The diet-acne connection

The diet-acne connection:  Eating food for better skin

By Suzanne Badiozzaman:  freelance writer and nutritional consultant

ACNE ISN'T JUST the bane of teenager's existence.  It  affects children as young as 4 and adults past their 50's.  Acne is a disorder of the skin caused by inflammation of the skin glands and hair follicles.  Statistics show 50 million Americans fight acne; specifically, 40% of women older than 25 and 3% of men and 12% of women past middle age battle acne every day.

Many point to stress, heredity, gender, age, hormones and bacteria as acne causes, but no single cause can be established.  However observations can show relationships, according to Loren Cordian, a scientist and professor at Colorado State University.  Recent studies support the suspicion that acne is often a side effect of Westernized diets.  According to the diet-causes-acne hypothesis, what you eat may be the root cause of acne eruption.

For example, many non-Westernized populations never deal with acne.  Cordian's team examined Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay for 4 years and Kitavan Islanders of Papua New Guinea for 7 weeks, and did not find a trace of acne.  Cordain observed that, although heredity is a factor:  the differences in acne rates between non-Westernized and Westernized societies aren't just genetic (some people are not genetically resistant), but result from an environmental factor, specifically, diet.

An unrelated 30-year study of Eskimos by Dr. Otto Schaefer, published in 1971 showed that Eskimos living in traditional conditions were acne-free, but once they acquired Western ways, they pimpled up like others in Western societies.

According to Cordain's research, certain foods, specifically high-glycemic carbohydrates, trigger a cascade of hormonal reactions through elevated insulin levels, promoting  acne emergence.  Insulin itself is a well-known influencer; with some foods (or under certain conditions, like insulin resistance) insulin levels remain elevated, resulting in acne. 

The tribes that Cordain observed consume minimally processed plant and animal foods, which are virtually devoid of high-glycemic carbohydrates.  Typically, non-Westernized people don't eat processed foods, cereal grains, dairy products, refined sugars and refined oils; instead their diet includes fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish and seafood.

According to Cordain, "Dietary interventions using low-glycemic-load carbohydrates may have therapeutic potential in treating acne because of the beneficial endocrine effects of these diets."  He believes low-sugar-spiking foods are less likely to promote a hormonal cascade reaction that would trigger acne emergence.

He also says, "Processed meats have been shown in a number of studies to adversely affect glycemic control.  Conversely, dietary fish rich in omega-3 rich foods are also anti-inflammatory, and can help heal the inflammation caused by acne. 

Looking for low-glycemic foods may sound daunting, but there's a simple trick:  Look for unprocessed foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, beans and nuts.  Grass-fed meats are especially good, because they have more omega-3's.  Avoid high-sugar foods until your acne clears, then add them back in moderation.  Changing your diet might help you discover what is contributing to acne breakout.

Dairy foods are tricky.  They're not high-glycemic, but they may have a component that can aggravate acne in some peop0le; the research is unclear.  If you choose to cut back on dairy to see if it has an effect on acne, make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D from other sources.