Having bad skin, particularly in adult life, can be an extremely distressing experience. Whilst you can inherit a predisposition to acne, which is often a hormonal problem, it can also be brought on by stress. You may know of several adults who, in their early twenties or even into their thirties, experienced their first bout of bad skin, yet had a clear complexion throughout their teens! We hope to give you advice here about how you can make simple changes to your diet, including supplementation, to address the underlying causes – no more covering it up, and just addressing the symptoms – we want to help you nip it in the bud… for good.
Acne is caused by excess sebum blocking the skin’s pores, leading to bacterial infections and inflammation. You will likely have heard that fish oils are beneficial for your heart, and nourish the brain, because of their rich content of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Something you don’t hear about so often, but which you’ll be pleased to hear if you are troubled with a skin condition, is that they are also converted in the body into powerful anti-inflammatory and antibacterial substances which help to combat acne.
The omega-3 fatty acid EPA produces a family of hormones called prostaglandins, which work to prevent the over-production of sebum in the hair follicles, thus unclogging the pores and thwarting the formation of acne (an out-of-balance androgen hormone is one of the main causes of teenage acne). By consuming ample amounts of omega-3-rich fish oil in order to produce the required prostaglandins, you can help to prevent flare-ups of this distressing skin condition.
Ideally, one would gain sufficient quantities of omega-3 from the diet, by eating oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, anchovies and halibut. This isn’t always sensible, however, given the government recommendation advising no more than two portions of oily fish weekly (heavy metals can be present in fish, which are removed in the filtration process of our raw oils). What’s more, so many of us have hectic lifestyles and can’t always eat freshly prepared food, which means it can be a fierce challenge to obtain all the essential fats we need from food alone. Dr Nina Bailey, our nutrition scientist, advises supplementing one’s diet with a highly concentrated fish oil rich in EPA, such as Vegepa, in order to reduce the production of oily sebum which serves to aggravate and inflame already sensitive skin.
Studies show that by supplementing your diet also with omega-6 (GLA has a synergistic effect with EPA in helping to fight inflammation) and omega-9 (found in virgin olive oil, great in salad dressings), you can greatly reduce your risk of developing both facial and bodily acne. It is important to include as many foods that contain these essential fats as possible (see below for some ideas).
The balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in the diet is also an important marker for good health. With the average modern diet in the region of 12:1, as opposed to the ideal ratio of 2:1, most of us need to be adding omega-3s to the diet to compensate for this imbalance which is thought to be responsible for inflammatory problems, as well as increases in the rates of obesity, mood disorders and cardiovascular disease in Western populations. While GLA is an important omega-6 with anti-inflammatory actions, most omega-6s in the diet from meat and grains are actually inflammatory. Try reducing your consumption of non-organic red meat (animals are fed on omega-6-rich grains), or eat organic produce.
A common misconception which is still sadly hyped is the notion that acne is caused by excess fat in the diet, and therefore treated by limiting the intake of fat and using drying, non-oily topical treatments. What people are beginning to understand is that it’s not the amount of fat in the diet which is a problem for the skin (of course you should stick to the Food Standards Agency guidelines not to consume excessive calories in the form of fats), but the type of fat which is important. Whilst saturated and trans fats encourage inflammation, polyunsaturated fats (highly unsaturated) such as omega fatty acids EPA and GLA, and oleic acid from olive oil, are in fact extremely beneficial because they offer anti-inflammatory properties. EPA has the added benefit of encouraging collagen formation in the skin, which can be damaged when picking spots.
Eating too few of these important fats, and also applying drying cleaners and alcohol-based lotions, can strip the skin of oil, which might seem desirable, but will later prove counter-productive as the body responds by producing even more sebum, thereby worsening the problem. Top dermatologists, including USA-based Dr Jennifer Linda of the Department of Dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, are encouraging clients to increase their intake of omega fatty acids, believing that deficiencies in these important fats can actually worsen acne.
Given that acne can is linked with low levels of EFAs in the body, you need to allow time for levels to build up in the body. Typically it can take up to three months to see any noticeable effects. During this time, you may notice visible improvements to your hair and nails also, which are also nourished from the inside.
Sources of omega-3 to include in your diet:
Seeds (sesame, pumpkin), avocados, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale), nuts (walnuts), salmon, anchovies, tuna
Sources of omega-6 to include in your diet:
Oils (olive, flax seed, grape seed, evening primrose, blackcurrant), seeds (flaxseed, pumpkin, sunflower), olives
Sources of omega-9 to include in your diet:
Oils (olive, sesame), avocados, nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachio, pecan)