You never really appreciate clear skin until you develop a skin condition like acne.
For some people, even the most well-researched and thought-out skincare routine can leave them with welts of inflammation all over their face, neck, and back. From dermatologist visits to expensive creams, lotions, and gels, there’s no end to what we’ll do to calm the storm when acne hits.
For some, a pimple here and there can become a little annoyance, but chronic acne results in embarrassment and shame for others.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What causes acne
- How your insulin levels play a significant role in the balance of other acne-causing hormones.
- The benefits of a high-fat, low-carb diet for acne
- Some of the best foods and supplements to support skin health
Why some people struggle with acne (AKA acne vulgaris) and others don’t come down to a handful of factors, including:
Excess Androgen Hormones
Androgen hormones are classified as male sex hormones and are responsible for characteristic male traits like body hair and lower voice. Although androgens are considered “male” sex hormones, women still have androgen hormones, just in smaller amounts.
Androgens are responsible for sebum production, the oily, waxy substance produced by your sebaceous glands. Your sebaceous glands produce sebum to lubricate and protect your skin from moisture loss, but in excess, it can clog your pores can lead to breakouts[*].
Therefore, one of the most common culprits for acne is an excess of androgen hormones. This is why during puberty, when hormones are naturally shifting around, many people experience acne breakouts. Also, for women with PCOS, a condition that results from excess androgens, acne is a common symptom[*][*].
It was once believed that inflammation only played a small role in the process of acne formation. From the traditional perspective, bacteria would colonize the duct of your sebaceous follicle (also known as pores) in your skin, and a reaction from your immune system would produce inflammation which led to ance.
However, more research today points to the potential that inflammation is actually involved in all stages of acne pathogenesis. And in fact, some scientists believe that acne should be considered an inflammatory disease[*].
Regardless of whether inflammation is at the root of acne or just plays a critical role in the formation of acne, what is clear is that inflammation is very much involved in the process.
Several studies have shown a correlation between high-glycemic diets and the formation of acne. The current understanding is that a high-glycemic diet that’s rich in refined carbs and sugar will result in blood sugar spikes. When your blood sugar spikes, it causes your body to make more sebum and simultaneously produces inflammation throughout your body.
Insulin and Insulin-Like Growth Factor
Along the same lines as a high-glycemic diet, two hormones that help to control blood sugar may also be involved in acne progression — insulin and insulin-like growth factor.
When blood sugar is high, insulin is secreted to shuttle excess glucose from the blood and into your cells. The problem is, excess insulin also increases your levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) and androgen hormones[*].
Much like the androgens, IGF-1 increases sebum production in your body, which sets the stage for the development of acne. What’s more, IGF-1 can also initiate inflammation — further amplifying the likelihood of acne progression[*].
There’s one common thread that unites all of the above factors that contribute to acne, and that’s blood sugar. And if there’s one thing the keto diet undoubtedly accomplishes, it’s lowering blood sugar.
When you cut carbs down drastically and your body starts to rely on ketones instead, several pathways become activated that help you keep your skin clear; these include:
1. Lower Glycemic Load
While a high glycemic diet is linked to acne outbreaks, a low glycemic load is associated with a reduction in acne. Why? Because of the impact that carbohydrates (especially simple sugars) have on your blood sugar[*][*].
As previously mentioned, blood sugar spikes can set the stage for acne. However, researchers have found that when patients with mild to moderate acne follow a low-glycemic diet, there is a significant improvement in the health of their skin, including fewer acne lesions, smaller pores, and overall decreased inflammation[*].
2. Regulated Androgen Levels
High androgen levels result in excessive sebum production, which in turn clogs your pores and creates breakouts on your skin.
Therefore, regulating androgen levels is vital for skin health.
Research shows that a high glycemic diet, rich in carbs, increases androgen levels. Specifically, it appears that the presence of insulin pushes your androgen hormone synthesis. And of course, insulin is only present when there is glucose in the blood.
Put simply, the more glucose, the higher your insulin, and the greater your androgen production.
While a high glycemic diet can push androgens into overdrive, studies show that a low glycemic diet, like the keto diet, can lower them due to the absence of insulin[*].
3. Decreases In Insulin And Insulin-Like Growth Factor
In addition to androgen hormones, insulin also increases insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which is another hormone that can increase sebum production. Therefore, when you follow a keto diet, you’ll naturally be lowering two common culprits for clogged pores.
Also, as previously mentioned, IGF-1 is also responsible for inflammation in the skin, which could further assist in the development of acne[*]. Once again, no insulin equals no IGF-1, and therefore no excess sebum and inflammation.
4. Lowered Inflammation
If inflammation is at the root of acne, then it would make sense to ensure that your body’s inflammation is under control when trying to clear up your complexion.
Aside from the inflammation-reducing impacts of a low-glycemic diet, the keto diet offers an even more potent dose of anti-inflammation due to the presence of ketone bodies.
Specifically, the most abundant ketone body, beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), has shown impressive anti-inflammatory behavior in numerous studies. In fact, research shows that when compared to a low-fat diet, a very low carbohydrate diet results in profound reductions in inflammation[*].
Aside from the blood-sugar regulating and insulin-reducing benefits of a high-fat, low-carb keto diet, there are a handful of other keto-friendly foods and supplements that support skin health and protect against acne.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The Western diet is known to be highly inflammatory, with loads of processed foods, low-quality meat, and cheap oils. One of the primary drivers behind inflammation is an imbalance between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.
While our ancestors likely consumed a ratio of 1:1 of these fats, research shows today that our ratio is closer to 15:1, with omega-6 taking up the vast majority of the polyunsaturated fat we eat[*].
Omega-6 fats are associated with inflammation, while omega-3 is highly anti-inflammatory. Adding sources of omega-3 fats to your diet will help to balance out the naturally occurring omega-6 and support your inflammatory pathways. Some excellent sources of omega-3s include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, and supplements like krill oil, fish oil, and cod liver oil[*].
Green tea, which is packed with antioxidant polyphenols, is renowned for its many health benefits. However, an often overlooked benefit of green tea is its positive impact on skin health.
The polyphenols in green tea are not only potent antioxidants, but they also possess antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that assist with skin complexion and clarity. In fact, research shows that when green tea is used topically, it can reduce sebum production and assist in treating acne[*].
Drinking green tea also likely assists in the fight against acne, but more research is required at this time.
Turmeric, an ancient medicinal herb from India, possesses anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties. Used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine, research now shows that turmeric, and its active compound curcumin, may support various skin-related conditions, including acne, psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and photoaging[*].
Due to high demand, several companies have come out with turmeric supplements that you can just add to your routine. However, if you enjoy cooking, try adding turmeric to some of your dishes.
Taken together, bitter melon tackles acne from two angles — cutting down on the sebum-producing an impact of insulin while simultaneously treating skin issues at its root with its anti-inflammatory properties.
Bitter melon is considered a staple in many Asian cuisines, but it may be hard to come by in the West. With that being said, there are many bitter melon supplements out there, which may be the way to go as this fruit is nearly inedible unless you know how to cook it.
You can buy the fanciest skin cleanser you can find, but if you don’t get your diet in order, you’ll be fighting against fate when it comes to acne.
A balanced ketogenic diet that’s rich in healthy fats, high-quality protein, and low-carb veggies while being devoid of processed carbs will get your hormones on track, so breakouts will be a thing of the past.
Whether it’s insulin, IGF-1, or androgen hormones that are increasing your sebum production and amping up your inflammation, a keto diet eliminates these imbalances at the root.
What’s more, acne medications can come with a lot of unwanted side effects, so if you’ve struggled with severe acne getting your body into ketosis may be the way to go.