It is likely that you have experienced acne at some point in your life, as it is one of the most common skin conditions. Of those aged 12-24, it is estimated that 8 in 10 people will experience acne and anywhere from 7-35% of those over the age of 30. This is significant! It is an important condition to address as acne not only affects the skin but can have a detrimental impact on one’s sense of self, self esteem, and social relationships leading to a higher risk of anxiety and depression.
Fortunately, naturopathic doctors are equipped with resources to support your root cause of acne. Let’s dive in!
Acne refers to the inflammation and irritation of the hair follicle that results in trapped oils (also known as “sebum”), skin cells, and various bacteria known as C. acnes that populate the skin surface. When trapped, this mix of materials can produce what we know as pimples that are characteristic of acne. Pimples can come in many forms and show as either white heads, black heads, raised bumps or cysts deep under the skin surface. They are commonly located on the face, arms, chest and back. Whether it is showing as a single pimple or more widespread, the pressure of a clogged follicle can become very painful and lead to scarring.
What Causes Acne?
I hear this question frequently in clinic, and there is no one catch all answer for everyone. Some people may have a single key root cause while others may have a combination of triggers. This is where blood work and functional lab testing are useful to guide proper management of acne.
As with most conditions, acne has both modifiable and unmodifiable risk factors. Modifiable factors are those that are within our control to change. Unmodifiable are those that are out of our control.
Here are some of the most common modifiable triggers for acne:
- Hormonal Changes (ie. estrogen, testosterone, DHT, DHEA, etc.)
- Diet & Food Sensitivities
- Blood Sugar Regulation (ie. Glucose, insulin)
- Stress (ie. Cortisol)
- Nutrient deficiencies
Here are some of the most common unmodifiable triggers for acne:
- Genetics / Family History
Androgens and androgen precursors are hormones that can lead to acne when elevated. These include testosterone, DHEA, and DHT. The latter has nearly four times the potency of testosterone. These hormones increase the amount of sebum that is produced, which can clog the pores more frequently leading to increased acne. Also, fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone throughout the menstrual cycle can also worsen acne.
Diet & Blood Sugar Regulation:
You may have experienced a pimple or two after eating a lot of baked goods or sugary foods. When we eat foods that are high on the glycemic index, our blood sugar levels go up. Given insulin’s main job is to remove sugars from the blood stream and send them to the tissues to be burned for fuel, a high blood sugar level causes insulin to rise. Elevated insulin levels can drive the production of androgens, thus leading to increased sebum production.
Whey is a protein found in dairy that can trigger acne for a couple of reasons. When consumed regularly, food sensitivities can result in GI related inflammation that weakens the skin barrier. Many people do not tolerate dairy well, and this is often due to either its lactose or whey content. Secondly, consuming whey leads the body to make a chemical called Insulin Like Growth Factor (IGF-1) which triggers cells to grow. What is one of the main hormones that causes tissue growth? Yet again, the answer is testosterone!
When stressed, the body makes various hormones to drive the “fight or flight” response. The adrenal glands are the primary source of two key hormones in this process, DHEA and Cortisol. DHEA can be converted into testosterone in the body, and cortisol spikes increase circulating blood sugars so that the body has quick fuel if it needs to act quickly.
Adaptogens are a group of botanical medicines that help the body “adapt” to the stress response and improve stress resiliency. I often include an adaptogen as part of an acne protocol.
Those living with acne have been found in the literature to be more likely to have low Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E and zinc status compared to their counterparts. Where it’s hard to say whether these deficiencies are a main cause acne, their supplementation has been shown to improve the intensity of acne, reduce inflammation, and help skin cells heal.