Acne can have many causes at all different ages. There are even several food causes of acne. So how do you know if a certain food is posing a problem? First, it’s important to be aware of the top foods that may contribute to acne problems, especially hormonal-based acne.
How Hormonal Acne Happens
The body needs a healthy balance of male to female hormones. The androgens (male hormones) go to their receptors and the estrogens (female hormones) go to their receptors, similar to designated parking spaces. If an imbalance occurs and androgens rise, acne may occur.
Many plants have substances called phytoestrogens (or plant estrogens) and some foods have higher amounts. These phytoestrogens mimic our natural estrogens and can sneak into some of their parking spaces. When this happens, the natural estrogens stay out roaming and may not perform their regular job. Since the plant estrogens are weaker, some of functionality from natural estrogen may be lost. This promotes more androgen-dominant activity and breakouts can increase.
The body uses an enzyme called aromatase to convert androgens to estrogens, but phytoestrogens can block the conversion. This can lead to an imbalance where there are too many androgens and not enough estrogens, which can cause hormonal-type acne. The hormonal imbalance can worsen with an intake of foods high in phytoestrogens.
Food Cause of Acne #1: SOY
Many people who opt for a vegetarian or vegan diet increase their soy consumption, because it’s a plant food that’s high in protein. Soy is found in everything from protein powders and energy bars to a wide variety of vegetarian foods, including fake meats and cheeses. It’s also a popular filler, especially in organic vegan skincare and cosmetic products. Keep in mind, soy is one food that is among the highest in phytoestrogens. Too much of it, especially for someone who has hormonal imbalances, may be a root cause of acne.
Soy can also impair absorption of nutrients from foods as they move through the digestive tract. Like many other foods in the legume family (beans, chickpeas) and some nuts and seeds, soy contains lectins, which may be associated with increased inflammation and intestinal permeability (leaky gut). The phytic acid in soy can bind to vitamins and minerals like calcium and zinc, preventing their complete absorption. And zinc is important for acne prevention. Although soy is considered a complete protein, it contains substances that can also interfere with protein digestion.
Most people are getting soy in all the wrong forms, such as soy protein isolate (tofu, soy milk, soy yogurt, vegetarian health foods) or in fast foods and packaged products containing soybean oil. These highly-processed forms of soy may have negative health effects, not just those related to hormonal-type acne.
To see if soy is a food that causes your acne, eliminate it completely for 30-60 days (60 days is best) and see if you notice improvement in your skin. Keep in mind, if your hormones are well-balanced, soy may not be an issue for you. In that case, choose traditional soy products moderately in the organic and fermented form (miso, tempeh, tamari) and avoid all highly-processed soy products.
Food Cause of Acne #2: DAIRY
Most evidence-based research shows that dairy can be a contributing cause of acne. In fact, two large controlled studies found that cow’s milk increased the number of people who got acne and its severity. Dairy products include all animal milk and foods derived from it such as whey protein, yogurt, kefir, cheese, ice cream, and butter.
So how can dairy can contribute to acne problems? Cows are given artificial hormones that affect their milk supply. These hormones may affect our natural hormonal balance. But even if you drink organic, hormone-free milk, the natural growth hormones in milk products can still aggravate acne. Dairy increases male hormones (androgens) and if not balanced with enough estrogens (as mentioned above), it can promote acne. Keep in mind, milk is designed to grow baby calves and is naturally full of anabolic (growth promoting) hormones.
As with soy, to see if dairy is problematic, eliminate it completely for 30-60 days (60 days is best) and see if you notice improvements in your skin. A simple elimination of suspected foods is the best way to know if they’re contributing to your acne.
Consider Liver Health!
Some believe that acne is a message to get our internal house in order. Liver congestion can lead to acne. One of the liver’s primary functions is detoxification. It works to remove not only toxins from the body, but also excess hormones like estrogen. The liver must also detoxify xenoestrogens (hormone disruptors) found in plastics, cosmetics, and in some household cleaners. When the liver is bombarded with this extra estrogen from plants and the environment, it can become overwhelmed and unable to perform its natural daily detox function. It then relies on the skin (the body’s largest detox organ) to help, which can result in acne breakouts.
Foods to Support Health Liver Detox
Try these food strategies support healthy detoxification:
- Eat cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussel’s sprouts) 3-5 times per week or more. Consider broccoli sprouts a few times a week on a sandwich or salad. This superfood provides about 100 times more glucoraphanin than broccoli. When glucoraphanin is cut or chewed, it’s converted to sulphoraphane, the beneficial phytonutrient that has been extensively studied for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Sulphoraphane helps by increasing specific liver detox enzymes.
- Eat more greens or drink green juice. When your liver is processing and removing toxins on a regular basis, free radicals are formed which can be damaging to cells. The high level of antioxidants in dark leafy greens (such as spinach, dark lettuces, kale, and mustard or beet greens) protect cells and promote healthy detoxification. Dandelion greens are a great choice since they also help remove excess sugars and fat from the liver. Here is my favorite liver supportive green drink.
- Drink lemon water in the morning. Lemon can not only help improve liver function but it may also promote healthy skin (due to the high vitamin C content). One recent study showed that the high antioxidants in lemon juice reduced alcohol-related liver injury. Lemon also stimulates the liver’s bile production to help process fats.
To learn more about how improved liver function helps with weight loss, skin appearance, thyroid health and more, check out my Liver 911 online course.
Other Food Causes of Acne
Many other foods have been associated with acne. Refined grains, processed sugars, sweet beverages, desserts, fast foods, and even chocolate. Just keep in mind, the cleaner your diet, the clearer your skin. Try eliminating the biggest offenders first (soy and dairy), then support you liver with healthy detox foods. Remember to stay well hydrated, which is, and always has been, essential to great-looking skin.