If you’ve ever struggled with acne, you know how devastating it can be to feel like the health of your skin is out of your control.
At this point, it’s no secret that what you eat impacts the health of your body. But do you ever wonder how your food choices are impacting the health of your skin?
Research shows that in societies that consume a paleolithic diet that excludes sugar and grains, skin issues like acne are virtually nonexistent[*].
If eating like your ancestors can positively impact skin health, what could living like your ancestors do? Your ancient relatives wouldn’t have the benefit of running to the grocery store or grabbing a snack every time they were hungry. In fact, fasting was a regular part of their lifestyle — out of necessity.
Today, fasting is becoming a popular lifestyle hack to improve health on all levels. In this article, you’ll learn:
- What is intermittent fasting?
- The common causes of acne
- How intermittent fasting improves skin health
- Low-carb foods to eat for better skin
Intermittent fasting (IF) has gained considerable attention in the last decade for its many health benefits. IF protocols consist of extended periods of fasting (where no food is consumed), followed by windows of eating.
Depending on your goals, and the type of fast you’re interested in, there are several protocols to choose from. Some of the most popular include:
The feeding windows approach is pretty flexible but typically consists of 14 to 16-hour fasts, with a 10 to 8-hour feeding window. For instance, if you were to do a 16-hour fast, you could have your last meal at 7 pm, and then fast for 16-hours, and have your first meal the next day at 11 am the next day. This would be a 16:8 fast.
You could also choose to do a shorter 14-hour fast, with your last meal at 7 pm and your next meal the following morning at 9 am. This would be a 14:10 fast.
A lot of people prefer eating windows because it offers a good deal of flexibility, and there’s no “dieting” involved.
The 5:2 Diet
The 5:2 diet involves an eating pattern where you normally eat for five days a week and then fasting for two days. Typically, you’ll still consume calories on your fasting days, but only around 500 for the whole day.
The 24-hour fast is pretty straightforward — you extend your fast to a full 24-hours and consume nothing but water or other non-caloric beverages.
The key with a 24-hour fast is to time it out so that you’re still enjoying food each day. For instance, you could have your last meal at 3 pm on Monday and then fast for a full 24-hours, breaking your fast at 3 pm on Tuesday.
There are several factors that can play a role in the development of acne. Some studies indicate that at its root, acne is another condition that’s caused by inflammation overdrive in your body. Other studies, however, suggest that diet is the causative factor and that the Western diet, in particular, is a prescription for acne. And yet, the influence of hormonal factors cannot be understated when it comes to skin breakouts.
So what is the cause of acne? It’s hard to say. But what’s clear is that inflammation, diet, and hormones all seem to play a role. Let’s dive deeper:
The understanding that inflammation plays a role in the formation of acne is nothing new. In fact, for a long time, it was believed that inflammation occurred as the result of colonization of the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes in the skin sebaceous follicle. This inflammation would create acne lesions that show up as raised, red bumps on your face, neck, and back.
While the above theory still appears to be true, some researchers now claim that acne is primarily an inflammatory disease. In other words, acne isn’t just a condition in which inflammation is a factor, but rather, inflammation is the driving force behind the formation and progression of acne[*].
No matter which way you look at it, inflammation certainly has a role to play when it comes to breakouts.
Research shows a strong correlation between high-glycemic diets and the incidence of acne. A high-glycemic diet consists of foods that are high in carbohydrates, and specifically sugar. The higher a food is on the glycemic scale, the faster the glucose from that food enters your bloodstream and spikes insulin.
The Western diet, by nature, is a high-glycemic diet with all of its sugar and processed carbohydrates. It’s no surprise then that along with conditions like obesity and diabetes, many people that follow a Western diet have skin issues like acne and other inflammatory conditions[*][*].
The influence of hormones on acne can be seen most markedly during adolescents when the faces of young boys and girls begin to spot blemishes that seem to be a right of passage into young adulthood.
During this time of life, sex hormones tend to fluctuate significantly, and increases in androgen hormones (male sex hormones) can increase the likelihood of acne. Although androgens are considered male hormones, females also have them in smaller amounts. When hormones are imbalanced, both males and females can experience breakouts[*].
Aside from adolescents, another great example of the impact of androgens on skin health is PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). In PCOS, women produce excess androgen hormones, which results in symptoms like acne, excess body hair, weight gain, and infertility[*].
In addition to the impact of sex hormones on acne, other hormonal factors also play a role.
In fact, the components in your diet that contribute to acne likely stem from the influence of a high glycemic diet on your hormones. When you eat carbohydrates, your body produces insulin to lower your blood sugar and assist in the utilization of carbs for energy. When insulin is signaled, it also increases the synthesis of another hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1).
Among the many roles of IGF-1 is increasing sebum production in your sebaceous glands. Sebum, the oily fatty substance that is meant to keep your skin moist and protected, can also clog your pores and result in breakouts[*][*].
Research shows that intermittent fasting can reduce inflammation by reducing pro-inflammatory chemicals and enhancing your immune function[*].
With inflammation being an undeniable contributor to acne, any efforts you can make to mitigate inflammatory pathways in your body will serve your quest for perfect skin.
In addition to acne, research suggests that IF can help to treat other inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis by shifting your gut bacteria. In one study, researchers found that fasting for two days a week resulted in significant shifts in symptoms of psoriasis, including less scaling, itching, and thickening of skin[*].
Improves Insulin Levels
Research shows that intermittent fasting can improve your body’s insulin control and glucose homeostasis. Clearly, while you’re fasting, there is no need for insulin because there’s no glucose coming in. However, the changes that occur during your fasted state may also make your body more receptive to insulin and improve the way glucose is managed[*].
In one study, researchers found that an intermittent fasting window of eight hours from 7 am to 3 pm resulted in significantly lower insulin levels along with improvements in insulin sensitivity. All in all, this research shows that fasting may help your body optimize its use of insulin so that you don’t need to produce quite as much[*].
When your body can become more thrifty with its insulin production, it directly impacts the production of IGF-1 — a key contributor to excess sebum production.
What’s more, insulin is also closely related to androgen hormone production. When insulin is high, you are more likely to produce excess androgens, which results in acne breakouts. Therefore, optimal insulin production also assists in optimal androgen production[*].
If you are unfamiliar with the mTOR pathway, put simply, it is a metabolic pathway that activates growth in your body. When mTOR is high, there’s growth and synthesis, and when it’s low, your body goes into repair and maintenance mode. When you’re growing, it’s essential to have mTOR activated, but as an adult, mTOR can inhibit vital processes like autophagy that keep your body healthy.
Research shows that over-activated mTOR can increase androgen hormone secretion and may amplify sebum production in your skin follicles. What fuels the mTOR pathway? Glucose and amino acids from the carbohydrates and protein that you eat[*].
Therefore, keeping glucose low and protein moderate (as it is in the keto diet) can enhance your body’s repair mechanisms by inhibiting mTOR activation. Furthermore, studies show that when you engage in intermittent fasting, it further reduces the mTOR pathway[*][*]
An often overlooked cause of acne is emotional stress. Although the biological mechanisms are not clear, research shows a strong correlation between perceived stress and breakouts[*].
Interestingly, one of the benefits of intermittent fasting is improved mood and reduced stress. When considering fasting from an ancestral perspective, this would make sense as our ancient relatives would have grown accustomed to sustaining high levels of performance in food-deprived states.
As you engage in fasting, it activates a primal desire for survival that can improve resilience — both physical and mental. As a result, many people find that they are better able to handle stressors that come their way and that it takes more to stress them out than it may have before[*][*].
While there are plenty of nutrient-dense foods out there that you can enjoy while keeping your skin health in mind, there are a handful of skin-health superstars:
One of the best nutrients you can add to your diet for glowing, vibrant skin is collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, and it makes up a vital aspect of your connective tissue.
For skin health, in particular, collagen helps to enhance the integrity of the extracellular matrix (ECM) that sits just under your skin. Your skin ECM works like scaffolding to keep your skin nice and taught. As you age, your ECM begins to break down a bit, and that’s why you start to see fine lines and wrinkles on your face.
Research shows that supplementation with collagen can enhance skin health by improving skin hydration along with elasticity[*].
Fatty fish is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, a crucial nutrient for skin health.
When you consume foods rich in omega-3s, it alters the composition of your skin cells, enhancing their integrity. Furthermore, making sure you have the proper ratio of omega-3s to omega-6 is vital for a healthy inflammatory response. Today we consume far more omega-6 than omega-3, which is one reason that we see so much inflammation in our bodies[*].
In societies where omega-3 fatty acid intake is abundant, acne is a rare condition. Likewise, research shows that taking omega-3s can significantly improve moderate to severe acne[*].
Furthermore, studies show that supplementing with omega-3 fats can combat UV-induced skin damage, extrinsic signs of aging, and inflammatory skin conditions[*].
Avocado is a fan favorite among keto dieters. It’s high-fat, low-carb, and has just enough flavor to make it interesting without it ever becoming overpowering.
From the perspective of skin health, avocados offer a couple of unique benefits.
First, they’re rich in monounsaturated fat, which can be hard to come by in the diet. Research shows that consuming monounsaturated fat (omega-9 fatty acids) is associated with increased skin elasticity[*].
Second, avocados contain polyhydroxylated fatty alcohols, which are compounds that suppress inflammatory responses and have proven effective against UV damage from the sun in skin cells[*].
Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E — a potent fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant. While every antioxidant has its own way of protecting you against oxidative stress, vitamin E works right in your cell’s outer membrane. Here it combats free radicals and acts as a shield against potential damage.
Along with its antioxidant activity, vitamin E also absorbs UV radiation in the skin and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Some research suggests that vitamin E may also be beneficial for wound healing and scars, although this is typically only found in topical applications[*].
Following a keto, paleo, or low-carb diet is an excellent way to support skin health, but if you really want to kick things into high gear, try intermittent fasting.
IF not only enhances weight loss and the health of your immune system, but when you go without food for a set period of time, it can start to resolve skin problems like acne, eczema, dermatitis, and other inflammatory conditions.
Many skin care medications on the market claim they can provide clear skin, but unfortunately, they come with a host of dangerous side effects. By choosing to give your digestive system a break for a few hours, IF gives your body a chance to get to its repair mechanisms and enhance its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities so you can look and feel your best.