that are pro-inflammatory.
Best Diets for Acne
Below are the best diets for acne. We put them in order of theoretical efficacy.
2. Low Glycemic Diet for Acne. Low glycemic load diets allow for a higher amount of carbohydrate consumption than a ketogenic diet. It emphasizes getting carbohydrates that aren’t processed and easily absorbed by the body. 200 calories from corn-on-the cob would be considered low glycemic index whereas 200 calories from a beverage made with high-fructose corn syrup would be high-glycemic index. Several studies highlight the effectiveness of a low-glycemic index diet for acne.
One study comparing a low-glycemic diet consisting of 25% energy from protein and 45% from low-glycemic-index carbohydrates with carbohydrate-dense diet found that acne lesions decreased more in the low glycemic index group. The group also had a greater reduction in weight and BMI and a greater improvement in insulin sensitivity.16
Another study found that a low-glycemic index diet decreased total lesion counts, reduced weight, reduced free androgens, and increased insulin-like growth factor binding protein (IGFBP).17 IGFBP binds to IGF-1 and prevents it from causing acne. A third study noticed the same increase in IGFBP in people observing a low-glycemic index diet.18
Foods That Help Acne
If you’re not ready to take on a completely different diet then read on to see our tips for smaller dietary habit changes that you can make to get clearer skin. These foods either 1. Support a healthy inflammation response or 2. Support better blood sugar control.
1. Increase Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fats are healthier and unlike saturated, do not cause inflammation.1 Fish oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects. This is because omega-3 fats do not get converted into pro-inflammatory molecules by lipoxygenase enzymes which are always present in the body. A recent study showed that acne sufferers who took omega-3 fatty acid for two months ended up seeing a significant reduction in body & back acne.2 Making the following changes to your diet will increase the amount of omega-3 fats you consume.
- Cook with olive oil as these oils have more omega-3
- Substitute red meats with poultry and seafood whenever possible. Sardines, tuna, mackerel, and salmon are good choices. Fish and other sea animals need to have higher amounts of unsaturated fats to survive in colder temperatures.
- Eat other good sources of omega-3 such as walnuts, almonds, and cashews. These nuts make a great snack because they are low in carbohydrates and help support satiety (feeling full).
Inflammation is the body’s response to things that it finds irritating. An irritant causes release of chemical messengers followed by an immune response to the irritant. The body is constantly exposed to irritants on your skin as well as in your gut. It is no surprise that the majority of your immune system is centered around your gut where there are over 1012 organisms per gram of intestinal content.3 Most of those organisms are benign and others are beneficial. The beneficial ones are called probiotics. Probiotics are known good beneficial bacteria that can be either consumed through food or through concentrated supplements. They take up residence inside the large intestine and compete against bad and undesirable bacteria.
These bad organisms can cause irritation of the cells that line the gut would cause them to release more inflammatory compounds that wind up in the bloodstream and in systemic circulation. They can also release inflammatory molecules themselves. For example, E. coli organisms produce pro-inflammatory lipopolysaccharide (LPS) endotoxins. Interestingly, excessive LPS levels in animals has been shown to cause depression-like behavior in animals.4 Researchers have also found surprising correlations between depression to systemic increases in inflammatory signaling molecules such as C-reactive protein (CRP), Interleukin-6 (IL-6), and Interleukin-10 (IL-10).5
Recent research has highlighted the connection between probiotics and mental health. Mice under normal conditions opt for high-fat foods. Stress causes them to opt for high-carbohydrate food6 which has been shown to worsen acne. Probiotic supplements have also been found to mediate and lower systemic release of inflammatory cytokines,7 and reduce levels of the pro-inflammatory molecule interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1-α).8 Bifidobacteria supplementation in rats was found to reduce brain stress hormones and intentionally doubling fecal Lactobacillus content decreased anxiety-like behavior.9,10 Therefore, it is reasonable to expect probiotic supplementation to have a two-fold effect on acne by lowering systemic inflammation thereby supporting healthy mood and better eating habits.
3. Antioxidant Foods that Prevent Acne
Acne is initiated when inflammation at the cellular level triggers oxidization of sebum in the hair follicles. Oxidation is a source of cellular damage and inflammation. Antioxidants neutralize free-radicals and reduce inflammation and damage. Foods rich in antioxidants tend to brightly colored. Natural sources of antioxidants include: goji berries, avocados, sunflower seeds, blueberries, kidney beans, cranberries, almonds, artichoke, pecans, dark chocolate, elderberries, blackberries, and russet potatoes.
Green tea is also packed with antioxidants, these help to reduce inflammation and protect tissue and cell membranes. Green tea has been shown to reduce the effects of sun damage and inflammation.11 Green tea also contains beneficial vitamins C, D, and K.
Turmeric is an antioxidant which means it’s a free radical scavenger. It will help to protect your cells, and can also help with metabolism, leaving skin feeling, clear, soft and looking fresh.
Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant that helps to support a healthy inflammatory response and reduce the redness and swelling of acne. Natural sources include grapes, blueberries, cranberries and dark chocolate.
4. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant that plays an important role in the battle against free radicals. When free radicals cause oxidative stress, it can completely change the environment of the sebaceous glands in the skin, making them more hospitable to acne. This vitamin also supports healthy skin by inhibiting the production of pore-clogging sebum. Additionally, vitamin A helps support the growth of new skin cells. Natural sources of this vitamin include brown rice, Brazil nuts, shiitake mushrooms, chia seeds, spinach, lima beans, and broccoli.
5. Zinc for Acne
Studies show that people with acne tend to have a zinc deficiency and zinc supplementation may reduce acne by up to 50 percent.12 Zinc supplementation can help acne by restoring healthy zinc level, which tempers the skin’s inflammatory response, leaving it less vulnerable to C. acnes bacteria. Natural sources of zinc include watermelon, garlic chickpeas, wheat germ, and sesame seeds.
Zinc for Acne
Selenium deficiency has also been linked to acne. It is a component of antioxidant enzymes inside the body that neutralize oxidized molecules. Increasing your intake of selenium helps ensure a diminished inflammatory response.
Diindolylmethane helps with hormonal balance and supports healthy sebum production, which can reduce the inflammatory effects of acne. DIM is found in leafy green vegetables.
8. Vitamin B
B complex vitamins are an important combination of nutrients for skin healing metabolic processes. Inadequate intake can increase your acne outbreaks as well as cause delayed wound healing. Food sources include eggs and bananas.
Staying hydrated is important for your skin’s health. Dehydration can lead to dry skin, and it will also prevent your skin from healing itself. You should be drinking around eight glasses of water each day.
10. Snack Smarter
While eating when you’re stressed can help to calm your nerves, it can lead to excessive caloric intake. Try some of these healthier stress-busting foods:
- Avocados - If you’re craving a tasty, creamy treat that will soothe your jangling nerves, try a bowl of guacamole. Not only are avocados delicious, but they are also rich in monounsaturated fats and potassium and can help to lower your blood pressure.
- Nuts - Almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are all good stress-busting foods. Almonds are loaded with vitamin E; the antioxidant that keeps the immune system strong. Pistachios can help lower blood pressure and reduce strain on your heart.13
- Spinach - The magnesium in this healthy vegetable can help to lower stress levels and keep you calm.14