Sugar and Acne – The best Tips
There is a fungus among us, many would-be acne experts would have you believe. Fungus feeds on sugar, we are often told. And actually that’s true. Acne bacteria are closely related to fungi, it’s said, so all anyone with acne really needs to do is stop eating sugar and acne will cure itself. Unfortunately, that is not true.
- Excessive consumption of sugar is bad for health for many reasons, but sugar’s effects on acne1 are indirect.
- Sugar by itself does not have a major effect on acne. Sugar in combination with certain kinds of fats increases acne inflammation.
- The kinds of fats that work with sugar to make inflammation worse are the “fake fats” used to make shortening and margarine.
- Having enough fat and the right kind of fat in the diet partially cancel out the skin-damaging effects of sugar, and cutting out sugar without consuming the right fats will not do any good.
- Diet never is the only cause or cure of acne2. Choosing and using the right acne products will always offset poor dietary choices.
Acne and Inflammation
Acne blemishes are the result of clogged pores. Sometimes the clogged pores are not inflamed, as is the case with whiteheads and blackheads. Sometimes the clogged pores are inflamed, as happens with pimples, pustules, papules, nodules, and cysts.
Pimples contain acne bacteria3, but the bacteria themselves do not cause the bulk of inflammation. The human immune system generates inflammation to kill the bacteria, but the bacteria defend themselves by releasing their own chemicals that redirect the inflammation to the skin itself. The immune system kills most of the bacteria, but a few escape when a pimple ruptures or is popped.
The amount of sugar in the diet makes a difference in the amount of inflammation generated by the immune system, but only in relationship with various kinds of healthy fat. Certain essential fatty acids known as n-6 essential fatty acids become the chemical building blocks of hormones that cause inflammation4. These are fatty acids found in most plant oils, especially soybean and canola oil.
Other essential fatty acids known as n-3 essential fatty acids become the chemical building blocks of hormones that regulate inflammation5. These fatty acids are most abundant in cod liver oil, fatty cold-water fish, nuts, seeds, and flaxseed.
When there are too many n-6’s and not enough n-3’s in the diet, and this is almost always the case, the body makes more inflammatory hormones than regulatory hormones. Even when there are more n-3 essential fatty acids in the diet, too much sugar can shift the balance of hormone formation so that more inflammation results.
So What’s the Effect of Sugar on Acne?
If you eat fewer of the “bad” fats and more of the “good,” at least as far as skin inflammation is concerned, your body can tolerate a little more sugar. If you have a typical Western diet with lots of canola and soybean oil but very little oil from nuts, seeds, flaxseed, and fish, sugar can make the effects of a bad diet worse. It is always a combination of foods that improves or worsens inflammation.
Certain foods, however, are especially detrimental when combined with sugar. These are the foods that highest in a fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which is especially abundant in duck eggs (which contain more twice as much arachidonic acid as any other food), chicken eggs, liver, kidney, and, in much lower concentrations, other cuts of meat. Everything about arachidonic acid is not bad; it is essential for breaking down muscle6 so it can be rebuilt after exercise. But the combination of arachidonic acid and sugar causes a cascade of reactions that create more and more inflammatory chemicals.
Inflammation, as mentioned earlier, is only relevant in inflammatory acne that causes pimples, papules, pustules, nodules, and cysts. Blackheads and whiteheads are not caused by inflammation. Only pimples and similarly inflamed and irritated as the indirect result of additional sugar in the diet. So does avoiding sugar make a difference in acne care?
Sugar-Free Does Not Equal Acne-Free
From time to time researchers attempt to prove that sugar causes acne, so they look at the amounts of sugar consumed by teens and adults who have acne compared to the amounts of sugar consumed by teens and adults who do not. Studies consistently find that skin conditions that are caused by fungus infections actually are worse in people who consume more sugar, but consuming more or less sugar has no effect in and of itself on acne. The microorganisms that cause acne are not fungal.
Eating foods that are low on the glycemic index does not seem to help either. The glycemic index is a measure of how fast the body is able to digest glucose from foods containing carbohydrates. The higher the glycemic index, the faster the sugar is released from the food. There are many conceptual and methodological problems with the glycemic index, but it is useful as very rough estimate of how fast food can be digested into sugar.
Researchers at Australia’s RMIT University7 found that volunteers who ate low glycemic index foods had more sebum production and more blemishes than volunteers who at a combination of low-glycemic index foods, containing slowly digested sugars. The study found that the volunteers who ate combination of sugary desserts and low-glycemic index fruit and vegetables actually had fewer pimples and less sebum production.
Studies have not determined a link between acne and consumption of low-carb foods and sugar-free soft drinks. While it’s hard to imagine that Nutrasweet-sweetened beverages are good for the skin, no one has found a scientifically confirmed link between Nutrasweet and acne.
So what is a good diet for acne control? The answers may surprise you.
1. A teaspoon of cod liver oil a day is good for acne8. Cod liver oil contains copious amounts of vitamin A, so much, in fact, that you really should not take more than 1 teaspoon (4-5 ml) three times a day. The human body can make vitamin A out of beta-carotene, but when it does, it has to take the beta-carotene out of stored fat. This causes increased oil production in the skin. Getting natural vitamin A from cod liver oil or high-fat dairy products bypasses this effect. Among plant foods, only a few kinds of mushrooms contain vitamin A.
2. Vitamin C in supplements and fruit slightly increases sebum production and also dries out the skin. Don’t take megadoses (more than 2,000 mg a day) of vitamin C. These can cause as many problems as they treat. High-dose vitamin C for up a week to fight a cold is OK.
3. Men who have acne should just say “Cheese!” A Dutch study found that calcium from dairy products, but not from other foods or supplements, raised the pH of the skin in a way that kills acne bacteria. The Dutch study did not find this effect in women9.
Diet is just one small part of acne treatment. Cleansing, moisturizing, and exfoliation are also essential. The simple fact is that it can be overwhelming to look for, buy, and try all the products you need to fight acne. A simple acne treatment system with a money-back guarantee like Exposed Skin Care is the way to get effective treatment fast.
- Danby F.W. Nutrition and acne. Clinics in Dermatology. 2010;28(6):598-604.
- Kucharska A., Szmurło A., Sińska B. Significance of diet in treated and untreated acne vulgaris. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2016;33(2):81–86.
- Liu P.F., Hsieh Y.D., Lin Y.C., Two A., Shu C.W., Huang C.M. Propionibacterium acnes in the pathogenesis and immunotherapy of acne vulgaris. A preliminary study. Current Drug Metabolism (Journal). 2015;16(4):245-54.
- Patterson E., Wall R., Fitzgerald G.F., Ross R.P., Stanton C. Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2012.
- Calder P.C. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: from molecules to man. Biochemical Society Transactions (Journal). 2017;45(5):1105-1115.
- Markworth J.F., Mitchell C.J., D’Souza R.F., Aasen K.M.M., Durainayagam B.R., Mitchell S.M., Chan A.H.C., Sinclair A.J., Garg M., Cameron-Smith D. Arachidonic acid supplementation modulates blood and skeletal muscle lipid profile with no effect on basal inflammation in resistance exercise trained men. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids (Journal). 2018;128:74-86.
- Smith R.N., Braue A., Varigos G.A., Mann N.J. The effect of a low glycemic load diet on acne vulgaris and the fatty acid composition of skin surface triglycerides. Journal of Dermatological Science. 2008;50(1):41-52.
- Griffing G.T., editor in chief. Mother Was Right About Cod Liver Oil. The Medscape Journal of Medicine. 2008;10(1):8.
- Boelsma E., van de Vijver L.P., Goldbohm R.A., Klöpping-Ketelaars I.A., Hendriks H.F., Roza L. Human skin condition and its associations with nutrient concentrations in serum and diet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;77(2):348-55.
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