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James Colquhoun Sep 07, 2016
Is it any coincidence that acne levels have increased in tandem with global sugar consumption over the last century?
While the link between diet and skin health may have been ‘pffft’ at once upon a time, the evidence is mounting up to show that what we eat – and more specifically, sugar – really does show up on our skin.
A Bit Of Background First: What Happens When You Eat Sugar?
Sugar (or more precisely, glucose) is fast-burning, high-octane fuel for your cells. Unlike other forms of carbohydrate, glucose does not need to be broken down or heavily metabolized before it can provide your body with energy. This means that glucose can enter your bloodstream quickly and can give your cells a rapid energy surge.
The missing key between the step of getting glucose from your bloodstream and then into your cells is insulin. Imagine that your cell is a room and it’s ‘locked’ from letting glucose inside, even though it’s knocking at the door after you’ve eaten a high-sugar meal.
Insulin is literally like a key, in that it unlocks the ‘doors’ to your cells and allows glucose to enter. One side-effect of this happening is that your cells are able to make energy very quickly. However, regular cellular hits of sugar also trigger a cascade of physiological events that may ultimately cause inflammation and skin issues.
How Does Sugar Cause Skin Issues?
The intake of sugar, and other High GI foods for that matter, has been shown to trigger hormonal disturbances. As previously discussed, eating sugar makes your blood sugar levels go up. In turn, this increases the levels of insulin circulating through your bloodstream. This rise in insulin can ultimately increase the activity of oil glands in your skin and catalyze inflammatory processes.
One study that reviewed over 50 years of research concluded that a high GI diet may worsen and even trigger acne. Other randomized controlled trials have indicated that a high sugar, high GI diet is associated with a higher incidence of acne.
Other evidence suggests that glycation – a metabolic by-process of eating sugar – may worsen acne and also rosacea.
On the flip side, the good news is that eating less sugar and following a low GI diet appears to have a positive action on your skin. In 2007, an Australian study demonstrated that young men following a low GI diet experienced significant healing of their acne.
Why? Because the food we eat influences sex hormones (such as testosterone) and growth factors – all of which are known to affect acne.
Does The Amount Of Carbohydrate We Eat Affect The Skin, Too?
Research into Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) has highlighted the link between sugar consumption, overall carbohydrate intake, hormonal activity and skin breakouts.
PCOS is a hormonal disorder characterized by elevated levels of circulating insulin, polycystic ovaries, disrupted menstrual cycles and hirsutism. Hormonal levels are also affected by PCOS and this is known to contribute to issues with acne and breakouts.
As PCOS commonly involves insulin resistance, people with PCOS are at higher risk of developing diabetes. Therefore, PCOS research has investigated what dietary measures may help to regulate insulin and blood sugar levels. And a positive side-effect of this improved insulin control appears to be having clearer skin!
Low GI diets have been found to help women with PCOS, with some studies showing that lower GI foods can help to regulate menstrual cycles, blood sugar control and insulin action.
However, some experts believe that eating low GI foods is not enough. There appears to be a further benefit to eating less carbohydrates overall – even of the low GI variety. In fact, some research shows that an overall daily intake of as little as 20 to 100g per day of carbohydrate may be beneficial to PCOS.
One study demonstrated that women with PCOS who ate a low starch (and incidentally, low dairy) diet, experienced better insulin sensitivity, lower testosterone levels and weight loss. Other research looking at a carbohydrate-restricted, ketogenic way of research for women with PCOS, showed similar improvements in testosterone, fasting insulin and weight loss.
(SPECIAL NOTE: Please do not drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake without the help of a trusted health provider, particularly if you do have diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance.)
Inflammation In The Gut May Also Cause Inflammation In The Skin
It would be remiss of me not to make a small mention here about the link between sugar, gut health, inflammation and your skin. After all, there is a well-acknowledged link between inflammation in the gut and a higher incidence of skin issues.
Sugar heightens oxidative stress, aggravates the gut lining and is known to worsen inflammation. Cutting back on sugar is therefore a good place to start in terms of reducing inflammation in the skin and your gut.
There is further evidence linking inflammation, acne and the microbiome and research shows that probiotics may help with acne. Therefore, trial taking a probiotic supplement for yourself and monitor the difference.
A Note About Rosacea And Inflammation
Unlike acne, inflammatory rosacea is not due to bacteria. Alternatively, one expert view is that rosacea is largely caused by inflammatory mediators. These mediators include prostaglandins, bradykinin, histamine and substance P.
Doctors still aren’t certain about the precise mechanisms that cause rosacea. However, it does appear that rosacea may be due to increased inflammation and an ‘overactive’ immune system’.
Therefore, an anti-inflammatory diet (which involves reducing refined sugars and processed carbohydrates) may help with this condition.
Traditionally, many health professionals prescribe Accutane and antibiotics to treat skin conditions such as acne. However, these medical interventions may have negative side-effects, especially when used over long periods. And as you can see, there is lots of evidence to show that dietary interventions may help, or are at the very least worthwhile considering.