Diet, Acne, and n=1 Experimentation

I found an interesting blog post the other day over at Seth’s blog about the perverse incentives of the modern healthcare system to let people get sick. It provides expensive treatments for symptoms while failing to investigate the underlying causes. If we understood the underlying causes of acne, for example, prevention would be easy, and expensive doctor visits and pharmaceutical treatments unnecessary.

This post and Seth’s use of acne as an example caught my attention, because I struggled with acne for many years: beginning at puberty, throughout high school and college, and well into my twenties. I washed my face two, often three times daily, saw a dermatologist and got prescriptions for harsh soaps and anti-acne creams, and even oral antibiotics. Yes, I took oral antibiotics regularly for years. Should have known better, but I did not.

But even with all of these expensive, harsh, and potentially harmful treatments, I still had breakouts. Then I switched to a fairly strict paleo diet around the age of 24, and a few months later I noticed that I was not having breakouts anymore. I know that correlation does not prove causation, but the timing was . . .interesting. I decided to do my own n=1 experiment and stop using all of my anti-acne prescriptions. Still no breakouts. Even if I occasionally went to bed without washing my face, still no breakouts.

Loren Cordain wrote a book on the subject, The Dietary Cure for Acne. Very interesting, that hunter-gatherer teenagers do not have acne; I guess we cannot just blame it on hormomes, as so many want to do. Although the comment section at Seth’s blog suggests that Cordain has not conclusively solved the acne puzzle, I think that he is on the right track. A paleo diet certainly worked in my n=1 experiment.

As for what the specific triggers for acne are, I am not sure, and I am hesitant to start introducing Neolithic junk food back into my diet and harming my body just to find out. And maybe the triggers are different in different people. I know that I feel great eating grass-fed butter and cultured dairy, but if I consume milk, even grass-fed and organic, I have a tendency to break out. Perhaps a slight lactose intolerance that manifests on my face instead of in my digestion? Perhaps a reaction to the highly insulinogenic and pro-inflammatory properties of lactose? I am not sure.

I bet if I reintroduced grains and refined sugars I would also have some acne issues to contend with. But again, I have no intention of conducting this experiment.

So I am just curious, since I am a very small sample group of one. What are your thoughts? Have you performed any n=1 experiments on yourself? Do you know if you have any specific food triggers?

I am sharing this post at Monday Mania, Fat Tuesday, and Healthy Today Wednesday.

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11 Responses to Diet, Acne, and n=1 Experimentation

  1. VintageMom says:

    I definitely can see a link between what I eat and my acne breakouts. I am 43, and I have struggled with severe acne since I was 10. I too have tried every medication the dermatological community can throw at me, and nothing has worked in the long term. I was even on Accutane twice! When my son was a nursing infant with food allergies, and I had to avoid eating the top 8 most common allergens, my face cleared up. When I broke my arm and all my neighbors brought over lasagna, my face broke out in a major way (that was the dairy). My allergist says that acne is a common symptom of food allergy. Apparently, the body views the food as a toxin, and the liver tries to eliminate it through the skin, the body’s largest organ. Crazy, huh? Thanks for the chance to vent! 🙂

    • elliemaeh says:

      Glad you dropped by to vent! I had to let of some serious steam when I realized that my dermatologist had put me on so many potentially harmful drugs without ever even mentioning that diet could be playing a role. Years on antibiotics and acidic topical meds, and all I had to do was start eating paleo to see a complete turnaround. That explanation makes a lot of sense, that the body sees certain foods as toxins and attempts to eliminate them through the skin. One more reason for me to be wary of Neolithic foods.

  2. Jill says:

    Hi,
    This post is so informative. I would love for you to come
    share it at FAT TUESDAY. I hope you will
    put FAT TUESDAY on your list of carnivals to visit
    and link to each week!

    http://realfoodforager.com/2011/09/fat-tuesday-september-6-2011/

    • elliemaeh says:

      Thank you so much for the invite! I just dropped by, and added you to my rss. Looks like you have a great carnival going!

  3. Seth Roberts says:

    I told someone with acne about this post and she said your post did not explain what you meant by paleo. Could you say what you meant by “a fairly strict paleo diet”?

  4. Marcy says:

    My husband and I both experience worse break outs when we eat dairy – except cheddar, butter, and sour cream seem to be okay. That is similar to your experience. I hope I am not grossing anyone out when I admit we get it on our backs – I’ll get one or two pimples on my face if I really over-indulge and that usually means ice cream, so the sugar could be playing a role at that point.

    • elliemaeh says:

      I know that if I consume excess sugar in my diet I can have issues as well. In recent memory, ice cream has not been a problem for me, but that is probably because I make my own at home. I am wondering, because so many manufacturers are attempting to make foods lower-fat and therefore ‘healthier,’ store-bought ice cream probably contains a lot of milk as opposed to cream – and therefore a lot of lactose – as well as plenty of added sugar to please our sweet tooth. That might be a double-whammy.

  5. Rachel says:

    I have definitely noticed a difference in my skin. I’ve been on and off the paleo diet for a while (why is a long story). But when I am sticking to the diet, I not only lose weight, but my skin improves substantially, and any issues related to PMS, including acne, are minimized.

  6. Kim says:

    I have been eating paleo on and off since 2009 and recently trended my menstrual cycles for reasons of trying to get pregnant with my 4th baby and noticed that my minor PMS turns to PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder – which is basically extreme PMS+major depression) when I eat neolithic foods. Hence since I have trended my cycles I will be staying ON paleo for the rest of my life. It wreaks havoc with my psyche and makes me feel crazy. I hate feeling that way and my husband hates watching it. As for my husband he has suffered with acne since his teenage years and was a huge milk, fast food, junk eater. Once his dad had a heart attack in 2000 he started eating healthfully and it got a little better as well as his physique. Then when we heard of paleo his skin has been beautiful with minor breakouts on his back every once in a while, but his face is gorgeous. Amazing difference just a diet can make!

  7. Monica R. says:

    Hi, just found your blog the other day, and I wanted to share my experiences concerning acne & food.

    I actually discovered the primal/paleo lifestyle through searching for an answer to my severe cystic acne – an answer OTHER than antibiotics and harsh creams that turned me red and made me peel. I was tired of the poor digestion, fatigue, and constant yeast infections caused by the long-term antibiotics. Once I started down the paleo path, I noticed immediate improvements in my acne. I was able to get off my meds, and stopped using anything on my face (and body) that wasn’t natural. Get this – when I told my dermatologist about the studies I had read (and even offered to bring to her) outlining the effects of dairy, gluten, and sugar on acne, she told me I was flat-out wrong, that it must be something else I was doing. That was the last time I ever saw her. 🙂 Today I’m left with some scars, and I get teeny tiny pimples when I cheat, but all in all, I look like a different person. I can face the day without makeup even, which I never could do when I was suffering from severe acne.

    The thing is, I think it IS partially a hormonal imbalance, but one of the best and most natural ways to keep your hormones in line is to eat a primal/paleo-style diet. It’s all so interconnected and complicated – I followed probably 50 different lines of reasoning to try to figure my acne out – but they all led to a natural, primal lifestyle.

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