Okay! Acne! Let’s talk. This post is part of a bigger series, one that I’ve wanted to write for quite some time. And that’s because…well, with acne, there’s a lot to say and a lot to learn and it’s important information to put out into the world so I wanted to do it carefully and with some thought. If you’ve found this post, you might be struggling with acne and feeling the pain and frustration and looking for solutions. I’m here for you and I want you to have this information, so you understand acne, feel empowered, and are confident about the steps you can take to improve your skin.
Take a long, deep breath, don’t be overwhelmed or stressed out, and let’s dive into holistic nutrition for healthy skin.
Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 1: Initial Thoughts About Acne
Caring About Your Skin Isn’t Superficial
First of all, let me say that it’s not superficial or shallow to care about your skin and how it looks. Not at all. If you have any guilt about that, please let it go and unburden yourself from that weight. For one thing, your skin is your body’s largest organ and it has an important role to play in good health, so wanting it to be as healthy as it can makes perfect sense. Your skin encompasses your body (literally – it’s your wrapping!), and is the only thing between your inside self (organs, blood, brain, and so on) and the outside world. As such, your skin protects you from bacteria and pathogens (as part of your immune system), helps you maintain an appropriate internal temperature (which is key to remaining alive), and is a huge component of your detoxification systems. So having healthy skin and taking care of your skin is an important part of overall good health.
And, for another thing, it isn’t wrong to want to look your best and to have your skin reflect the beauty of your inner self. I’m fully in support of that.
Nutrition DOES Make a Difference to Acne
Growing up, I remember reading in teen magazines different articles about the “myths” of food and acne. No, chocolate does not give you acne, the articles would say, or No, fries do not give you acne. These articles were usually accompanied by a photo of a flawless, clear-skinned, extremely slender model stuffing fries in her mouth (geesh, don’t even get me started on how screwed up advertising is to young women). And things haven’t really changed much in recent years, I’m sorry to say – at least, not in the world of conventional medicine. I read in my skin book Clean Skin from Within by Dr. Trevor Cates that as of 2016 the American Academy of Dermatology stated that it didn’t feel there was “enough data to recommend dietary changes for acne patients.”
But, please, listen to your gut and common sense and trust that if nutrition impacts everything else about your body (muscles, cells, brain, heart function, mood, fertility, disease, aging) then it only makes sense it impacts your skin as well. It’s obviously too simplistic to pick one food and say it can “give” anyone acne, but there is truth that nutrition plays a role in acne, and in healing and achieving clear skin.
I’ve seen the biggest changes in my skin – and really the only significant changes in my skin – through healthy eating, supplementing wisely, and using gentle, eco-friendly skin products. Well, and there’s a key final piece – stress management – but I’ll admit I’m still working on that.
Why Do I Have Acne and My Best Friend/Cousin/That Girl Over There Doesn’t?
So you might read the above and think, if nutrition impacts acne, why do some people eat crap and have perfect skin and others try to eat carefully and still have breakouts? This is a really fair question and something I have struggled with myself. I can eat a clean, balanced diet and STILL (at times) have my skin breakout (that’s where the stress component is HUGE for me) while I could spot a dozen other girls/women with beautiful skin eating “anything they wanted” and not having an issue. And there is a sense of shame that comes with that kind of comparing – it can make you feel something is wrong with you. It can also make you feel kind of desperate when you’re trying to find solutions and still breaking out.
There is a theory I’ve come across in functional medicine and holistic nutrition circles that makes sense to me. It’s the idea that everyone has a genetic weakness or “weak link” in the genetic chain. We live in a stressful, toxic environment, and often the foods we eat lead to inflammation, blood sugar problems, hormone issues, and more – these issues have an impact on our bodies. Where and how the damage from these issues occurs depends on where the weak link might be in our specific chain. What parts of our bodies are most susceptible to the damage from inflammation and toxicity will vary. For some, it’s the joints or muscles, for others maybe it’s the thyroid, or the liver, or issues with the brain and memory. And for some, it’s the skin.
I hope this is clear, but let me just reiterate: This isn’t at all about better or worse. This is just about different. We’re all different! Different skills, different talents, different personalities, different strengths, and different genes plus different ways our bodies respond to the environments around us. That girl with the perfect skin might later struggle with joint pain, or infertility, or headaches, or tooth decay. I’m not suggesting you comfort yourself with a “they’ll get theirs” mentality, but recognize that everyone’s health concern is different because our bodies are different.
My struggles have included acne and hormone issues. Likely yours do too if you’re reading this. But I’m guessing other people might have a health concern that you don’t have. Try not to compare yourself to anyone else. Identify your own concerns and strive to take your health under control. That’s all you can do.
Acne Is Wretched but It Does Have a Silver Lining
There isn’t a single person in the world, I think, who would say that they’ve enjoyed (or currently enjoy) the experience of having acne. Acne at any time can make you feel less confident, and truthfully it can really make you look at your skin like it is your enemy. And looking at ANY part of your body with anger, frustration, or rage does not cultivate feelings of self-love or self-worth. And my experiences with acne have made it abundantly clear to me that self-love and self-worth are so very necessary to make it through.
Does acne mean you are less worthy or valuable or loveable than anyone else? It absolutely does not. But it’s painful and frustrating and visible (in a superficial world that really celebrates and idolizes physical perfection), and that makes it really tough. And it can make you feel unloveable, and ugly, and really fearful (of the next breakout) and like you want to hide.
That said, if you are inclined to look for a silver lining (and most things have some kind of silver lining), you could say that acne DOES let you know something is happening in your body that you might want to be aware of and that you might want to look more closely at. Acne is typically the result of some underlying imbalance or health issue. Those issues tend to be interconnected and require exploration, but I feel confident saying if you have acne, likely something is off balance in the body.
This imbalance doesn’t mean you need to adhere to a rigid perfect diet (though some dietary changes can result in significant skin improvements). But, acne can be a reminder that you might need to look at your current nourishment regime (getting enough zinc, omega 3’s, fresh fruits and vegetables, quality protein? etc), your gut health, and at how (or even if!) you’re dealing with stress, big emotions, and self-care (like sleep!). Not everyone gets the gift of a health report card like that.
When you’re staring at yourself in the mirror wondering how your skin can be breaking out AGAIN, it probably doesn’t seem like a gift, but re-framing into the positive is empowering. Your body is communicating with you and you can make the choice to respond with frustration, or to respond calmly and say “I’m proud of the work I’m doing to take care of my skin, and I’m going to keep trying. It might not be a simple journey, but I refuse to give up.”
To Sum It Up:
After reading this, I hope you’re feeling a bit calmer, a bit clearer, and a bit more positive that you can make a difference for your skin and that the situation isn’t hopeless. And, I hope you’re ready to read on to learn more about acne, how you can impact your skin positively through nutrition, lifestyle, and behaviour changes, and how this is a journey that’s well worth the effort!
Look out soon for Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin Part 2: Conventional Treatments for Acne.
(C) Emily Joldersma, RHN, Eat Well, Live Vibrantly