The Voice of Acne: What Acne is Telling You and How You Can Get Clearer Skin

Written by: Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN

I have battled acne on and off since my teenage years and, like many people, have used topical creams and washes as well as oral antibiotics in attempts to make them GO AWAY. At the time I wasn’t aware that the treatments for my acne were actually worsening my health - and my acne problem. My doctors certainly never asked about my diet or advised on addressing the root cause of acne. 

What I have learned in recent years is that the embarrassing and annoying acne in and of itself is not actually the real problem. Acne is a symptom of a deeper imbalance going on in the body. Instead of trying to get the acne to superficially go away with potentially toxic creams or harmful antibiotics, I have learned to listen to my acne as a message from my body telling me to pay attention to the systemic problem going on inside. 

In college I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I had unexplained generalized aches and pains and doctors gave me muscle relaxers to cope with the pain. The meds were a huge bandaid trying to mask a bigger problem. I eventually experimented with taking refined sugars and grains out of my diet and found that my aches and pains completely went away. To my great (and very happy) surprise, I found that my acne went away too. My body had been reacting to the food I was eating, manifesting as aches, pains and acne. 

This month, when I had an obnoxious acne breakout, I didn’t reach for the topical acne creams or antibiotics like I may have done in the past. I knew I had to get to the root of the problem. The acne was telling me that my body was not in balance and I had to figure out why. I took a look at my recent diet and the state of my gut health as the first place to start healing my face.

Understanding the causes of acne will help direct how we treat it, right? So, what are the causes of acne? According to The Center for Food Allergies, “A majority of acne cases, as well as many other skin blemishes, are caused by food allergies. Hormone imbalances may also play a role, but are largely overrated.”

The worst food culprits:

·      Dairy—Most common acne culprit
·      Gluten
·      Nightshade vegetables—Potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, pimentos, paprika, and cayenne peppers
·      Nuts
·      Sugar—Due to spikes in insulin

In addition to food allergies and sensitivities, other causes of acne are:

1)    Toxic ingredients in commercial skincare products.
2)   Poor digestion
3)   Poor lymph flow
4)   Intestinal dybiosis (microbial imbalances in the gut)
5)   Inflammatory foods
6)   Hormonal imbalances
7)   Stress—because it messes with our intestinal flora and hormone balances

So, what can be done to heal skin from the inside out?

1) Use skincare products that are clean and natural.

This is kind of an obvious one, right? Get rid of skincare products that have toxins and fragrances that cause inflammation and irritate the skin. Some people, like me, are really sensitive to the ingredients found in skincare products. 

2) Identify microbial imbalances in your gut and rebuild a healthy microbiome.

Isn't it ironic, mainstream treatment for acne has often involved antibiotics, which can actually worsen the state of our intestinal balance and therefore contribute to poor skin (and overall) health. I have been suspicious about the possibility that I could have an intestinal yeast overgrowth for some time now. So, I began treatment for a yeast overgrowth and re-prioritized rebuilding my intestinal flora. 

3) Identify food sensitivities or allergies.

Do an elimination experiment of the common food culprits listed above? I would start with dairy and/or gluten first because those are the most common offenders. Eliminate the food(s) for 2-3 weeks. You really need to be consistent and committed in this process for accurate results. After the elimination period you can add that food(s) back in twice daily for four days and observe how your skin reacts. It can take 1-5 days for a food sensitivity to show up so it is not uncommon to notice a breakout 3 days after reintroducing the food. 

4) Limit/avoid sugar and simple carbohydrate foods that trigger large bursts of insulin release.

Insulin burst are pro-inflammatory and trigger the growth of pore-clogging cells. I found this very true for me in my post-college experiment--when I took out refined sugar and grains my acne completely went away. 

5) Replace pro-inflammatory foods with anti-inflammatory foods.

Acne and other skin issues are a sign that the intestinal tract is highly inflamed. Intestinal imbalances and food sensitivities can contribute to intestinal inflammation, but a highly pro-inflammatory diet is also a common culprit. Foods that are pro-inflammatory are processed meats (lunchmeat, sausages), fried foods, omega-6 fatty acids (e.g. vegetable, sunflower, safflower, and corn oil), sugar, dairy, and gluten. Replacing these foods with anti-inflammatory foods (omega-3 fatty acids and fruits and vegetables mainly) will help put out inflammatory fires. 

6) Omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, fish oil, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are highly anti-inflammatory and will help put out inflammatory fires that are no doubt happening internally if you have acne. I take 2500mg of omega-3 in the form of fish oil capsules every day.

7) Get some sun.

Vitamin D can be really healing for acne. It doesn't really get to the root cause, but it will support healing. Vitamin D is a natural antibiotic, perfect for fighting the battery in those clogged pores. Walking out your front door and soaking up some rays is the simplest adjuvant treatment for acne.   

8) Good stress management.

Stress wreaks havoc on our gut flora and the high levels of cortisol released while in a stressed state has been show to increase inflammatory markers called cytokines. These effects on the body hugely impact the health of our skin. I know that I have been juggling a lot of physical and mental stress over the last month that has no doubt contributed to my recent acne breakout. I have made a commitment to myself to manage my stress proactively on a daily basis. Some of the stress reducers I have incorporated recently are daily meditation, yoga once a week, regular hot baths at night, massage once a month, and more focus on separating my work time from my family time.