This is a very personal post for me. This is where huge change started for me and really how I got to where I am now.
I’ve posted the detailed story here and here. But the short version is that back when I was in high school I was put on birth control to help alleviate the debilitating cramps that came with my period plus the teenage acne that embarrassed me so much. About 14 years later, in 2012, I had a steady partner (now husband) and decided to try getting off the only prescription medication I was on, not to get pregnant, but simply because I kept reading more and more how it wasn’t great for women to be on these synthetic hormones and not have a Real monthly cycle. Little did I know what I was in for! All that hormonal acne from my teens came rushing back, along with the total embarrassment and shame. How could I, a seemingly healthy 20-something year old, STILL have a face full of acne!?!?
This sent me down the rabbit hole of holistic health, in my attempt to heal my own acne naturally. A graphic designer at the time, whenever I had a few minutes of downtime I would be reading any article claiming to heal hormonal acne. I searched for the best natural estheticians, beauty products, functional medicine doctors. I did all the blood tests your insurance doesn’t cover, including food allergy tests, nutrient deficiency tests, hormonal and stool tests. You name it. I tried it. Eventually in 2015, I decided to leave my decade-long full-time career as a graphic designer in Los Angeles and moved to Colorado to go to school at the Bauman College in Boulder.
Like most that pursue an education in nutrition, it’s not only out of interest and passion, but also a way to find healing for yourself. It took me nearly 5 years to find the healing I was looking for. And even to this day, 6 years out of getting off birth control, I still struggle with the occasional break out, but I usually know what it’s from: my upcoming cycle (aka hormones), dairy, gluten, caffeine or stress (aka inflammation, gut health, liver detoxification).
My hope here and in becoming a holistic nutritionist and herbalist is that in sharing a few of the things that I went through, you can find relief faster that I did. No matter what speed you heal at, one thing to remember: be patient, it’s a process. It didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be remedied overnight. Have faith in every small or big step you take forward. Trust that you are doing what you need to in the moment. You are healing.
Before I lay my plan of action out for you, I’d like to take a second to discuss the general reasons behind why we get acne. The first is due to imbalanced hormones. This is a pretty obvious one, it means balancing our sex hormones, estrogen, testosterone, progesterone and more with stress hormones like insulin and cortisol, and more. Second, is addressing our gut inflammation, and/or leaky gut and actually healing the gut. Most of us a one point or more experience leaky gut. It’s hard to avoid in the world we live in. But as Dr. Sara Gottfried, a MD and leading hormone expert, says “the skin is a mirror of the gut and mind. Most of us need more minerals and antioxidants to keep our skin gorgeous and radiant, reflecting an inner state of harmony.” And the last one is liver detoxification. Also hard to avoid, since we live in a world where even if we are eating and living clean, it’s impossible to avoid the pollution in the air and other environmental toxins. Liver detoxification is key because this is where we eliminate our used and excess hormones. Without proper detoxification and elimination, they will leave the liver and start recirculating through the body, causing inflammation and further imbalance our hormones. Don’t let this sound too complicated. In the end a lot of the solutions to help one thing will in turn help the other. That’s why I don’t focus too much on fixing one. When you start to work on one, you will in turn work on the other. The body is an amazing thing, and everything is connected.
Ready for your plan? Here it is:
1. See a naturopath or functional medicine doctor or practitioner and get some testing.
Why get testing done when I just told you it’s probably 1 or more of the 3 reasons above that you have acne in the first place?
After getting off birth control in 2012, I did some testing. But at first it was only for food allergies and nutrient deficiencies. Which was, yes, expensive, but also helpful. But i don’t think this is where most people should start. I would probably do the nutrient deficiency test, but not the food allergies one. The only thing it told me was that I had leaky gut and needed to do an elimination diet. Which I pretty much knew anyways.
It wasn’t until 3 years later and a couple months into nutrition school I learned about some other testing that might help me. So, I sought out a Naturopath doctor and did the Dutch test (a saliva hormone test) and a 3-day stool test (for gut health, digestive and metabolic markers). Now in my 30’s, these were the main tests that helped me heal the remainder of my adult acne.
These told me that while I thought I had excess estrogen, based on all my symptoms and body type, my adrenals were so fatigued that I was low in most all my hormonal markers, including, low cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, DHEA and a few more! I immediately stopped taking the DIM supplement and a few others I thought were helping me with my excess estrogen and got onto a few different supplements.
That aside, I understand testing can get expensive. I’ve been there! So if this isn’t a place you can start, don’t worry, you can still do the work below and it should help get you where you want to be. Plus you can always take advantage of your fast blood test during your annual physical with your primary care doctor through insurance and pay nothing out of pocket.
2. Look at your diet.
The best place to start is to make time to do an elimination diet (you can always come see me for this, I walk about 75% of my client through this at some point in working together, and have seen some pretty astounding results, or let me know if you have questions, there are some good books out there on this subject too).
If for any reason, you can’t do that right now, start by getting rid of dairy and gluten. Ditching the dairy can be great. Consuming it just further imbalances our hormones, since organic or not we are consuming hormones of other animals. Many people can’t digest gluten well and it can be inflammatory to our body. Inflammation can be a big cause of acne.
While cutting out dairy and gluten helped me a little, it didn’t get me where others said it would. And that left me frustrated. If this is the case with you too, don’t feel alone. Though I admit I do feel better, less bloated and mucus-y when I don’t eat dairy, even quality, organic dairy, it wasn’t the end-all-be-all-answer I was looking for.
So if you are like me and you already do that, try going one step further: try cutting out caffeine, alcohol and processed, refined sugars. Gasp! I know! It hurts me to tell you I had to do this too! But don’t worry, this doesn’t have to mean forever, or for all that long if you do it right!
Why these? Well the alcohol is basically just sugar when it breaks down, so that and the refined, processed sugar just feeds the bad bacteria in your body, imbalances blood sugar and hormones, then creates inflammation and more acne. The caffeine increases our cortisol (hello more energy) and cortisol directly imbalanced hormones, increases inflammation and then you get acne! Plus, caffeine and alcohol both dehydrate us. Since our skin is over 60% water, to keep it healthy we must stay hydrated! Aim for ½ your body weight in ounces. If you are 150 pound person that means aim to consume 75 ounces daily!
I don’t like to focus on what you can’t have when it comes to nutrition, but these are a few big ones, I just can’t skip when we talk about healing skin and acne issues.
So what do you eat? Lot’s of quality and colorful veggies, plus quality fats, some protein and fruits too! A couple great foods for hormonal acne: cilantro, which is a powerful liver detoxifier and fermented foods, like kimchi or sauerkraut for healthy gut bacteria!
See my previous post on the foundations of nutrition for a great balanced approach to eating for health, plus more tips and tricks on how to get clear, glowy skin!
3. Get on the right quality supplements.
I always hesitant to recommend supplements to clients, for a few reasons. The main one being that I don’t want them to take the place of prescription medications in western medicine, as a solution to simply deal with symptoms. I believe getting to the root cause of what’s going on should be the main focus and sometimes supplements can cloud that real work because the thinking can be when symptom are gone that one is “healthy.”
The other two reasons are that we need to buy quality supplements and those can be hard to find unless you are working with a practitioner who provide you with professional-grade supplements. Lastly, they can get expensive. If you don’t buy quality supplements, it’s possible you’re wasting your money and doing yourself more harm than good, since a lot of supplements sitting on the shelf could be old, rancid or simply full of fillers and cause more inflammation.
If someone comes to see me and it’s clear they have X,Y, Z going on, they might need some supplementation in addition to nutrition and lifestyle shifts, simply to get levels out of the red and into the black. But I always caveat this with the fact that these are by definition supplements to a good diet and lifestyle.
Here’s what I recommend for anyone struggling with acne (no matter where their hormone levels test, if you do the hormone testing let me know, I have additional recommendations depending on where your levels are):
Designs for Health Acutrol – This is a supplement for exactly those that are struggling with acne. It’s a therapeutic dose of specific vitamins and minerals that those with acne tend to be low on: zinc, vitamin A, D and E, specific B’s and more. I always suggest taking these for 2-3 months minimum, but you will probably see some results starting within 1 months for sure.
Omega-3’s – It’s been shown that not enough quality fat in the diet can contribute to inflammation and acne, especially if it’s not in balance with how much Omega-6’s we intake. Try adding 1-2 grams of Omega-3’s to your day. I like Nordic Naturals or Barlean’s.
Probiotics – Gut health is extremely important when it comes to good skin health, since inflamed skin pretty much means an inflamed gut. It depends where you are starting from how much you will take. If you are new to taking probiotics, I always say start small, think 5-10 billion CFU. This is because you are introducing bacteria into your gut, which means there’s a possibility that you will upset it at the beginning. Whenever bad bacteria is being disrupted it will not be happy, this means more gas, bloating, etc. If you start small and work your way up overtime, you will slowly overtake the bad guys with good guys without upsetting your stomach. If you are already taking probiotics, try adding a little more over time as well. I wouldn’t go too much over 50 billion unless you are seeing a practitioner. Personally I only recommend Klaire Labs or MegaFoods.
Multivitamin – I am a strong believer in a multivitamin even for those who think they have their diet dialed in. This is because it’s been proven that our soil is more depleted than ever of nutrients, which means our produce, organic or not will be less nutrient dense too. But honestly, most us are depleted in something, no one eats perfectly and this is just an easy coverall. As a nutritionist, I have tried a lot of brands and types of multivitamins. I keep going back to the same brand Innate Response and/or MegaFoods Multi for Women or Men. I feel a noticeable difference, it seems to absorb the best and never causes nausea!
4. Make some lifestyle and habit shifts.
Our health is more than just what we eat and what we dont! Even I can admit that. These are a few of the lifestyle shifts you can make that will benefit your skin!
Move Regularly – This is great for a few reasons. Not only does it help with blood circulation getting more nutrients to our skin, but it also helps us sweat out some toxins, helping us keep our pore clean and clear. Plus, it’s a great stress reducer. This means a happier and more upbeat mood, but also lower cortisol and better balanced hormones. And the good news is that this doesn’t have to be anything crazy like a running a marathon or joining your neighbors crossfit gym (unless that’s your jam, in which case, do it!). Whatever you do, do what you enjoy, walking, yoga, pilates, barre, you name it, just do it!
Quality Sleep – This is such a big one. If you take anything away from this post, you MUST be getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep if you are going to have glowy clear skin. Period. Need tips here? Comment below or let me know, I’ve got a whole bag ‘o tricks!
Self-Care/Stress Management – Taking care of ourselves when we are busy and on the go all the time seems nearly impossible. But it is in these impossible times that it’s the most important for us to make time to care for ourselves and lower our stress. These can be things like breathing, listening to your favorite music, singing in the car, taking a bath, getting a massage, reading a good book, sitting in the sun or park, a cup of herbal tea, meditation, or anything that you love to do! Stress is a huge contributor to hormonal acne because it causes chronic increasing levels of the hormone cortisol and that will imbalance all the other hormones in our body. So take this as your permission (if you need it) to take care of yourself! And one last tip here, sometimes it’s shifting our perspective on the stress and experiences in our lives. When you feel stressed, ask yourself: will I remember this in a minute or in the next day? If not, try to allow yourself to let it go. Sounds easy, I know. It’s not, but with practice it gets pretty easy and can make a huge different in our perceived stress.
5. Detoxify your life where you can.
Detoxification doesn’t just cover what we consume in the way of food and drink. But also the world around us. And sometimes that means we can’t always control it, hello pollution, heavy metals and radiation! So, it’s even more important to cover ourselves when and where we can, since any toxins we put on our skin, breath in, and more have to get filtered through our kidneys and liver and can further imbalance our hormones!
This means looking at the ingredients of your household cleaners to skin and beauty care products to the candles and air fresheners you use. Sometimes it’s as easy as being able to read, pronounce and understand what the ingredient on the label is. But sometimes, even clean products like laundry detergent or household cleaners have complicated names and might still be natural. If you need a quick cheat sheet on what’s good and what’s not, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a great resource! I also have a recent blog post on my favorite natural and clean skincare and beauty products here. And I’ve tried A LOT!
A few more things that might help: eliminate as much plastic use as possible. Try switching to glass food storage containers. Drink filtered water. And of course, buy as much organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, pasture-raised and wild caught foods as possible.
If you feel like you have tried all these things and you’re still struggling with your skin health, let me know or find another holistic practitioner to help you navigate this. I promise I understand the frustrations behind this. I wish I hadn’t waiting to try to figure it out all on my own. It probably wouldn’t have taken me so long to get here.
Last but most definitely not least, here is a great example of a Hormone Balancing Diet for clear and glowing skin:
Anti-Inflammatory Glowing Skin Smoothie
1 cup unsweetened kefir or vanilla nut milk + 1-2 probiotic capsules
1-2 scoops collagen or protein powder of choice
½ frozen banana
1 tbsp ground turmeric or 2 inches of fresh turmeric root
½ tbsp. ginger powder or 1 inch fresh ginger root
½ fresh lemon juiced with a little zest
1 date or 1 tbsp raw local honey
pinch of ground black pepper
1 tbsp rosehips (optional)
1 tsp maca (optional)
Blend all ingredients in blender
1 serving of protein: 2 eggs, 3-6 oz (or palm-sized) animal protein or 15-20 grams plant protein
1-2 servings of fat: 1 tbsp seeds, nuts or oil or ½ avocado per serving
1-2 serving vegetables: ½ cup steamed greens or 1 cup raw greens or steamed veggies per serving
1 serving protein: 3-6 oz (or palm-sized) animal protein, or 4-6 oz. cooked legumes
1-2 servings of fat: 1 tbsp seeds, nuts or oil, or ½ avocado per serving
1-2 serving starch: ½ cup cooked whole grain or 1 small to medium root vegetable or 1 cup (sweet potato, yams, squash, etc.) per serving or 1 small slice sprouted or sourdough bread
2-4 serving non-starchy vegetables: ½ cup steamed greens or 1 cup raw greens or steamed veggies per serving
Image via Unsplash by Aiony Haust