Do you still get acne? It’s actually a surprisingly common skin condition that people of all ages have to deal with at some point or another.

In fact, more than 17 million American are affected every year and approximately 80-90% of all adolescents struggle with some form of acne.

Acne occurs due to excess sebum production, which causes your follicular cells to multiply, blocking your follicle openings. Bacteria can then colonize the follicle, leading to an immune response and inflammation occurring at the site

acne triggers

Because sebum production is influenced by fluctuations in estrogen, progesterone, and androgens like testosterone, didhydrotestosterone and androstendedione, acne is generally considered to be a hormonal condition.

Too many androgens are generally associated with the more severe cases of acne. During adolescent years, levels of these hormones fluctuate quite a bit, leading to many young adults suffering through embarrassing breakouts through their teenage years.

Many teens are either put on antibiotics or birth control pills to combat their acne, though these are not without side effects.

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3 Important Acne Triggers That Shouldn’t Be Ignored

1. Sugar and All Refined Carbohydrates

Sebaceous glands have receptors for growth hormones and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), and stimulation of these receptors increases production of sebum.

Sugar and refined carbohydrates cause a surge in insulin, which can then interact with IGF-1 receptor stimulation causing excess sebum production and raising androgen levels.

2. Dairy

Studies have shown that increased milk consumption is correlated with an increased prevalence of acne in both boys and girls. Furthermore, skimmed milk is just as much of a culprit, suggesting that it is not the fat content that is causing the problem.

Milk contains estrogens, progesterone, and androgens, as well as IGF-1 and glucocorticoids, all of which are disruptive to the functioning of the sebaceous glands, leading to problems with acne.

3. Stress

Stress triggers the release of cortisol from our adrenal glands, and elevated cortisol thickens sebum. Generally, people tend to notice an increase in acne breakouts during periods of high stress.

A study of high school students showed a significant difference in the severity of acne during periods of high stress, such as exams, versus low stress, such as summer breaks.

4 Ways to Combat Acne

Eliminate dairy from the diet – swap out your regular milk with alternatives such as almond milk or coconut milk. Be careful of using too much soy milk however, as excess soymilk has also been shown to increase or aggravate acne

Minimize high-glycemic foods – such as white rice and potatoes, breads, pastas, baked goods, candy and anything with sugar. These foods cause a surge of blood sugar and therefore a spike in insulin. Studies have shown increased insulin sensitivity and improved blood-sugar control leads to improvements in acne. Reach for a more balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet, which is high in lean meats and fish, high amounts of vegetables and fresh fruits, complex carbohydrates and anti-inflammatory fats such as olive oil.

Decrease stress – stress is all around us, but practicing self care techniques such as deep breathing, yoga and meditation help to decrease our perceived stress and helps decrease cortisol levels.  Stress management can be key for many people to help control their breakouts.

Reach for Omega-3s – Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in wild fish or fish oil supplements can help decrease systemic inflammation and improve acne symptoms.  High levels of Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease inflammatory factors and may reduce acne risk by decreasing IGF-1 levels and preventing the growth of sebaceous follicles.


1)     Yosipovitch G., Tang M., and Dawn A.G.: Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta Derm Venereol. 2007. Vol 87: 135-139

2)     Spencer EH, Ferdowsian HR, Barnard ND. Diet and acne: a review of the evidence. International Journal of Dermatology, 2009.  Vol 48: 339–347.

3)     Marcason W. Milk Consumption and Acne- is there a link? Journal of American Dietetic Association, 2010. Vol 110 (1): 152-152.

4)     Sager SH. Acne vulgaris and Acne rosacea. Integrative Medicine, 3rd Ed. Elsevier, 2012. Chapter 73: 676-683.

5)     Pizzorno J, Murray, M. Textbook of Natural Medicine, 4th Ed. Churchill Livingstone. 2012. Chapter 141: 1157-1161.

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