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Guess what happens when you mix a family history riddled with acne problems and a horrendous diet and a hectic school life? Bad skin throughout high school, college AND on my wedding day. Over the years, I tried everything – proactive, natural cleansers, spot treatments, washing my face 3 times a day. Through self experimentation added to my medical and holistic training, I discovered some pretty effective ways to deal with acne:

Stopping dairy and sugar: Dairy and sugar are 2 of the only foods that are correlated with increase in acne. In a 2010 review of the literature on diet and acne published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (JAAD), milk and sugar were the only 2 foods that had any scientifically proven link to diet. This was more true for sugar than for milk. Personally, milk seems to be a bigger player for me, and low-fat dairy was worse for preventing acne than full-fat dairy. While all dairy seems to aggravate my skin, I found that ingesting small amounts of grass-fed cheese from the farmers market daily has not caused any harm.

One possible theory why dairy causes acne may be that hormones in cows milk cause an increased secretion of sweat in the hair follicles, which serve as a nesting ground for acne causing bacteria. While scientific evidence for link between dairy and acne is not overwhelming, a trial without dairy and sugar, in my opinion, never hurt. Considering all the complements about ” glowing skin” I have been getting even after 2 weeks of night float or 4 weeks of 15 hour or more days on inpatient, going off dairy has been worth it for me!

Scientific evidence for the link between sugar and acne is actually stronger. Here, sugar includes all highly refined foods, processed foods, and other foods with high glycemic index. Some very interesting and well done studies showing decreased acne in people who ate less sugar, and no acne exist in hunter-gatherer societies that ate a low-glycemic diet. The idea is that increased insulin from a high sugar diet leads to high levels of insulin like growth actor, or IGF-1, which seems to correlate with the amount of acne. In my opinion, this reinforces my own experience with dairy as well. IGF-1 sequesters less in the fatty portion of the milk. Cows raised naturally on a farm presumably have lower levels of IGF-1 so it makes you wonder about whether that is the cause for my sensitivity to factory raised cows milk. It also raises interesting questions about meat and high protein diets, which we know cause high levels of IGF-1 in the blood.

Well, now that I have thoroughly bored you with the nerd-acious commentary on acne and dairy, I also wanted to mention a few other things that have worked for me:

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My medicine cabinet

Rotating cleansers : I alternate between conventional cleansers that can be drying with more natural cleansers that are more gentle but don’t always get out the worst of the muck. I use the conventional cleansers when i feel really greasy followed by a spray of natural toner to prevent drying. I still haven’t found a good, non-greasy moisturizer for my face. I welcome any suggestions for natural moisturizers!

(Note: Since talking about this blog entry with friends, family and co-workers, I have been asked to divulge my skin-care products to the world. So here is the list – I have successfully used Clean and Clear Blackhead Eraser System, Clinique Foaming Cream Cleanser, Biore Pore Cleansing Cloths in my rotation of convention cleansers. I alternate one of these with Evan Healy’s Rose Cleansing Milk, and Pangea Skin Care Egyptian Calendula Blood orange Cleanser. I also use LUSH Eau Roma Water toner or Evan Healy Lavender facial tonic. I notice my pores start to clog up when I only use the natural products, while my skin becomes very dry and loses it’s liveliness when I only use the conventional products. Moisturizers seems to make me look greasy, so I use the toners instead because they are not very strong and feel very calming.)

Cutting out sour and fermented foods – In Ayurveda, ingestion of sour and pungent taste is associated with increased inflammation of the skin. Fermented foods are considered by default sour. This means cutting down on vinegars, alcohol, as well as yogurts. Tamarind, a common ingredient in Indian dishes, is also a no-no. Lemon is surprisingly fine because it has sweetness that balances the sour.

Applying honey on the face – In Ayurveda, honey is considered drying and pungent. It also has intrinsic anti-microbial properties. Honey is a super-saturated solution, meaning that it draws in moisture, even the moisture inside bacteria, causing them to shrivel-up and DIE. It also draws moisture from your skin, making pores smaller. I do a face mask with mixture of honey and lemon. Simply apply the mask at night for five minutes and then washed off. It does absolute WONDERS and I always get glowing skin compliments the next day. This I have to thank my Ayurveda guru Vasudha Gupta.

Keeping clean: Changing the pillow covers regularly and avoid touching my face have been pretty key. Why does this work? Well, there is no evidence behind this, but common sense acne is caused by infection by the p. acnes bacterium of a hair follicle that is plugged up with dead skin-cells, dirt and sweat. So touching my face with unwashed hands probably contribute to plugged hair follicles. In Ayurveda, washing hair frequently and not letting your hair touch your face is one way to prevent acne. My pillow case is not always in contact with clean hair, not to mention the fact that my dirty hands are all over them too. Keeping pillow cases clean and avoid too much contact with my face seems to keep the acne away.

Staying hydrated with room temperature water: This is another piece of advice from ayurveda. In ayurveda, sipping room-temp water throughout the day is considered cooling and reduces inflammation. In addition, sipping water washes toxins away.

Interesting fact: teenagers with acne prone skin have more inflammation of the skin even where there is no acne. It seems there is less linoleic acid in acne prone areas of the face, according to one of the textbooks on dermatology I referenced. Linoleic acid is the plant form of omega 3, and is found in higher amounts in many seeds such as flax, chia, walnuts, almonds ans sesame. I would like to try an experiment in which I basically put flax oil on my face (perhaps as a light moisturizer after washing my face or maybe use a little to dissolve the sebum before washing my face? Has anyone tried this or heard of anything similar?).

What is your secret to a healthy skin? Please share!

-DS

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