Natural Treatment of Acne in Vermont
Acne is a common inflammatory skin disease that is thought to occur as a result of interactions between hormones, sebum, and bacteria. It begins at puberty and generally spontaneously resolves in early adulthood, although in some it persists throughout life.
Conventional treatment includes topical benzoyl peroxide and oral or topical vitamin A analogues (Retin-A) and antibiotics (doxycycline, minocycline).
Natural treatment of acne first and foremost focuses on identifying the underlying cause of the problem, which is most often food allergies and/or excess sugar and flour intake.
Food Allergy/Intolerance in Acne Treatment
While most current medical texts deny there is a connection between diet and acne, numerous studies dating back to the 1930’s and 40’s have identified that food allergy and sensitivity is a major contributor to acne in some people. My personal experience from treating people with acne is that food allergy/intolerance is a frequent contributor.
Food allergies occur when the immune system reacts to foods in the same way it would to a foreign bacteria. The most common allergens are dairy, gluten, and eggs. Other common allergens include beans, peanuts, corn, yeast, chocolate, and nightshades (potato, tomato, pepper, eggplant). The list of potentially allergic foods, however, includes pretty much everything a person eats. The more frequently a food is eaten, the more likely it is to be a food allergen.
While most people think of a food allergy as an immediate, severe reaction such as when someone eats a peanut or strawberry and can’t breathe, this reaction is relatively rare compared to the much more common delayed allergic reaction. Delayed reactions can occur anywhere from a few minutes to a couple days after eating the allergic food. The reaction is generally much more insidious, and can include things such as asthma, eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, ear infections, sinusitis, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel disease, anxiety, depression, fatigue, hyperactivity, obesity, and post nasal drip. Most often people with delayed allergies don’t realize they are allergic because of this and because they may be eating a variety of food allergens frequently.
The best way to determine if food allergies are a problem is either by an allergy blood test or by following a food allergy elimination/challenge diet. In this diet potentially allergic foods are eliminated for a period of about two weeks and then are challenged one at a time to see if they provoke acne or other symptoms. While inexpensive and accurate, this can be a difficult and uncomfortable process to go through. For that reason, many people prefer the blood test. Blood tests are available to check up to 96 or more foods all at once and are covered by some health insurance plans.
Blood Sugar Imbalances in Acne Treatment
Eating too much sugar, flour, and other high glycemic foods is another common cause of acne. The glycemic index is a measure of how much a food spikes the blood sugar. Added sugars (such as sugar, corn syrup, honey, and maple syrup), grains (such as bread, pasta, cereals, crackers, and rice), and potatoes all spike the blood sugar and hence have a high glycemic index. Fruits, vegetables, and proteins (such as beans, nuts, soy, dairy, eggs, meat, fish, and poultry) generally have very little impact on blood sugar and hence have a low glycemic index. Even though fruit is quite sweet, it contains a different type of sugar than other foods and does not affect the blood sugar very much. Eliminating or severely restricting the high glycemic foods and eating lots of low glycemic foods can make a difference in many cases of acne in as little as a few weeks. Other symptoms commonly linked to eating too many high glycemic foods include hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), insulin resistance, fatigue, depression, inflammation, and weight gain.
While clinical trials examining diet and acne are limited, a 2007 study did find a significant improvement in acne in those following a low glycemic diet and another showed improvement of 84% of people with acne who restricted sugar intake. There is also additional evidence that the higher insulin levels that come with eating high glycemic foods affect hormone levels including androgens such as testosterone that aggravate acne. My personal experience is that many people with acne are helped by this dietary approach.
Omega 3 Oils in the Treatment of Acne
Another nutritional factor that can influence acne is a deficiency of omega 3 oils. These oils are anti-inflammatory, they boost immune function, and they are good for the skin, which make them a natural match for acne. They are found mostly in cold water fish, but can also be found in flax seeds. While humans evolved with a relatively high dietary intake of omega 3 oils because they are present in wild game and other wild foods, most people get very little of them in their diet today. For most people, fish oil, cod liver oil, or flax oil are the easiest ways to get these oils today.
Nutrients in the Treatment of Acne
Other nutritional supplements that can be effective in the treatment of acne include niacin (vitamin B3) and zinc. While vitamin A and vitamin B5 have also been effective in some studies, potential toxicity from these vitamins at the doses required to treat acne make these poor choices for the first line treatment of acne.
Both niacin and niacinamide (another form of niacin) can be effective in the treatment of acne when used orally or topically. In one study, topical niacinamide was more effective than the topical antibiotic clindamycin (82% response vs. 69%). In another study oral niacinamide combined with zinc, folate, and copper was as effective as oral antibiotics. Because oral niacin in high doses can cause liver inflammation in some people, it should only be used under the supervision of a physician. Niacinamide, however, does not have this effect nor does it cause the niacin flush that can occur with oral niacin.
Zinc deficiency is common in people with acne and multiple studies have shown results using oral zinc to treat acne. The response rate to zinc treatment has varied from 56-70% and has been comparable to oral antibiotics. Zinc should not be used with oral tetracycline since it can inhibit its absorption.
Finally, azelaic acid, a compound that naturally occurs in some foods, can be effective when used topically. Most studies have used a 20% cream and have generally found it to be comparable to oral and topical antibiotics, benzoyl peroxide, and tretinoin.
Natural treatment of acne can be very effective and most often doesn’t require the long term use of medication, natural or prescription.
Bottom Line for the Natural Treatment of Acne
Natural acne treatment should begin with identifying and treating the underlying causes that can contribute to acne. Specifically, I recommend:
- Get a blood test for food allergies – Easy and accurate, this can be extraordinarily helpful
- Try a low glycemic diet to control inflammation, blood sugar and insulin levels
- Take omega 3 oils, such as fish oil
- Consider selected nutrients that can help with acne
Naturopathic doctors are physician experts in treating the underlying cause of disease and using natural medicines to help people get and stay well. To find out which natural treatments are appropriate for you or to be tested for food allergies or other causes of acne, schedule an office visit or food allergy test.