Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 4: Nutrition for Acne
This post continues my series about acne and how to find help through a holistic, whole-foods, mind-body-spirit approach. This post is all about nutrition and acne. My goal in these posts is to give you information, so you can make changes and see improvements in your skin, and hopefully find love for your skin again, as well as peace (and even delight!) with your reflection in the mirror.
I haven’t skimped on information, so you might find it helpful to print this out and read it when you have time to really absorb the information. Also click here to check out Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 of the series (all about what acne means for the body, why conventional treatments might not be that helpful, and the root causes of acne). Part 5 is about stress and acne, and Part 6 is all about exercise and acne.
Acne is About Overall Health
We’ve talked about this a few times in previous posts, but it’s worth mentioning again. One of the more difficult things about acne (if having it wasn’t difficult enough already) is that it really is about our overall health (as mentioned in both Part 1 and Part 2 of this series): Skin health is linked to nutrition, digestive health, hormonal health, the state of our microbiome, the functioning of our detoxification systems (liver, kidney, lymphatic system), and, also, our stress levels and how much sleep we’re getting.
You’ll recall in Part 3, we discussed the root causes of acne – the underlying imbalances that might contribute to skin issues. For a review, they are:
- hormonal imbalances
- detoxification difficulties
- skin nutrient deficiencies
- problems with your gut microbiome
- problems with your blood sugar
Eating for Acne Means Focussing on the Whole Body
I hope it makes sense to you that most of the foods and eating habits we want to use to help with acne would be those that help address the root causes. So that means eating to balance blood sugar, to support the gut microbiome, to reduce inflammation, to balance hormones (and to help build the right hormones in the first place), to support your body’s natural detoxification (and to reduce overall toxic load), and to obtain the key nutrients required for healthy, clear skin.
How do we do all this? Read on, friends!
Step #1: FOCUS ON UNPROCESSED, ORGANIC, WHOLE FOODS:
If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you remember to focus on whole, organic foods. Why?
- Organic foods help reduce your overall toxic load (important since toxins from pesticides, food additives, preservatives, etc. contribute to hormone imbalances, overloaded livers, and other concerns that can underly acne).
- Whole foods have lots of healthy-skin promoting and protective antioxidants and other key nutrients. These nutrients help with skin healing and repair, and they also help counter the effects of inflammation (remember acne is considered an ‘inflammatory’ condition).
- Whole foods typically contain fibre (vegetables, fruits, whole grains), which helps with blood sugar and supports a healthy microbiome.
Whole foods are the foundation of a healthy eating approach for acne. This doesn’t mean you can never touch a processed food again – I’m not about that kind of rigidity. Just remember that addressing acne requires nutrition for your body, and the important nutrients are far more dense in whole foods then they are in processed foods.
Step #2: EAT TO SUPPORT YOUR BLOOD SUGAR
In the root causes post, we discussed the connection between insulin and acne: how acne is sometimes called “the diabetes of the skin” and how insulin – your very helpful blood sugar storage hormone – can become chronically high (when it’s trying to deal with lots of refined carbohydrates, for example) and that chronically high insulin is linked to increased sebum production.
So, how do we eat to manage blood sugar and do our best to avoid chronically high insulin, or regular blood sugar spikes?
Fat, protein, and fibre are big helpers.
That means the majority of your meals might look like a quality protein (grass-fed/organic/cage-free/plant-based), a healthy fat (avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, olives, salmon – both a protein and a fat – or fatty fish, nuts or seeds), and some fibre (roasted non-starchy veggies, for example, and perhaps also some starchier options, like sweet potato, beets, squash, or grains like brown rice or quinoa – usually blood sugar balance responds best to obtaining the majority of carbohydrates from vegetables as opposed to grains, but individual balance is key here).
It might not always be this cut and dry, since some foods cover multiple groups – ground flax in your smoothie, for example, is a fat and a fibre; salmon is a protein and a fat. But you get the idea: fat, protein and fibre keep blood sugar stable.
Balancing blood sugar can also mean trying to reduce refined carbohydrate consumption – things made with white flour, or white sugar. I’m not advocating here for a low-carb diet. I’m advocating instead for trying to focus on healthier, complex carbohydrates, which support blood sugar balance. Great sources of complex carbs include beets, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, potatoes, and whole grains like brown rice, quinoa.
Step #3: EAT GOOD FATS
In your quest for healthy skin, focus on the healthiest fats you can find.
Fats are really important for skin health. In addition to supporting balanced blood sugar, fat is critical in building healthy hormones, and in building (and repairing!) optimally-functioning cell membranes (and if that doesn’t sound glamorous, remember that those cells and membranes are what actually MAKE UP your skin – and so we need to treat them right). Certain fats – like Omega 3 fatty acids – are anti-inflammatory, which helps address the root cause of inflammation. On the other hand, other fats – like hydrogenated fats (trans fats) found most often in packaged, shelf-stable foods and deep-fried foods – are inflammatory, so minimizing/avoiding those is important for your skin health.
Healthy fats include: olives, olive oil, coconut oil, salmon/fatty fish, chia seeds, flax seeds, almonds, walnuts (just about all nuts), sunflower seeds (or other seeds), avocado, avocado oil, walnut oil, and flax oil, among others. Just to be sure you know which oils to avoid heating, so you don’t damage them.
Step #4: EAT TO ADDRESS INFLAMMATION
- Usually eating for inflammation means eating lots of anti-inflammatory foods.Some ‘inflammation experts’ argue that meat and dairy are more inflammatory, and others suggest that grass-fed/organic meats and dairy contain more omega 3 fatty acids and are therefore less inflammatory. I say, focus on whole foods, as discussed above, and focus on the best quality you can find and afford. And, eat lots of plant-based foods, like nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables, while reducing more inflammatory foods like sugar, alcohol, and processed foods. And consider adding an essential fatty acid supplement (more in Step #6), to additional ensure you’re getting lots of anti-inflammatory healthy fats (just be careful if you’re on any blood thinning medications).
- Sometimes, this step might also include identifying food intolerances or allergies, since those can also contribute to inflammation in the body. Intolerances and allergies can be identified through testing or with an elimination diet, but this is best done with a health practitioner who can guide you through the steps. You don’t want to eliminate an otherwise healthy food or food group if you don’t have to.
Step #5: NOURISH THE MICROBIOME
I listened to a webinar just the other day where the speaker reiterated: gut health is connected to just about every health condition, and there isn’t a body system that isn’t influenced by it. And those conditions include acne, and those body systems include the skin. To support your gut microbiome, there are a few useful steps:
- enjoy fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, kefir, and more
- enjoy fibre-rich foods, especially those with prebiotics, like onions, garlic, leeks (onion and garlic are conveniently also good sources of sulfur, which may help with acne as well), artichoke, asparagus, banana. For fibre-rich foods, consider sweet potatoes, chia seeds, brown rice, apples – really most whole food vegetables, fruits, and grains.
- incorporate probiotics (supplement). Note, though: some people with acne have wonderful results by adding probiotics into their diet and some see a worsening. It can depend on the brand, the strains contained in the probiotic, the quantity of units in the probiotic. Probiotics are generally acknowledged to be helpful for gut health (and therefore for skin health), so it’s worthwhile to try. Pay attention to your skin as you do, and don’t continue with a probiotic that seems to be creating a reaction.
- incorporate foods that support the health of the lining of your gut. Consider finding ways to incorporate collagen (like in a delicious hot chocolate, for example), gelatin, and of course, bone broth. All of these also help with the health and structure of your skin too.
- recognize that there are times when antibiotics are necessary (through they are very much OVER prescribed), and if you need to take them, keep in mind your gut health and continue your focus on gut-supportive foods
- For a deep-dive in the gut’s connection to skin (the gut-skin axis) check out this post on glowing skin and the gut microbiome
Step #6: REMEMBER THE KEY NUTRIENTS FOR ACNE
Many people with acne have lower levels of zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, and Vitamin A, as well as antioxidants (Vitamins A, C, E, zinc, and selenium actually all qualify as antioxidants). Eating a whole-foods diet provides lots of these nutrients, but sometimes targeted supplementation can be the necessary jump-start to help replenish what the body needs and see more significant help for acne.
Here are some of the key nutrients to remember – I’ve indicated where it might be best to focus on food sources, or supplements, or both (some vitamins are dangerous to supplement with, so food sources are best):
- Omega 3 fatty acids (food sources and supplement): Enjoy foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, anchovies, chia seeds, and walnuts. Consider adding a fish oil or plant-based algae oil (which contain both EHA and DPA) and taking a teaspoon or so per day.
- Zinc (food sources and supplement): meats and organ meats provide lots of zinc, as do nuts and seeds including pumpkin seeds. Supplementing with zinc often really helps with acne, so consider incorporating a daily zinc picolinte or zinc citrate.
- Vitamin A (food sources): egg yolks, liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, butter. If you’re keen on a supplement, consider something like cod liver oil, which at least is food-based.
- Vitamin C (food sources and supplement): cherries, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, leafy greens, strawberries – most fruits and veggies; for a supplement, try to find something that comes with bioflavonoids or other synergistic compounds
- Vitamin E (food sources): almonds, sunflower seeds, almond butter, sunflower seed butter, avocado, leafy greens, wheat germ, olive oil
- Selenium (food sources): enjoy 2 Brazil nuts per day and you’ve hit your daily intake for selenium. Other good food sources of selenium include: fish, most meats, eggs, spinach, oatmeal, beans/lentils, and apparently also mushrooms!
- Also consider:
- Vitamin D (foods and supplement, particularly if you live somewhere with winters where it’s dark at 5pm): fatty fish, liver, egg yolks, cod liver oil, some fortified beverages like almond milk
- B Vitamins (foods and supplement): the ideal here is to get the full range of B vitamins, like a B complex (as a supplement). Food sources with different B vitamins include: eggs, fish, meat, egg yolks, bananas, sweet potatoes, broccoli, avocados, leafy greens and also whole grains like millet, and nuts and seeds
Step #7: AVOID DAIRY
This is a more controversial recommendation, because I really don’t like advocating for the elimination of a whole food group. That said, many people have good success removing dairy. My thinking is: if you are struggling with acne and are just starting your whole foods approach, eliminating dairy for a time can be a way to see good results in a relatively short time. In certain people, dairy can be an aggravator of acne. Firstly, the natural hormones it contains can increase insulin and insulin-like-growth-factor (IGF1), which can promote a buildup of keratinocytes (skin cells) and promote clogged pores. Dairy can also increase androgen hormones in the body, which in turn can also increase sebum production.
Whether or not you return to eating dairy will be part of your journey. Some people find that after shifting their foods to focus on blood sugar balance, eating for a healthy microbiome, etc (the steps outlined here) and incorporating lots of supportive foods like bone broth, collagen powder, cauliflower/broccoli (liver-supporting foods), and so on, they can also consume some (organic, grass-fed) dairy and not have it affect their skin. Other people would rather not try, for skin reasons or ethical reasons or both. So I leave it to you. But in these initial stages, when you’re trying to make changes and see results and your body might be struggling with a few areas of imbalance, removing dairy can help for a time.
Step #8: DRINK LOTS OF WATER
Our diet also includes what we drink! And drinking lots of water helps keep your systems functioning optimally, including those detoxification systems, like your kidneys (recalling that one of the root causes of acne was detoxification difficulties). Healthy skin cells (well, all cells) also require water to conduct their activities, so keeping your body supplied with the water it needs is also an important step to addressing acne.
As with the theme of the rest, part of moving towards a healthier skin diet means moving away from the things that don’t help you, and that would include pop/soda, sugary juices, sweetened coffee drinks, and, yes, also alcohol. This doesn’t mean never have these things. But, if you’re looking to improve your acne, the aim is move more towards helps and away from what doesn’t, and that means more water, and less sugar/chemical other drinks.
TO SUM IT UP:
If you found the above just way too long to read, well, I get it. I’m not known for my brevity in these blog posts. I can’t help it! I want to write posts that provide the dots but also the information that connects the dots, without going so in-depth nobody can understand it anymore.
But for the sake of comprehension…here’s the quick recap of the helpful steps for adding acne:
- Focus more on whole foods.
And while you’re doing that…
- Shift slowly towards healthier fats. Whole foods and healthy fats will help reduce inflammation.
- Also balance your blood sugar by focussing on protein, fats, and fibre at your meals.
- Incorporate some foods that help the gut on a regular basis like bone broth and fermented foods
- Add foods and supplements that offer key acne-supporting nutrients (omega 3 fatty acids, zinc, Vitamins A, C, E, and selenium, and possibly also Vitamin D and B Vitamins)
- Focus on water as your main beverage
- Consider avoiding dairy for a period of time
Take it one day at a time, one meal at a time, and try to enjoy new foods and new eating experiences. Let this be enjoyable, not stressful, and feel positive that you’re making changes that can help your skin and health over the long term.
And of course, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.
© Emily Joldersma, R.H.N. Eat Well, Live Vibrantly
Looking for more ways to be vibrant and healthy? Grab a free copy of my e-book here. It’s all about easy daily actions for clear skin, balanced hormones, and vibrant living.