Dear Chuck: I am 16 years old and have a problem with acne. I was on antibiotics for a while and my face cleared up. My parents don't want me to stay on the medicine so now I am not sure what I can do. Is there something I could do with my diet? Luke
There are several forms of acne, but the one you are concerned about is likely acne vulgaris. The common teenage outbreak of acne is due to the hormonal stimulation of the oil glands, especially those found on the face, neck, back and shoulders. These glands become clogged by skin cells that block the opening of pores and prevent water loss. The male hormone, testosterone is the major hormonal factor in acne. The hormone's effect is also found in females.
Antibiotics can help a lot, but they pose a risk of developing resistance to them. Medical treatment for acne often is a combination of medicines, some topical and applied to the skin while others are oral. Medications can improve acne by unplugging the pores, killing bacteria, reducing the amount of skin oil, or reducing the effects of hormones that cause it.
Diet can also be a contributor to acne. A study published in Clinical Dermatology in 2010 noted that the incidence of acne is greater with a diet high in sugar, other high carbohydrate foods and milk. Other reports and articles have also shown a link that populations generally free of acne tend to eat plant-based diets consisting mainly of unprocessed foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, and emphasizing unsaturated fats.
Diets high in saturated fat, meat and milk increase blood concentrations of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-I). These then stimulate the production of testosterone that increases acne production. Plant-based diets low in fat and high in fiber tend to reduce levels of IGF-I. Eating fewer calories can reduce acne production by as much as 40 percent.
A study of more than 47,000 women (Nurses Health Study II) found that women who reported having consumed greater than two glasses of skim milk per day during their teen years (ages 13 to 18) had a 40 percent greater prevalence of teenage acne, compared with those drinking less than one glass per week.
Some other nutrients can help prevent acne. Folic acid, or folate, is a nutrient that plays an important role in making new cells that fight acne. This nutrient is found in leafy vegetables, such as spinach, cantaloupe, beans and avocados. Pyridoxine, or Vitamin B6, helps the body produce other chemicals to fight infection that contributes to acne. Some food sources include nuts and seeds, eggs, carrots, avocados and whole grains.
The antioxidant beta-carotene is converted by the body into Vitamin A. This vitamin works to maintain healthy skin cells. Food sources are fruits and vegetables that are dark yellow, red and orange like carrots, red and yellow bell peppers, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, apricots, peaches and mangoes. Vitamin E, or tocopherol, is also an antioxidant that protects cells from free radicals (super reactive molecules) and helps fight infection. This fat soluble vitamin is found in whole grains, seeds, nuts, avocados and brown, red and black rice.
In addition, essential fats omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for maintaining the immune system, brain function, and keeping the skin, hair and nails glowing and healthy. These healthy fats are found in olive oil or canola oil, cold water fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines.
It might take a few weeks or even a couple of months to notice much difference. Eating all that healthy stuff can also keep you from being constipated, which is one more factor contributing to acne.
Chuck Newcomb, MS, RD, CDE is a consulting registered dietitian currently providing medical nutrition therapy services for Memorial Hospital Los Banos. He has a masters of science in clinical nutrition from New York University. E-mail questions to the Attention of ChuckRD at: MHALosBanos@SutterHealth.org or on his website MySmartRD.com.