Acne can put a serious dent on your life. Not only is adult acne extremely persistent it also causes untold amount of desperation and frustration. All made worse by spread of conflicting information online.
Luckily you are on the right place, because paleo diet is one of the best dietary treatments for adult acne. In this article I’m going to explain why. We’ll look at the two primary factors behind acne, namely hormones and inflammation, and see the effect paleo has on them.
What Causes Acne
There are no simple answers to what causes acne. Research in the past decade has shown that acne has both internal and external causes. In this post we’ll skip the external causes and focus on the internal factors.
However I do want to stress that you shouldn’t ignore the external stuff. In many cases treating acne only with internal measures (diet, supplements, stress management, etc.) is not enough. They can help a lot, but they may not be enough to get you completely clear. With the disclaimer out of the way let’s see what internal factors cause acne.
Hormonal Acne and Paleo
At the hormonal side we can point the finger to androgens (male sex hormones), insulin and insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Genetics make acne-prone skin hypersensitive to androgens, and even at normal levels they cause excessive sebum production and skin cell growth.
There’s not much you can do to affect androgen levels, but there’s a lot you can do to insulin and IGF-1 levels. And the good news is that those hormones act as boosters to androgens, at least as far as acne is concerned. Studies have shown that high insulin levels actually make acne prone skin more sensitive to androgens, and it can stimulate the release of androgens from the liver. Thus delivering a deadly one-two punch to your skin.
Insulin and IGF-1 also affect the skin directly. IGF-1 is a growth hormone that stimulates sebum producing cells in the skin. It also increases keratin levels (keratin is a protein that binds skin cells together, and acne patients already have too much of it). So it’s no surprise that studies have found a correlation between IGF-1 levels and sebum production, pore size and acne lesion count. IGF-1 levels follow insulin levels, thus making insulin a partner in crime.
How paleo helps
From above it should be clear that low IGF-1 levels are good for the skin. And that’s exactly what paleo delivers.
Paleo diets usually restrict carbohydrates, at least to some degree, with emphasis on eating low glycemic index carbohydrates from tuber and fruits. This causes gentle increase in blood sugar and insulin levels, as compared to sugar and processed carbohydrates. Low and steady insulin also means low and steady IGF-1. This causes much less stimulation in the skin glands, and also helps to take the bite off from androgen hormones. All this is very good for your skin: lowers sebum production, slows skin cell growth and calms down hyperactive immune system in the skin (the combination of androgens and IGF-1 puts the skin immune system into sort of hyperactive mode).
Diet-acne studies provide support for paleo
While the effect of paleo on acne hasn’t been studied directly, we can draw some conclusions from other diet-acne studies. For example, studies that compare low glycemic index diets to normal Western style diets consistently show significant reductions in acne in the low glycemic index group. Most studies show about 30% reduction in total lesion count, but I believe paleo can deliver better results. The reason becomes obvious when we talk the role of inflammation in acne.
How Paleo Soothes Acne-Causing Inflammation
Aside from hormones, studies have uncovered another key factor in acne: inflammation. Sebum in the skin is constantly exposed to inflammatory burdens, such as UV rays from the sun, ozone in air pollution and harsh chemicals in skin care products. Inflammation in sebum causes skin damage and makes the skin move vulnerable to infections. Therefore sebum is loaded with protective antioxidants. Acne patients obviously produce a lot of sebum. With increased sebum levels comes increased need for antioxidants. There’s a good reason to believe this overwhelms the body’s antioxidant capabilities, in other words there just isn’t enough antioxidants. This is evident from studies that compare antioxidant levels in acne patients to healthy controls. These studies consistently find up to 40% lower antioxidant levels in acne patients. From these and other studies it’s clear that inflammation can cause acne.
How paleo helps
One of the driving principles of paleo diet is toxin avoidance. Paleo strives to avoid most foods that cause an inflammatory reaction in the body, such as gluten, grains and processed vegetable oils. Furthermore paleo emphasized the consumption of anti-inflammatory foods, such as omega-3 fatty acids and vegetables. The net effect is less inflammation and increase in body’s antioxidant capabilities.
Even as early as 1950s visionary dermatologists understood the connection between gut health and acne. Antibiotic use, stress, and diet high in processed food disturb the bacterial balance in the colon leading to overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut. This not only hinders nutrient absorption but also leads to increased inflammation via condition known as the leaky gut syndrome.
The role of gut problems in acne has been confirmed in studies. Several show increased rates of digestive problems, bacterial imbalance and leaky gut in acne patients. Others show improvements in acne when gut problems are treated with probiotics. While not a gut healing diet paleo is a big improvement over standard Western diets. Emphasis on fermented foods, probiotics, bone broths and vegetables are all good for the gut. As is cutting out gluten, a common gut irritant.
Conclusion and Take-Away Messages
In this article we looked at how paleo diet can help acne. I believe that out of all the diets and healthy eating regimens out there paleo is the place to start. For the following reasons:
- Paleo treats hormonal acne with reduced carbohydrate intake and emphasis on low glycemic index carbs. This keeps insulin and IGF-1 levels stable.
- Studies have shown that higher IGF-1 levels lead to more sebum production, increase pore size and ultimately to more acne. Reverse is also true. Stable insulin and IGF-1 means less sebum and fewer pimples.
- Paleo also treats the other key factors in acne: inflammation. Emphasis on anti-inflammatory foods and healthy omega 3/6 balance not only reduces systemic inflammation but is also very good for the skin.
- Acne patients have higher prevalence of gut problems as compared to healthy controls. Treating gut problems often also helps the skin. By being gut friendly diet paleo scores anti-acne hat trick.
The big take-away here is that paleo is very good for the skin. Is it enough to get you completely clear? Maybe, maybe not. Acne is a complex condition and often requires also external care. But paleo puts a big dent on your acne, and if it’s not enough to get you completely clear, that’s not the fault of paleo.
- Serum levels of IGF-1 are related to human skin characteristics including the conspicuousness of facial pores.
- Correlation of facial sebum to serum insulin-like growth factor-1 in patients with acne.
- Correlation between serum levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, and dihydrotestosterone and acne lesion counts in adult women.
- Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load: New Evidence for a Link with Acne.
- Acne Vulgaris: The Role of Oxidative Stress and the Potential Therapeutic Value of Local and Systemic Antioxidants.
- Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis – back to the future?
About the author:
Seppo Puusa writes AcneEinstein.com. A blog that offers evidence-based and rational advice on natural and alternative acne cures. Visit AcneEinstein.com to learn what works, what doesn’t, and get your acne-questions answered with reliable advice.