Acne is a skin problem experienced by adolescents and adults alike, but luckily eating gluten free can make a dramatic difference in outbreaks. While acne is largely aesthetic, it can lead to a host of psychological problems, such as lowered self-esteem, depression, and social withdrawal. Because of these very real mental and emotional impacts, adolescents and adults alike are often desperate to find solutions.
In fact, Dr. Maura Henninger, ND, released in a 2013 Huffington Post article that Americans spend over $2.2 billion per year on acne treatments!
These conventional treatments involve both prescription and over-the-counter medications, which might provide a temporary relief of symptoms, but completely miss the mark in uncovering the root causes of acne. Not to mention, they can come with some nasty and harmful side effects.
So, what are the root causes of acne, and how do we work to uncover them? Plain and simple, diet is the foundation of healthy and clear skin. For purposes of this article, we will focus on one of the main dietary culprits of acne: gluten, and why eating gluten free is essential for treating acne and other skin conditions.
Gluten 101- Eating Gluten Free
Before we dig deeper into the connection between acne and going gluten free, let’s do a quick review of what gluten is and why it is such a common allergen.
Gluten is the protein in wheat and other glutenous grains, including spelt, rye, barley, and oats (by cross-contamination). Basically, gluten is the component of bread that gives it that fluffy, sticky texture. Because of its ability to bind, it is also used in tons of products (food and other), such as soy sauce, ice cream, condiments, shampoo and other personal hygiene products.
For a complete list of foods containing gluten, see this excellent resource from the Celiac Disease Foundation.
However, you definitely don’t have to have full-blown Celiac Disease to experience acne and other skin problems from eating gluten, or to drastically benefit from eating gluten free. While this is the most extreme auto-immune form of gluten sensitivity, you can also be intolerant to a lesser degree and still experience serious consequences.
If you’re unsure as to whether you might have a gluten sensitivity, and should consider eating gluten free for skin health, you can work with a professional trusted practitioner to do some basic testing, or you can undergo an elimination diet (also helpful to get some professional guidance).
Common symptoms of gluten intolerance include:
How Gluten Causes Acne
The primary phenomenon that explains the gluten-acne connection is a condition called leaky gut syndrome, more technically known as increased intestinal permeability. When a gluten sensitivity or allergy exists, it first works to damage the lining of the gut, which means that molecules and toxins that should not be allowed to pass into the bloodstream now have free rein to enter. Some health experts and researchers believe that gluten molecules cannot be digested properly in sensitive individuals, therefore allowing them to pass through the gut lining…This creates systemic inflammation (internal and generalized inflammation), and can be a main contributor to acne.
This same process can also lead to hormonal imbalances, as immune responses to toxins and foreign invaders (such as gluten), also impact our insulin response. Although not advised to use as a crutch, some may find it helpful to support themselves with enzymes, specifically ones that contain a special protease, DPP IV (dipeptidyl peptidase IV), which aids in the breakdown of gluteomorphin (from gluten) to help with accidental exposure, especially when eating out.
Keep in mind, the way in which gluten promotes inflammation, thus promoting acne, is not unique only to gluten (although is one of the major dietary factors), but other common allergens work similarly, especially dairy.
Is Eating Gluten Free Enough?
In order to answer this question, we must consider two important points:
- Gluten free does not equal healthy
As a Nutritionist, I see this as being one of most common misconceptions in recent years. While gluten certainly is a major irritant that promotes inflammation in many people, simply eating gluten free does not equal health, and certainly does not equal clear skin.
Because of the surge of awareness around gluten’s harmful effects, many companies have duped consumers into believing that their gluten free packaged foods are healthy alternatives. However, most gluten free packaged and processed food-items (similarly to any packaged foods), still contain a long ingredient list of artificial colors, flavors, binders and chemical agents.
To healthfully go gluten free, stick to foods that are naturally without gluten, such as high quality meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and good fats such as avocados, coconut, olive and flax oils, ghee, grass-fed butter and raw nuts and seeds.
For a list of what should be part of a nutrient-dense, gluten free diet that promotes healthy skin check out these 10 Diet Tips to Prevent Acne.
- You might have to eliminate all grains
Many acne sufferers find that not only eating gluten free, but going totally grain-free (at least for awhile), is what truly helps clear their skin. Even non-gluten grains (such as rice and quinoa), have similar molecular structures to gluten, and also increase gut permeability and inflammation.
Furthermore, both gluten and non-gluten grains can have seriously negative consequences on your intestinal flora by increasing bad gut bacteria and decreasing good gut bacteria. Refined carbohydrates and sugars have the exact same effect, as they cause a surge of insulin, which sets off a hormonal cascade that ends in an excess of acne-producing substances.
Consider this important study released by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which showed that young men placed on a low-glycemic diet experienced significantly less acne. This means that, by eating a gluten free diet along with a blood sugar regulating diet (aka, low-glycemic foods), you will be eating for skin health.
In Conclusion, we must remember that acne is a sign from the body that something on a deeper level is not right, and must be addressed. For many, eating gluten free is part of the solution. Food allergies and sensitivities are a primary reason for acne and other skin problems, and gluten tops the list. If you struggle with acne (or one of the other symptoms mentioned above), consider adopting a whole-foods based diet, naturally eating gluten free foods for at least one month (but ideally, two), and see what happens. Your body will thank you, and your skin will reap the benefits.
 “Gluten: The Greatest Enemy of Clear Skin.” Retrieved February 11, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maura-henninger-nd/gluten-and-acne_b_2601648.html
 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “A low-glycemic-load diet improves symptoms of acne vulgaris patients: a randomized controlled trial.” Retrieved February 11, 2016. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/1/107.full
Rachel Fiske is a Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition in Berkeley, California, and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Rachel works with clients individually via Skype, focusing on issues of weight management, GI problems, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more via a whole foods diet and lifestyle changes. Consultations include diet journal analysis, individualized menu planning, and herbal/supplementation protocols.
Rachel can be reached at email@example.com, or learn more at www.madronawellness.org.
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