If you read our last article on the causes of chronic breakouts, you know that acne isn't so much a skin issue as it is a combination of internal imbalances that cause inflammation, excess sebum and breakouts. If only it were as easy as the 3-step skincare system infomercials promised! The good news? There are so many ways to support your skin and heal your acne holistically. Like really heal it, not mask symptoms or punish your skin with harsh acne treatments in hopes that the breakouts will stop. (Been there.) One of the best ways to heal your acne is through the food you eat. The gut-acne connection is real and the foods we eat either help heal our gut or harm it. Today, we're sharing exactly what's going on in your gut and how you can eat to heal it so you can heal your acne holistically. Let's dig in.
What is the Gut-Acne Connection?
Did you know that there are 100 trillion microorganisms living in your gut? Crazy, right? The microbiome of your gut is really the birthplace of wellness & dis-ease, influencing everything from your mood to your hormones to your skin. Everything you eat is metabolized and broken down in your gut, communicating with and sending signals to the rest of your body. So when something's out of whack in your gut, the whole system suffers.
When your gut microbiome is out of balance, you become vulnerable to chronic issues that 'leak out' into the other parts of your body, allowing intruders like acne-causing bacteria into your bloodstream, causing chronic inflammation, and more. Hello, inflamed, acne-prone skin.
The good news? An imbalanced or unhealthy gut microbiome can almost always be traced back to your diet, which means you have the power to influence and heal it.
So, what's going on in my gut?
Studies have found frequent connections between those with acne-prone skin and chronic gut issues. Those issues include:
- Leaky gut syndrome: a compromised, 'leaky gut' that allows acne-causing bacteria to leak into your bloodstream
- SIBO: an overgrowth of bacteria in your small intestines
- Dysbiosis: an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in your gut
- Hypochlorhydria: a lack of stomach acid leading to less absorption of skin-loving nutrients and slower digestion. (When your food sits in your stomach too long, it ferments and causes inflammation that is expressed through your skin in the form of acne and rosacea.)
- Candida yeast infection: an overgrowth of yeast, specifically Candida, causing chronic inflammation as your body attempts to fight it off
Besides identifying and assessing your own symptoms, a stool or blood test given by your doctor can usually help identify these issues. If your skin is chronically inflamed and acting out, there's a pretty good chance that your gut is experiencing one or more of these imbalances. The key, then, is to eat foods that won't further fuel the inflammation and upset in gut, but instead, heal and balance it.
What do I eat to heal my acne?
We know what you're thinking...Is this the part where you tell me to go vegan? To give up chocolate? To forget about pasta? No, no, and no. The beauty of eating to balance your gut and heal your acne is that it's not one size fits all. Each of our individual biologies are different and so each will respond in their own way to different foods and diets. Think of our suggestions as easy-to-follow road signs that will point you away from gut inflammation and imbalance, and towards your own path of healing, however that looks.
When we eat to heal our acne, we do so with a few goals in mind. Generally, we want to avoid foods that: cause or promote inflammation in the body (this will be unique to each individual, but there are some common culprits) and foods that feed the 'bad' or excess bacteria or yeast in our system. On the other hand, we want more of the foods that: decrease inflammation, are cleansing & help to detoxify the body, feed our body skin-loving nutrients, and replenish the good bacteria in our guts.
With that being said, here's what you want to limit or avoid to the best of your ability (you find what works for you and your lifestyle - no judgement here.)
- High glycemic foods (ie. pasta, white bread, sugar): Raise your blood sugar quickly, causing your body to release a hormone called insulin that triggers excess sebum (oil) production
- Almonds: Rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that acne-prone skin loves, but also high in Omega-6 fatty acids and oxalates (defensive plant toxins) which are linked to inflammation in excess. You don't have to avoid almonds, but we do recommend limiting them.
- Dairy Products: All dairy including milk, yogurt, cheese, and whey protein has been linked to a greater likelihood of acne and more severe acne. Dairy naturally contains high levels of hormones called androgens that increase sebum production and conventional dairy cows are even given additional hormones - the same found in humans that causes teens to breakout. More dairy consumption (particularly skim milk, because it has added whey protein) = more acne.
- Conventional Beef & Pork: Conventional meat is fed & injected with all kinds of synthetic hormones and antibiotics that can easily throw your gut out of balance.
- Conventional, non-Organic eggs: Exceptionally high in hormones, which can cause or contribute to an existing hormonal imbalance.
- Saturated & Trans fats: The American diet - ie. burgers, hotdogs - is very high in certain fats that stimulate the secretion of sebum-producing hormones and cause chronic inflammation.
- Omega-6 fats: Excess consumption of foods high in Omega-6 fatty acids causes inflammation in the body. This includes most of your common conventional 'vegetable' or cooking oils like Soy, Corn, and Canola. Opt instead for Coconut, Avocado, or Grapeseed oils.
- Antibiotics: While antibiotics can be helpful in treating certain infections, they're widely overused and kill not only the bad bacteria in your gut, but the good bacteria as well. Overuse can compromise your gut microbiome and make you and your skin susceptible to long-term inflammation and acne-causing intruders.
The following are what you want to feed your body more of. If quitting pasta and sugar entirely is out of the question, or cheese just isn't going anywhere, focus on consuming more of the foods that will help to decrease inflammation, replenish good bacteria, and promote your skin's natural ability to heal.
- Dark, leafy greens: Eating your greens goes without being said, but dark, leafy greens in particular help aid the body in getting rid of toxins while feeding it essential vitamins and nutrients that are great for healing acne.
- Green tea: Contains potent antioxidants called polyphenols that help neutralize damaging toxins in the body. Green tea has also been shown to reduce inflammation and sebum production, making it great for those with acne-prone skin.
- Complex carbohydrates: For many of us, eliminating carbs is out of the question. Try opting for whole grains and legumes instead as they are low-glycemic foods that won't cause a spike in your blood sugar or insulin levels. Complex carbs that are high in fiber (ie. steel cut oats, sweet potatoes) are even better.
- Bone broth: High in collagen and other beneficial nutrients that help to heal your skin and gut. Next time you go to grab vegetable or chicken broth at the grocery store, opt for a high-quality bone broth.
- Carrots: Exceptionally high in Vitamin A in the form of carotenes, these antioxidants neutralize damaging toxins in the body and decrease sebum production, while also evening out skin tone and lightening hyper-pigmentation. An ideal food for healing acne!
- Zinc-rich foods: Low zinc levels have been linked to chronic acne as the important mineral helps to regulate our hormones. Eating foods rich in zinc - cashews, pumpkin seeds, turkey, quinoa - can help to replenish zinc levels and balance your hormones.
- Healthy fats: Help to balance out our Omega-6 consumption and reduce inflammation in the body. Look for foods (or a high-quality supplement!) rich in Omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts, flaxseed, Organic, pastured eggs and fish.
- Probiotic-rich foods: Fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut, and coconut yogurt help to replenish the good bacteria in your gut and balance your gut microbiome. It also helps support and increase your stomach acid!
- Apple cider vinegar: Dilute 1 tsp. in 4-8 oz. of water and take before meals to help support healthy levels of stomach acid in your system, increasing the absorption of skin-loving nutrients and protecting your system from acne-causing bacteria.
- Clean protein: Opt for clean protein options like Organic (always, whenever possible) grass-fed meats, pasture-raised poultry, beans, lentils, and/or fatty fish like fresh, wild salmon. These don't have the synthetic hormones or antibiotics of conventionally farmed protein, and have high levels of healthy fats.
How do I know which foods are triggering my acne?
Because each person's biology is unique to them, what triggers someone else's acne may not trigger your acne and vice versa. The easiest way to determine which foods cause you to breakout is to do an 'elimination diet.'
Choose one of the culprits talked about above (ie. dairy) and completely eliminate it from your diet for up to 12 weeks. Not easy, I know, but it helps to remember that you don't necessarily have to eliminate it forever! Over the twelve weeks, you may see a significant improvement in your acne...or you may see no change at all. If your acne gets worse, chances are it has to do with stress or something else in your diet.
After you've allowed your body to completely detox from that food, you can strategically reintroduce it back into your diet and see how your skin reacts. Food-related breakouts typically appear 48-72 hours after you consume the food. Knowing this, you can reintroduce the food into your diet once and be on the watch for breakouts over the next few days.
Do an 'elimination diet' with as many foods as you like to get to know your skin and body and what makes it breakout. Even if you don't permanently eliminate the foods that contribute to your acne, the process will help you find a regular diet that works for and feels good to you.
While diet changes may not entirely eliminate your acne, it can have profound effects on the state of your skin, digestion, hormones, and overall health. Aside from the food you eat, your stress levels play a huge role in chronic acne. So don't stress about having a perfect diet - find what works for you and your lifestyle and take positive steps forward where you can. Next week, we'll be talking all about the do's and don'ts of skincare for acne-prone skin - just like the food you eat, your skincare can either help or worsen your chronic breakouts. More on how to make sure it helps and heals soon!
NOTE: We are not doctors. Always speak to your doctor before making significant changes to your diet. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration are are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.