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Article: Treat Acne Through Diet: The Gut-Skin Connection

Treat Acne Through Diet: The Gut-Skin Connection
Skin Foundations

Treat Acne Through Diet: The Gut-Skin Connection

What do we really know about acne?

Most dermatologists tell their patients that acne is a genetic skin disease, and is a normal part of human development. The general consensus is that acne can be treated using strong antibacterials and by using certain drugs.

This is why acne-sufferers are often put on topical creams, and when these don't work, the potentially harmful drug known as Accutane (isotretinoin) is often prescribed.

Well, we have a much more sensible way of dealing with acne. In this guide, you'll find out exactly what causes acne and how you can effectively treat it.

Treat acne naturally through diet

What is acne?

Acne vulgaris is an inflammatory skin disease that mainly inflicts adolescents, with breakouts most common on the face, neck, and back.

The gut-skin connection is key to understanding the cause of acne

Something we don’t hear often from dermatologists is how our intestinal tract, or gut, plays a key role in our skin’s health.

The simple truth is that acne is caused by inflammation originating from a compromised gut.

Our gastrointestinal tracts are host to a colony of over 100 trillion microorganisms (mainly bacteria), which makes up about 3 pounds worth! This is called the microbiome, or flora, and it outnumbers human cells by 10:1.

About 70% of our immune system is made up of our flora, and they play an important role in our physiological system.

However, different factors can cause an imbalance of good to bad microorganisms, eventually leading to intestinal permeability (otherwise known as leaky gut). 

Leaky gut refers to when the protective wall lining of the gastrointestinal tract has become damaged, allowing toxins and undigested food molecules to enter into the bloodstream. As a result, it causes systemic inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body. 

This increase in oxidative stress damages sebum (a substance in your skin that helps it to retain moisture), by reducing its oxygen content. This change in sebum makes it a more suitable environment for the bacteria P. Acnes. It begins to thrive, and eventually, acne lesions appear.

People suffering from acne have altered gut flora

  • This 2001 Russian study¬†showed that 54% of acne patients have impaired gut flora.
  • Consumption of a fermented probiotic drink¬†over the course of 12 weeks led to¬†significant reductions¬†in total acne lesion count¬†and a reduction in sebum production.
  • This study¬†on adolescents with acne showed¬†that¬†they are more likely to suffer from constipation, bad¬†breath, and gastric reflux. Abdominal¬†bloating was also 37% more likely to be associated with acne and other seborrheic diseases.
  • Acne sufferers have more bacterial strains in their stools.
  • SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) is 10 times more prevalent in those with acne rosacea.¬†

Acne is nearly unheard of in some non-Westernized societies

As much as it seems like no one on this planet is safe from acne breakouts, there are entire communities that don't know anything else other than clear skin.

The key to understanding this is by looking at indigenous cultures around the world that have been largely untouched by Westernization. 

Western and non-Westernized populations were compared in this 2002 study. The results found that 79% to 95% of adolescents in Westernized societies have acne. While 40% to 54% of men and women over the age of 25 have some degree of facial acne.

Of the 1,200 Kitavan and 115 Aché people tested from Papua New Guinea and Paraguay, two non-westernized areas, not one case of acne was found.

It sounds absolutely crazy, but it has everything to with lifestyle and diet, and nothing to do with genetics. The Kitavan and Aché people simply have a more natural way of living than the West.

Your gut microbiome determines your health

Greek physician Hippocrates said over 2,000 years ago that "all disease begins in the gut". Well, decades of science has proven this statement to be true. 

The microbiome is a crucial component in our physiology, helping to manufacture important vitamins and fatty acids, fight pathogens, balance weight, and produce hormones and neurotransmitters.

Our gut's microbiome is even considered our second brain, it's that powerful.

Altered gut flora can contribute to:

Lifestyle choices that alter the gut's microbiome

1. Antibiotics

Doing even one course of antibiotics can alter the gut's flora, throwing off their natural balance. 

It has led to the creation of dangerous superbugs, which people often contract in hospitals during antibiotic treatment.

2. NSAID's and other drugs

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as well as others (contraceptives and analgesics) can also alter the gut's flora, increasing leaky gut. 

3. Diet

Besides pharmaceutical drugs, diet has a massive impact on gut health.

The Western diet is the big issue here. It's generally high in sugar and fat, and low in fiber. It also utilizes a lot of refined and pasteurized foods, with a big emphasis on milk and grains, which are huge contributors to acne. 

This kind of diet is directly related to an overgrowth of "bad" bacteria.

In the example below, we get an insight into the acne-free Kitavan diet, which we mentioned earlier:

Kitavan diet acne free

A whopping 69% of their calories come from carbohydrates, 21% from saturated fat, and 10% from protein.

Even though most Kitavans smoke, they have undetectable levels of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and they're also incredibly lean.

This is mainly because of the type of carbohydrates they consume, which come from root vegetables and fruit. Also, their fat consumption is much higher in omega-3's than a Western diet.

In contrast, a Western diet is high in omega-6 and 9 fatty acids, carbohydrates from refined foods and high protein intake.

For an excellent article on the comparison of the Kitavan and Western diets, go here.

4. Excessive sterilization

We build our gut flora and a big part of our immune system through our environments. The use of hand sanitizers, anti-bacterials, and soaps has decreased our exposure to rare pathogens, which we have naturally built immunities to for millions of years. 

Lack of contact with dirt and whole unpasteurized foods is detrimental to our gut's microbiome, especially in early development.

5. Stress

Psychological stress can have a significant affect on gut flora.

6. Caesarian section

Certain types of bacteria are passed onto babies during normal birth. However, a caesarian delivery may affect the early biodiversity of intestinal bacteria.

Why Accutane isn't worth the risk claims that nearly all patients see a clearance or visible reduction after a completed cycle (15-20 weeks), while acne symptoms return in about 30% of all patients, and another round is often given.

Don’t get too excited, however, as Accutane can come along with serious, sometimes even permanent, implications.

Hoffman-La Roche, the company that first brought Accutane to the market, has been hit with numerous lawsuits over the years for the serious health issues it has caused some people.

Accutane is a synthetic vitamin A derivative (13-cis-retinoic acid), which may seem safe in theory. But, most people who take a round of Accutane almost always end up with a side effect. Sometimes they're reversible, and other times they're long-term.

Side effects can include:

  • Dry skin, eyes, lips, and nose with possible nosebleeds
  • Rash
  • Joint and muscle problems
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurry vision
  • Allergic reaction
  • Organ damage
  • Diabetes
  • Hearing problems
  • Depression

Most of these are rare, but obviously, the risk is still there. These side effects are just scratching the surface, and a more extensive list can be seen here.

A pharmaceutical drug with a laundry list of potential health implications isn't needed when you can treat the actual root cause of acne.

How to restore your gut health and eliminate acne

You'll have to make some dietary changes if you want to improve your acne.

Following a diet that's rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, with an emphasis on starchy root vegetables (boiled) clearly benefits gut health.

You'll want to eliminate:

  • Dairy
  • Alcohol
  • Most¬†vegetable and seed-extracted oils
  • Processed meats and grains
  • Refined sugars and fats (packaged junk foods, drinks, etc.)

Also, take potent probiotics, and consume foods high in omega-3.

By consuming a lot more fibre, and putting less of a glycemic load on your body, this should improve your gut function and flora, and ultimately cure or greatly improve your acne. If this doesn't quite do it for you, then a strict plant-based diet should be put in place.

We also recommend working with a naturopath or integrative doctor to come up with an effective plan, and to get nutritional tests done.

Other than that, make sure to get lots of sleep, exercise, and sun to fast-track your health recovery process.

You can also reduce acne using omega-6 rich topical products

I already mentioned how we consume high amounts of omega-6 fats in a Western diet. So why would you want to slather it on your skin?

The odd thing is that acne-prone skin is actually lacking this essential fatty acid. This is caused by a deficiency in a certain enzyme called delta-6 desaturase.

This enzyme is critical for converting omega-6 in the body, to a substance called GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) in the skin. As a result, acne sufferers are also deficient in GLA - worsening inflammation associated with the condition.

Our product Botanical Recovery Serum is high in GLA and takes the guesswork out of skin care.


Wow, found this super interesting!!! I struggled with acne during my teenage years. I never wanted to go on medication for it because I was always scared off by the side effects, and I was always told that acne is a natural part of growing up. I went vegan at 19 and am now 22, my skin is so much better than it was and clear 95 % of the time but I still suffer from those occasional breakouts which I’d just put down to hormonal changes, not my gut.
Hearing about the Kitavan lifestyle and diet is so crazy, this should be common knowledge!!


Interesting write up. Thanks for the info. I enjoyed speaking with Spencer today at the Harmony Arts Festival in West Vancouver.
Just a note: in the paragraph staring with “By consuming a lot more fibre ….” the final phrase should read “thEn” a strict plant based diet …" … and NOT “thAn” …ūüėä


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