Are you suffering with a face full of pimples? Acne doesn’t just affect teens and young adults – it can be an unwelcome companion well into middle-age. Acne is believed to be caused by overly active sebaceous glands that produce too much sebum and dead skin cells that build up inside hair follicles and block their openings. (pores) When this happens bacteria feed on this sticky combination of dead skin cells and sebum. This causes an inflammatory response that leads to the characteristic red bumps, blackheads and white heads that are the hallmarks of acne.
There are prescription treatments for acne, but not everyone wants to go this route. Fortunately, there’s some evidence that changing the types of foods you eat and the nutrients in your diet may be of benefit. Here are some ways to manage acne naturally.
Reduce Processed Carbohydrates in Your Diet
Do you eat a diet high in processed carbs like sugary desserts, soft drinks and “white” foods like white bread, potatoes and pasta that lack fiber? These types of carbohydrates are rapidly absorbed by your digestive tract, causing insulin levels to quickly rise and protein called insulin-like growth factor, or IGF-1, to go up. Research suggests that higher levels of IGF-1 and insulin may trigger acne outbreaks. The solution? Cut back on foods high in sugar and packaged and processed carb-rich foods, and replace them with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. The fiber in these foods slows down absorption and keeps insulin and IGF-1 levels in check. This may reduce the number of acne outbreaks you get. Cow’s milk is also a source of IGF-1, so cutting back on dairy products may help too.
Add More Omega-3 Fatty Acids to Your Diet
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of “good fat” found mainly in fatty fish like salmon, sardines and anchovies. Research shows these fats reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation contributes to acne, and some experts believe that increasing dietary omega-3s may keep acne symptoms in check. Is there science behind it? One small study involving only 5 young people with acne showed a benefit, but larger studies are needed. Still, adding more omega-3s to your diet may be helpful. If you don’t enjoy the taste of fish, there are omega-3 supplements available at most health food stores – but talk to your doctor first.
Acne and Zinc
Zinc is a mineral your body needs in small amounts that not everyone gets enough of, especially vegetarians. That’s because zinc is most abundant in red meat, organ meats and seafood, although whole grain foods and nuts are decent sources. Some research shows that acne sufferers have lower zinc levels than those without the disease and that taking zinc supplements may help. Unfortunately, zinc supplements can interfere with the absorption of other minerals like copper, so it’s important to take zinc under a doctor’s care. The other way to get the benefits is to eat more foods rich in zinc.
Vitamin A and Vitamin E
Retinoids, a prescription-based treatment for acne, are derivatives of vitamin A, so you might assume that adding more vitamin A to your diet might be helpful. Is there any truth to this? According to a study published in the Clinical Experimental Dermatology involving 100 acne sufferers, those with lower levels of vitamin A and vitamin E had more severe acne symptoms, but it’s not clear whether vitamin A or E helps if you have normal levels. Still, adding more vitamin A and vitamin E-rich foods to your diet may be beneficial. Good sources of vitamin A and carotenoids, vitamin A derivatives, include liver, eggs, milk, pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and apricots. The best sources of vitamin E are nuts and seeds, especially almonds, sweet potatoes and oils.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil, from the Melaleuca alternifolia tree, has anti-bacterial properties when applied topically to skin. One study showed that 5% tea tree oil was as effective as 5% benzoyl peroxide topically for reducing the number of inflamed acne lesions. Unfortunately, some people experience burning, stinging and redness when they use it. One warning – only use it topically, never by mouth.
The Bottom Line?
There is some evidence that diet and certain nutritional deficiencies may worsen acne symptoms. If you’re having difficulty controlling your acne, make sure you’re eating a well-balanced diet that’s low in processed carbohydrates.
J Turk Acad Dermatol 2007;1 (3): 71302a.
Clin Exp Dermatol. 2006 May;31(3):430-4.
Med J Aust. 1990 Oct 15;153(8):455-8.