Updated 26 March 2014

Diet and a beautiful skin

Experts know that acne is not primarily influenced by what we eat. However, a recent study points to a possible link between acne, diet and high blood insulin levels.


Most teenagers spend their lives agonising about their skin and those pimples that appear just before an important social event like the Matric Dance. What is not as well known is the fact that many adults also suffer from acne long after they have left puberty behind.

Acne at any age can be a disfiguring, socially-restricting disease, and it is understandable that people both young and old are constantly searching for ‘miracle cures’ for their blemished skin.

One of the first factors that most people think about when it comes to acne, is the possible role played by diet and food. While a healthy diet can contribute to a beautiful skin, acne is not primarily influenced by what you eat.

However, a review published in a dermatology journal called ‘Retinoids’ has identified a possible link between diet, high blood insulin levels and acne.

Acne and hormones
Acne is caused by sex hormone imbalances, which is why it occurs commonly during puberty when young men and women are exposed to high levels of male and female hormones.

If you are plagued by pustules and pimples, it is a good idea to consult a dermatologist to find out what treatment options there are, e.g. hormone-regulating pills like Diane, or tetracyclines, or Roaccutane. The dermatologist will explain how each one of these treatments work and help you by prescribing the option that is most suitable to the kind of acne you suffer from and the severity thereof.

Besides eating a healthy, balanced diet to prevent deficiencies and ensure all-round glowing health, no dietary supplement will make your acne go away. Most patients need medical treatment to cure this skin condition.

New research
A study that investigated the possible influence of diet on acne showed that there might be a link between acne and high insulin levels in the blood.

The authors compared the insulin levels of two populations with a non-western lifestyle (plenty of exercise and a diet based on non-processed plant foods) and those eating a western diet (rich in fat and highly processed carbohydrates) with a western lifestyle (very little exercise).

The Kitavan Islanders in Papua New Guinea and the Ache hunter-gatherers in Paraguay had low blood insulin levels and a very low incidence of obesity, diabetes and acne. The western populations, on the other hand, had high insulin levels, and high incidences of obesity, diabetes and acne.

The typical diet of the non-western populations consists of fruit, vegetables, roots, nuts, fish and meat, which produce what is called a ‘low glycaemic load’. Typical western diets are rich in fat and have a high glycaemic load thanks to the large quantities of sifted, processed carbohydrates they contain.

The theory explained
The theory proposed by the authors of the above mentioned study is that western diets and lifestyles predisposed western populations to high insulin levels, which in turn stimulate the so-called free insulin-like growth factor. The latter factor stimulates sebum production in the skin. Sebum is the fatty substance excreted by the sebaceous glands in the skin. Sebum is necessary because our skins need a certain amount of lubrication, but if your sebaceous glands produce too much sebum, they tend to get blocked (blackheads) and infected (acne).

Additional support for the theory that individuals with high insulin levels have a greater tendency to develop acne is supplied by studies indicating that women who develop acne in adulthood have higher levels of free insulin-like growth factor in their blood.

Insulin and this factor are also capable of stimulating the synthesis of male sex hormones, called androgens by the ovary and testes and inhibiting compounds that counteract excessive circulating sex hormones. Insulin and free insulin-like growth factor, therefore, produce much higher levels of androgens in the body and may indeed contribute to the development of acne.

Diet and acne
This new research indicates that individuals suffering from acne, who are also overweight and/or suffering from insulin-resistance or diabetes, need to change their diets to counteract the effects of insulin and free insulin-like growth factor.

Basically, these individuals should eat foods that have a low glycaemic index (GI), and increase the amount of exercise they do on a daily basis to combat insulin imbalances and obesity. One of the spin-offs of a low GI diet, losing weight and getting active, could also be a reduction in acne.

Consult a clinical dietician to help you lose weight or control your insulin levels. It takes time and practice to apply the principles of a low GI diet and getting some assistance from a dietician will make your life easier and ensure that you are doing the correct things to lower the GI of your diet.

A healthy, glowing skin
For people who do not suffer from acne, the solution to a healthy, glowing skin is to eat a diet that is balanced, and rich in protective nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.

Stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, unsifted grains and cereals, low-fat milk, yoghurt and cheeses, lean meat, fish and eggs, and poly- or monounsaturated fats and oils to make sure you get all the vitamins, minerals and omega fatty acids you need for overall good health and a beautiful skin. Do regular exercise to improve the supply of blood and oxygen to your skin.

While most teenagers who do not have insulin problems need to consult a dermatologist if they suffer from acne, anyone with obesity, insulin resistance, and/or diabetes that are combined with acne, should also consult a clinical dietician about a low GI diet. For patients with adult-onset acne and women with polycystic ovary syndrome combined with acne, it may also be a good idea to combine medical therapy with a low GI diet and exercise. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

(Health24, updated August 2011)

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