Clearing Acne From the Inside Out
By Belle McCaleb – originally published InnerSelf Magazine
Acne is a common and often chronic skin condition – at least 85% of adolescents1 and young adults are affected by acne but it is by no means confined to these age groups. The condition is often dismissed by the medical fraternity as a “minor concern” but, for many people it severely affects their quality of life – lowering self-esteem and leading to anxiety, depression and social withdrawal. Fundamentally acne vulgaris is an androgen problem exacerbated by factors such as stress, other hormone imbalances, blood sugar imbalances, immune imbalances particularly inflammation & and overwhelmed organs of detoxification.
Androgens are the “male-type” hormones produced by both men and women and act, amongst other things, to produce sebum (oil) at the hair follicle. If androgens are overactive increased sebum production can lead to blocked pores and subsequent bacterial infection – the result – a blackhead or pimple. Androgens typically rise in adolescents thus the prevalence of acne in this age group however it is not unusual to find “normal” blood androgen levels. In this case excess androgen activity is due to over active enzymes leading to androgen sensitivity at the hair follicle. This is the more likely cause of acne in older women.
High stress levels are another culprit as they increase the production of androgens from the adrenal glands. The female menstrual cycle clearly influences the tendency to acne. Premenstrual tension syndromes are commonly made worse by impaired stress responses thus tying androgens and PMT together. Another consideration is blood sugar imbalances – excess insulin activity is definitely linked to excess androgen activity (this is particularly notable in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome). Managing stress involves learning skills such as meditation and yoga; increasing exercise; correcting dietary imbalances and in many cases the addition of herbal medicines to support the adrenal glands. Many such herbs are available from a qualified herbalist and include herbs such as Rhodiola, Siberian Ginseng and Conodopsis. If female menstrual imbalances and/or hyperinsulinemia are present there are many herbal and nutritional approaches that can help. Finally, there are herbs that can be prescribed that specifically act as anti-androgens including Paonia, Licorice and Saw Palmetto.
We must also consider the role of our skin as a detoxification organ. From the natural medicine point of view our skin carries the burden if other major detoxication organs such as the gut, liver and lymphatics are overwhelmed. Immunity is also compromised if these systems are overwhelmed increasing the likelihood of inflammation and infection – also key components of acne. Addressing these three systems through diet, lifestyle, and herbal “detoxification” often goes a long way to improve all sorts of skin conditions including acne. Diet clearly influences the tendency to acne in many people particularly a high intake of poor dietary fats (saturated, transfats, highly processed fats, too many Omega 6’s etc), processed foods of all sorts, high sugar, alcohol, sports drinks etc. Adopting a “low stress” diet high in whole foods rich in dietary fibres & antioxidants; filtered water; good fats (omega 3’s) and adequate high quality protein goes a long way to promoting good health and calming acne. Specifically addressing bowel health with a series of probiotics, pre-biotics, and anti-bacterial/anti-parasitic herbal medicines is highly recommended. This is followed by specific herbal medicines for liver health such at high dose St Mary’s Thistle or Andrographis extracts and other nutritional co-factors for liver health. Lymphatics clearance (which particularly affects the clearance of dietary fats) can be greatly enhanced with numerous herbal medicines such as Echinacea, Golden Seal, Calendula & Red Clover. Skin brushing (body, arms and legs), adequate filtered water and exercise also help with lymphatic clearance.
Obviously “Clearing Acne from the Inside Out” is not a simple, one prescription and you are done sort of condition. In many cases acne, particularly acne that persists is a sign that general health is in need of overhaul. Getting onto a “low stress diet”, undertaking a general “detox,” getting really serious about stress management and balancing the system with herbal medicines will go a long way to correcting the underlying drivers of acne and along the way improves health & wellness on many other levels.
1 Romm A, Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health, 2010, Churchill Livingstone
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