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Can Diet Cause Acne?

Written by Dr Esther Belmaati, HelloSkin Medical Advisor

The relationship between diet and acne, has historically been controversial. In the 1930s through to the 1960s, patients were regularly advised regarding their dietary habits, as these were thought to play a major role in acne, this idea was later discarded and relegated to myth.
Recent studies on acne and diet are still cautiously worded but nevertheless, they continue show a link between acne and diet.  

We know that one of the main factors in acne is an increase in sebum production, often times as a direct result of the effect of increasing testosterone levels in the body.

Sebaceous glands have receptors that specifically bind  the hormone which in turn initiates a process that increases sebum production. Sebum production is induced not by one type of receptor, but by a wide range of receptors that are activated by different substances in the body like histamines, stress hormones. 

Research has identified three other receptors that are expressed by the cells of the sebaceous gland, that control sebum production. Each of these newly identified receptors is activated by a dietary substance. These receptors are stimulated by sugar, fat, free fatty acids and cholesterol. Diets high in these substances have been linked to acne. A recent study has referred to the sebaceous gland as the “brain of the skin”, the most important gland of the skin. 

Is sugar causing your breakouts?

Some studies suggest that refined carbohydrates contribute to acne. However, more research is necessary to determine the effect fully.

Is dairy causing your breakouts?  

Sebum production is influenced by androgens and hormonal mediators, such as insulin-like growth factors. Milk is a functional food designed by evolution to promote anabolism and growth of newborn mammals. In order to fulfil its growth-promoting function, milk contains amino acids that promote a rise in insulin growth factors, which can overstimulate sebum production.

Is vitamin & nutrient deficiency relevant for acne?

Vitamin A:

A deficiency of vitamin A causes night blindness but also also affects skin, causing dry skin, dry hair and broken fingernails. This nutrient is stored in the liver but is also found in the sebaceous gland, which also has A-vitamin receptors. Vitamin A and its natural metabolites are used as topical and systemic treatment of mild, moderate and severe acne, ageing and other skin diseases.  

Vitamin D:

The importance of vitamin D for the skin and consequently for the human body as a whole is also likely linked to the fact that vitamin D is synthesized in the skin. Studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency was more frequent in patients with acne, so there does appear to be a link between Vitamin D levels and prevalence of acne.

What should you eat for healthy skin?

A low-glycemic diet is one composed of food that does not cause a sharp rise in blood sugar levels. A low-glycemic load diet, one rich in plant fibres has been shown to improve acne. 

Try to avoid refined food with added sugar (simple carbohydrates), such as desserts, processed grains, candy, jam, soda, etc. However, not all simple carbohydrates are unhealthy; fruits like apples, strawberries, peaches and others are also simple carbohydrates but can still be part of a balanced diet in spite of its high sugar content because they have a high content of fibres and other nutrients.

Complex carbohydrates consist of long chains of simple sugars e.g beans, legumes, many vegetables, oatmeal and bran which do not cause spikes in blood sugar, but are instead broken down over a longer period of time, resulting in a slow and steady release of sugar into the bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates are very good sources of energy and contribute to healthy skin.

As mentioned above, try to include foods that are rich in vitamin A and D. Foods containing vitamin A are usually bright coloured like carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach and broccoli. Sources of vitamin D are sunlight, cod liver oil, sardines, salmon, mackerel, tuna, eggs and mushrooms.

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