Last Updated on July 31st, 2019
Can you really cure acne and get rid of unsightly blemishes and pimples for good? Almost every acne sufferer can cure acne with a minimum of prescription medications such as antibiotics and Accutane, but some of the most effective treatments for mild to moderate acne are seldom discussed.
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Seventy years ago, at least in the United States, it was taken for granted that a healthy colon had a lot to do with healthy skin. Two dermatologists named John H. Stokes and Donald M. Pillsbury had documented a pattern of symptoms including constipation, depression, and acne. They theorized that probiotic bacteria, such as Bifodobacterium and Lactobacillus acidophilous, interacted with the immune system, “upregulating” the chemical signals that tell the skin to fight acne bacteria, and also with the brain, by “downregulating”2 the chemical signals that cause inflammation.
Stokes and Pillsbury noticed that adults who continued to have acne often had bloating, gas, constipation, and a mental state best described as “the blahs.” Especially in older adults3, the presence of acne, sluggish digestion, and low-grade depression was also accompanied by a failure of the stomach to secrete enough stomach acid. Stomach acid kills unhealthy bacteria, such as Bacteroides, but leaves more of the helpful bacteria untouched. This observation led to two different ways to treat the combination of acne, indigestion, and depression4.
One way to treat the problem is to consume probiotics. In the United States, “Greek” yogurt is the product most likely to provide the full range of health probiotic bacteria, or you might want to take a vegan probiotic supplement like Alive. Providing your gut with more healthy bacteria helps them get rid of the unhealthy bacteria that cause symptoms.
To keep the unhealthy bacteria from coming back, it helps to stimulate the production of stomach acid5. Bitter foods trigger the release of stomach acid6. Since most poisons in plants have a bitter taste, the human body has developed a kind of preemptive first aid system that dissolves bitter foods more thoroughly than sweet, salty, sour, or umami foods. You don’t have to give up anything sweet, you just have to eat the bitter food7 separately, preferably at the beginning of the meal. Salad greens are enough to activate the release of stomach acid that kills pro-acne bacteria and protects anti-acne bacteria.
Another way to fight acne is with water. Dry skin is usually tight skin. Tight skin traps oil and bacteria inside pores. Hydrating the skin loosens it so oil and bacteria can flow naturally to the surface8, where you can simply rinse them away every morning.
Hydrating from the inside out doesn’t usually require drinking amounts of water. Drinking enough water to avoid dehydration is usually enough. If you are indoors in a cool place, you may only need 5 cups (about 1200 ml) of water every day to provide your skin with the moisture it needs from your body. Especially if you have oily skin, however, you need much more water if you go outside in hot water—as much as 5 cups or more per hour at 40° C/104° F or more.
Hydrating your skin from outside is usually accomplished with moisturizers. There are some ingredients in moisturizers that sound bad but that are really OK, such as cholesterol and ceramides9 (famous as the supposedly “toxic” chemical formed in the oil used to cook French fries). There are also some ingredients in moisturizers that sound OK but that are really bad for your skin, such as essential oils, most herbal extracts, and alcohol. All of these ingredients can dry out skin. Even if you have naturally oily skin, you need to keep your skin hydrated. “Oily” skin just refers to the production of oil from your pores, not the moisture content of your skin itself.
Antioxidants help the skin stop the inflammation that causes the long-term damage from acne10. If you have dark, oily acne-affected skin, for example, your skin will produce unusually large amounts of the pigment melanin to serve as a protective antioxidant11. Melanin, however, gives your skin its darker shades, so the melanin it makes to repair damage from inflammation becomes a more or less permanent brown or black spot. Providing the skin with alternative antioxidants helps prevent the process that protects the skin with permanent blemishes.
The antioxidants that help when taken by mouth are alpha-lipoic acid12, also great for firming up bags and sags, and DMAE, great for helping the skin fill in indentations. If you take alpha-lipoic acid, be sure your product is formulated to include the B vitamin biotin, or take a biotin supplement.
The antioxidants that have the greatest effect applied to your skin13 in creams or lotions are vitamins C and E, but not just any vitamin C or E will work. “Ordinary” vitamin C is water-soluble, but about 75% of the content of your skin is fat. You need a special kind of vitamin C known as ascorbyl palmitate that can penetrate the skin to do it good.
Very few people need to go on a special, restricted diet to fight acne. But nearly everyone does better by avoiding excessive consumption of chocolate14.
Samantha Block, a medical student at the University of Miami, recruited 10 men aged 18 to 35 who had a history of mild to moderate acne vulgaris. Her recruits had at least one active acne lesion (that is, a blackhead, a whitehead, or a pimple), but no more than four. She then offered them as many pure dark chocolate Ghirardelli candy bars as they wanted—no one in the test took more than three—and asked them to come back three times over the next week. Ms. Block did not include women in the study because menstrual cycles and birth control use would complicate interpretation of the results.
At the end of five days, one of the volunteers in the study had 85 new pimples! Most of the men who indulged in chocolate bars had at least 10 new blemishes. If you have acne, you really should not have chocolate.
While acne myths are quite common, hormonal fluctuations really do cause acne and stress15 really does affect hormone levels. Certainly remedies such as over the counter products, drugs, and light treatment devices have their place in the fight to get clear, but reducing stress is equally important and should not be overlooked. Most people don’t need a guide to reducing stress, they already realize what needs to be changed, and it’s obviously something that is both free and can be done from home.
None of these common sense interventions for acne is likely to be a cure all by itself. Any one of them, however, could be that little something extra your skin needs for all the other hard work you put into acne treatment to work. Without giving up any part of your existing acne routine, try these simple steps. It may be that the treatment that enables you to cure acne is a safe, inexpensive, minor addition to your daily skin care routine.
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