Acne is hereditary. But like many things that are hereditary, acne is affected by environmental factors as well, like what you eat and how much you sleep.
For 25 years the medical community said that your diet did not affect your acne. Even today, about half the books on my shelf claim there is no correlation between what you eat and acne. But in the last ten years the tide has gradually turned. The acne sufferers who said that they broke out if they ate certain foods are being vindicated. With acne, just as with the rest of your health, what you eat matters.
Your diet is not the whole answer. Acne is more complicated than that. You can have a perfect diet, free of any of the foods that can lead to breakouts, and still have acne. And some people eat all the foods linked to acne and still have clear skin. So just changing your diet does not usually result in completely clear skin. But it can help.
We tell our clients that clearing their acne is like pushing a rock. If your diet is clean, we are pushing the rock across level ground. But if your diet is filled with break-out stuff, we are pushing that rock up a slope, and your choices dictate how steep that slope is.
If you want to level out that slope, what should you eat, and what should you stay away from? Interestingly enough, just about everything that is good to eat for your skin is good to eat for the rest of your health– for your heart, for your brain, for your waistline. There are some surprises, but mostly if you are on a heart-healthy, cancer-preventing, waist trimming diet, your skin will thank you.
Stay away from simple carbs. That’s sugar and stuff that turns to sugar as soon as it gets in your body, like crackers and pasta and bread. When you eat sugar your body has to produce insulin to take that sugar into your cells to be used. A lot of sugar means an insulin spike to deal with it. That insulin is also working on your sebaceous glands causing them to produce more sebum and making the sebum stickier, so it is more likely to clog your pores.
Stay away from processed food and fast food. Stay away from salty snacks. Skip the processed meats like hot dogs. They are all loaded with inflammation-producing Omega 6 fats which are bad for your acne, but these foods also make your acne worse by feeding you too much iodine.
There has been a lot published about whether excess iodine causes acne. There is plenty of disagreement, and the disagreement gets pretty heated.
Iodine is a necessary nutrient. You need it! Your thyroid gland can’t function without it. Without it, the thyroid becomes inflamed, a condition called goiter. If you are pregnant and don’t get enough of it, the fetus’ developing brain will be affected. Back in the early part of the last century, there were many cases of goiter, so by World War I they began iodizing salt – adding iodine to salt, which already has some iodine in it – to combat this. It was actually a brilliant public health initiative. After the wide-spread iodizing of salt, goiter virtually disappeared.
But you can get too much of it too.
An adult needs roughly 150 mcg of iodine a day. A teaspoon of iodized salt has about 400 mcg, so a half teaspoon of iodized salt a day is more than enough. Back when people’s only source of salt was what they sprinkled on their food, this was a pretty normal amount of salt to be eating.
But since that initiative, our eating has changed dramatically. We now eat a lot of processed food. We eat a lot of fast food. We love our salty snacks. These are all loaded with salt and the salt is iodized.
Iodine comes to us in other ways as well. It is in vegetables like broccoli and asparagus. It is in everything from the sea. It is in turkey. It’s in beef liver.
Many of us are getting far too much iodine. When you get too much iodine in your blood stream it comes out through your sebaceous glands into your pores, irritating them and causing inflammation, which can lead to break-outs.
I never tell my clients not to eat asparagas or broccoli or seafood or turkey. They are too good for you! And they have all sorts of nutrients to help your acne. But salty snacks? It is hard to make a case that you need salted tortilla chips. Dip veggies into your salsa! Cut back on processed food with high sodium levels. Eat fast food less frequently. Buy plain salt, not iodized.
Stay away from peanut butter. It has a component like an androgen hormone that works on your sebaceous glands causing them to produce more and stickier sebum, clogging up those pores. Try almond butter or cashew butter instead.
Skip dairy. Clinical studies as early as the 1930s showed a connection between eating dairy and getting acne. Try almond milk on your cereal. Try cheese made from goats’ milk or sheep’s milk feta. You can keep eating your Greek yogurt. The fermentation seems to reduce the hormones that trigger the acne.
So what can you eat?
Eat lots of brightly colored vegetables. The different colors have different reasons for being great for your skin. A sweet potato has 3 to 5 times the RDA of vitamin A. Your skin LOVES vitamin A. But don’t get in in a supplement. It is fat soluble so you can overdose on it and vitamin A toxicity causes all sorts of terrible problems. But you can’t EAT too much of it. So load up on carrots too. Spinach and Kale have great antioxidant capabilities and beets and purple cabbage reduce inflammation.
So just remember bright colors are good!
Same goes for fruits.
Eat fiber rich foods like lentils, brown rice, and whole grain pasta. Skip the sweetened breakfast cereals and eat one high in fiber. And top it with almond milk. Throw some berries on it while you’re at it. Studies have shown that healthy digestion benefits your skin.
Eat wild-caught Salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines. Omega 3, especially the EPA kind, is great for reducing inflammation in your skin and throughout your body. If you are going for supplements, take enough for the EPA to add up to 1000 mg. Doesn’t matter what the front label says. Read the back for the important information.
Use olive oil instead of corn oil or vegetable oil which are high in Omega 6 fats, promoting inflammation.
And finally, drink a ton of water! Most of us are borderline dehydrated. For some there is no borderline involved. They are dehydrated. Lots of things are dehydrating. Coffee. Black Tea. Alcohol. Sports drinks and energy drinks. Pop. And of course, exercise.
Start with your base line – half your body weight in ounces. If you weigh 130, half your body weight is 65 so 65 ounces per day is your base line. That’s about a half-gallon. Drink that each day for a week or so. When you get used to that, start drinking more for your dehydrating factors: an ounce of water for every ounce of coffee, black tea, pop or energy drinks. Two ounces of water for every ounce of alcoholic beverage. A quart (32 ounces) for every hour of heart-pumping exercise. Yes in the beginning you will use the restroom a lot, but your kidneys adapt in a few days. Your body and your skin will thank you.
Will making these changes to your diet make your acne go away? Not usually alone, though some people in tests showed marked improvement in five weeks. But following this advice will give your skin a better chance when you start with an acne professional’s program of skin clearing. And the rest of your body will thank you as well.