By Jean Tong, nutritionist, Halley Medical Aesthetics
Acne is one of the most common dermatological conditions among adolescents and young adults all over the world.
We generally accept the main causes of acne as excess sebum production, bacteria, and hormones. But if nutrition textbooks and journal articles advocate that our diet has an impact on our health, the question to ask is: Can what we eat trigger acne?
The founder of modern medicine, Hippocrates, once said, “Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food.” There may be some truth to his words when it comes to acne as one of the most effective therapies for acne to date are doctor-prescribed retinoids in the forms of oral isotretinoin and topical tretinoin. While no single food causes or can treat acne, it is possible that certain foods may ameliorate or trigger and worsen acne.
A review of literature publications of the past decade showed the plausible links between acne and three food categories.
1. Milk and dairy foods
Hormones play a role in acne as sebum production may be influenced by hormones such as androgens. Studies have shown an association between acne and consumption of milk and dairy foods. It is postulated that the hormones present in milk and dairy foods from pregnant cows can lead to acne.
Milk is also said to increase insulin levels, which in turn increase sebum production and worsen the condition.
2. High glycaemic index (GI) foods
A number of studies have pointed out the association between high GI foods such as sweet treats like cakes and chocolates, as well as fatty foods such as fried foods with acne. It is speculated that foods with a high GI may contribute to acne by elevating serum insulin concentrations. This may increase sebum production and raise hormone androgen levels.
But low GI foods have been found to lower acne severity and reduce the chance of acne outbreaks. Examples of low GI foods are fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains foods such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, and oats.
3. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids
A diet rich in a combination of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids is associated with increased levels of inflammation and acne. The problem comes when the level of omega-6 fatty acids is much higher than that of the omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have found that this imbalance causes inflammation, which may lead to inflammatory acne.
The western diet is an example of a diet that has both the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. It contains substantial amounts of soybean and corn oils – foods rich in omega-6, as well as foods containing omega-3, such as walnuts and fish. Other examples of foods rich in omega-6 include vegetable oils and foods like poultry, eggs, meat, avocados, and seeds
On the other hand, research has shown that a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and seafood decreases inflammatory factors, helping in the fight against acne.