Dermatologists have a nasty name for pimples. The term they use is acne vulgaris. Sounds vulgar, doesn’t it? But vulgaris actually means common in Latin, so the medical term means common facial eruptions. There are numerous over-the-counter products to help treat this condition as well as quite a few prescription medicines. But there is growing evidence that diet may play a role in mitigating the condition. How can you eat to fight acne?
Is Acne a Teenage Problem?
There are lots of myths about the causes of acne. One of the most prevalent is that only teenagers suffer acne. A related view is that acne is an unavoidable consequence of the hormone surges of adolescence. The fact that 79 to 95 percent of adolescents in places like North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are afflicted with acne helps keep that myth alive (Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002).
In actuality, though, many adults are plagued with acne well beyond their teen years. Around half of men and women over 25 have some facial acne.
What’s more, adolescents in other places aren’t always troubled by zits. Anthropologists report that in Mali, for example, adolescent boys are far less likely to have acne than in the US (Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, Oct. 2016). If these boys do have breakouts, they are much less severe than is common elsewhere. Adolescents in non-Western societies in Papua New Guinea and Paraguay don’t experience acne as American and European teens do, either.
Can You Eat to Fight Acne?
The scientists who reported on the Aché of Paraguay and the Kitavan youngsters of Papua New Guinea hypothesized that diet is an important driver. These populations consume almost no processed foods, dairy, alcohol, coffee, tea or oils. While their meals are high in carbohydrates, they are low in glycemic load. That is, they don’t raise blood sugar and insulin rapidly.
An editorial linked to this report points out that dermatologists have changed their attitudes toward diet over the years (Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002). In the early 1950s, dermatologists were encouraged to warn patients “to avoid chocolate, fats, sweets, and carbonated beverages.” Commonly, youngsters were told to stay away from French fries and cheeseburgers, staples of teenage social life at that time. But by the 1960s and later, dermatologists argued that diet had no role in acne vulgaris.
It now seems possible, however, that a diet high in processed foods may be bad for skin. When blood sugar and insulin shoot up quickly, a cascade of other hormonal changes starts that can affect the skin. These are not just the hormones associated with puberty, however. They include compounds that encourage inflammation. And inflammation is what makes a pimple so red and sore.
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We don’t know exactly how dairy products increase the risk of acne, but some researchers have suggested that the high levels of the amino acid leucine found in milk may drive the production of excess fatty acids in hair follicles (Dermatoendocrinology, Jan. 1, 2012). Skin bacteria, especially Propionibacterium acnes, love those fatty acids. As they proliferate, they cause inflammation.
The scientists proposed that controlling acne could best be achieved by lowering levels of the enzyme mTORC1:
“An attenuation of mTORC1 signaling is only possible by increasing the consumption of vegetables and fruit, the major components of vegan or Paleolithic diets.”
Other scientists looking at the causes of acne vulgaris agree that mTORC1 (mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1) is among the most important factors (Archives of Dermatological Research, July 2019). A diet low in processed foods and dairy products and high in vegetables can dampen this enzyme’s activity and should prove helpful for clear skin.
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. Read Terry's Full Bio.
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Cordain L et al, "Acne vulgaris: A disease of Western civilization." Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002. DOI: 10.1001/archderm.138.12.1584
Campbell CE & Strassmann BI, "The blemishes of modern society? Acne prevalence in the Dogon of Mali." Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, Oct. 2016. DOI: 10.1093/emph/eow027
Thiboutot DM & Strauss JS, "Diet and acne revisited." Archives of Dermatology, Dec. 2002. DOI: 10.1001/archderm.138.12.1591
Spencer EH et al, "Diet and acne: A review of the evidence." International Journal of Dermatology, March 19, 2009. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-4632.2009.04002.x
Ulvestad M et al, "Acne and dairy products in adolescence: Results from a Norwegian longitudinal study." Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, March 2017. DOI: 10.1111/jdv.13835
Juhl CR et al, "Dairy intake and acne vulgaris: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 78,529 children, adolescents, and young adults." Nutrients, Aug. 9, 2018. DOI: 10.3390/nu10081049
Melnik B, "Dietary intervention in acne: Attenuation of increased mTORC1 signaling promoted by Western diet." Dermatoendocrinology, Jan. 1, 2012. DOI: 10.4161/derm.19828
Cong TX et al, "From pathogenesis of acne vulgaris to anti-acne agents." Archives of Dermatological Research, July 2019. DOI: 10.1007/s00403-019-01908-x
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