In October, Sam and I decided to stop eating grains and minimizing sugars to see how that went. It's been easier than I'd feared — much easier than my quite abounding fears! I was interested to see what effect it might have on our health, but truth be told, neither of us has any particular health concerns to monitor.
Except … my acne.
I was so hopeful that my adult-onset, hormonally triggered female acne (hate it, hate it, hate it) might react positively to the dearth of grains and sugars. There are a lot of paleo and low-carb types espousing the gospel of no-grains being the cure-all for acne. I wasn't sure how much to hope, but I was hopeful. Did I mention I'm in my mid-30s and have had this affliction now for over 15 years? It was both disappointing (how had none of my dermatologists suggested these dietary changes?) and encouraging to consider that making this relatively simple substitution in my eating might bring an end to my acne woes.
Turns out, my hope was misplaced. After giving up grains and sugars, my acne got … worse.
Yes, worse! It went from staying under control with one type of topical medication to needing extra topical treatments just to keep myself from despair at the constant large, red, painful mounds populating my chin.
|This picture is a few years old, back when I was doing the breastmilk-as-acne-treatment experiment.|
Yeah, that didn't work, either. This serves to show you what my skin looks like
when I feel like crawling under a rock. It's downright painful and the oozing … oh, the oozing!
The zits I have right now are much larger than in this photo — joy! Click on it to see it bigger if you dare.
I've been waiting since October for a couple days when my skin is clear enough for makeup to hide the pimples so we can race and get some overdue family portraits done. Still waiting.
What's eating my skin?I considered: Was there any possibility that not eating grains was bad for my skin? Or, to put it in the reverse, had eating grains somehow been good for my skin?
I did some research and reading and had to conclude: No. That really didn't make sense. The effect of grains on insulin levels, hormones, and bacteria couldn't have a beneficial effect of controlling acne unless I was some freak outlier (and let's assume I'm not). Populations eating traditional, low- or no-grain diets have had historically low levels of acne and other skin disorders, and those afflictions pop up consistently when grains (and other Western foods like sugar and dairy) are added.
Now, it could be that grains — present or not — have no effect on my skin, as seems to be the case.
But the fact remains that my skin got worse after giving them up in October, which led me to believe: There must be something I'm eating more of now that's exacerbating my acne. Sounds reasonable, right? (It could also be something I'm eating for the first time since October, but I couldn't think of anything that fit that criterion.)
I did some more reading through online forums, books on primal eating, and scholarly articles on acne and diet and identified some key targets:
I've listed them in order of likelihood, and in the order I determined to eliminate each one individually (until and unless one clicked) to see if my acne would diminish back to previous levels (or, please heaven) disappear completely.
To take each one separately, here was my thinking:
Dairy:I've always been a big fan of dairy, particularly cheese. Growing up, I drank a glass of milk (or several) at every meal, but as an adult, Sam and I stopped that habit and used our (whole organic) milk mainly for cooking and baking. We used a lot of butter when we were eating grains but didn't find as much use for it once we stopped, and the same was true of milk. So I wasn't using more milk and butter after we went grain-free, and likely a lot less. But I fully admit I went cheese-happy. All those little grabby snacks that once had been grain-based (a cracker, a cookie, a tortilla chip) became cheese-based instead: String cheese and parmesan reggiano cut into little flakes were the main culprits. I also loved having a mini-meal at night of cottage cheese with fruit slices. Added to that, many meals contained or featured cheese as well, though that was equally true before going grain-free.
In my reading on paleo and primal diets, dairy was called out as an inflammatory and an unnecessary and potentially unnatural addition to human diets. I personally had been skeptical since, while it's true that cultures without a long history of dairy use (Asian populations, for instance) are more likely to be lactose-intolerant, the same cannot be said of cultures where dairy has been prevalent for many generations (such as mine). I'd never felt sick or otherwise indisposed from eating dairy in any form. But several research studies and anecdotal accounts of the link between dairy and acne convinced me that, sadly, it was worth giving an anti-dairy stance a try. So that became #1 on my list.
Nuts:I definitely eat more nuts and seeds now that I'm not eating grains. And even more so now that I'm not eating dairy! (I need to find better snacks…) I try not to overdo it, but I'm pretty sure I fail. I know of no connection between nuts and seeds and acne, but it's certainly one of the elements in my diet that has changed since going grain-free, so I figured it was worth some exploration.
Coconuts:This is another food item that's increased since going grain-free, particularly in the realm of (delicious, delicious) desserts. Same with nuts, actually, and coconut oil and flour and almond meal go hand in hand when doing no-grain baking, so I'm not sure which should be #2 and which #3 on the list — likely, I'd have to eliminate them together, honestly. Some people have great success with coconut oil, applied topically or taken orally, in treating acne. Still others complain that coconut oil is highly comedogenic (acne-causing) for them. I'm not certain whether it depends on the type of coconut oil, the type of application (oral vs. topical as well as how often it's applied or ingested), or simply the vagaries of individual human tolerance, but I do know it's something I eat more of now than before, so I suppose it's worth having on the list. I think it's more often called out as comedogenic when applied topically, so I'm not optimistic about any positive effect from eliminating it, frankly.
Nightshades:This is one I'm including only because several people have mentioned that the nightshade family of edible plants exacerbates their acne. This seems odd to me, but there are enough people saying it that I suppose it's true for some people, and one of those people might just be little old me. Nightshades include potatoes (which I've stopped eating in any case since they're starchy), eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and pepper derivatives such as paprika and various hot sauces. This category is last on the list because I truly don't think I've been eating more nightshades since October. I do eat a lot of the plants on that list fairly often, but not in markedly increased quantities since giving up grains.
So, for now, I've decided to give up dairy, and then I'll revisit my list if giving up dairy doesn't pan out.
The no-dairy experimentSo far, it's been a complete bust. Some of that has been user error, but some of it is my stubbornly stupid face.
I started trying to give up dairy at the end of February, but I kept forgetting. I certainly decreased my consumption, but I kept forgetting to stop eating it altogether.
Starting March 1, I said, "Ok, I'm going to be completely clean for two weeks," and then see how my skin reacted.
Now, various people told me two weeks is not enough. But the thing is, I love me some cheese. I knew if I said to myself, "Self, you can't have dairy forever," I would not follow through and instead would succumb to cheese-related despair. Plus, I'd just bought some lovely cheese at Costco (so, obviously, a big portion — smart planning, hey?), so I didn't want to feel like too much of a chump. I figured I'd reassess in two weeks — if my skin was clearer, then giving up dairy was helping. If it was not, then I needed to keep on the elimination (or give up, whatever my mood was at the time).
But … I was like one of those factories that kept resetting the sign to "0 Days Without an Accident." I couldn't believe how often dairy found its way into my mouth unintentionally. I'm a cheese magnet! It would be little things, like I'd be eating a salad at a restaurant and forget to specify not to sprinkle cheese on top. Then I'd spend half my meal time picking cheese shreds off the lettuce. Or Sam would bring me a spoonful (or bowlful) of his newest dairy-happy kitchen creation, completely forgetting that I'd foresworn the moo stuff. Or Mikko would run over with an ice cream and say, "Yum! Try this!" And I would … before remembering … Duh, dairy! There was an even bigger oh-duh moment when I realized the butter oil capsules I'd ordered and had started faithfully taking were … wait for it … butter oil. Ohhh … riiight. It was there on the label all along.
So there was no way I was completely clean from March 1, just — trying to be. I did, however, figure that occasional contamination was going to be a constant in my life, even if I concluded that dairy had an effect on my skin. There was no way I could behave as if dairy would send me into anaphylactic shock, so I was going to have to allow that, no matter what, I would be coming across traces of dairy in my diet here and there. If having clear skin required unwavering observance to the no-dairy (and no-grains and no-sugar) rule, then having clear skin was, quite truthfully, not worth it.
But I figured I'd still be able to tell if cutting back on dairy to minuscule accidental amounts had a beneficial effect on my skin. Maybe my skin wouldn't be clear, but maybe it would go back to pre-October levels of control, and I'd call that good enough.
So … how's it going?Well, it's been a month of mostly compliance. As I said, I had a rocky start, so I'd give myself a good three weeks of being at least 90% (probably more like 95%) obedient to avoiding dairy. There are incidents like today when I was really thirsty when Mikko and I were out and I took a swig of his milk before realizing (this happens a lot, as you can see), "Oh, duh … milk." But I'm getting much better at remembering to ask for food at home or out without dairy additions or preparations, and I don't miss it as much as I'd feared. I will say I miss dairy more than I miss grains, strangely enough. I really do love cheese. I really miss cottage cheese and am half-hoping cutting out dairy has no discernible effect so I can get back to eating it!
In this month, my acne has definitely not gotten better. It hasn't gotten worse since the no-dairy experiment started, which is small consolation, but it hasn't improved, either.
On the one hand, I'm bummed that this wasn't the magic cure-all for my acne woes. I've had scattered daydreams that in a few short weeks I'd be walking around without any makeup and without any telltale bumps, bleeding scabs, and red marks. I also don't look forward to cutting out other foods in the hopes of finding the silver bullet, and it's possible I should continue to cut dairy even as I experiment with other eliminations, just to see if it's a combo, so that stinks.
On the other hand, it would be nice if I could start eating at least limited cheese again. I know of some people for whom elements of dairy are a problem, but not all of it — like, they can use raw milk, or sheep's milk cheese, or grass-fed butter but not milk, or whatever. So maybe eventually I'd get my cottage cheese back, but just live at more reasonable levels of cheesiness. Plus, and here's where I just live for a smug sense of self-superiority, I'd like to demonstrate that giving up dairy isn't necessary for everybody — that some people do just fine on it, thank you very much.
For now, I keep going, one uncheesy day at a time. I'm not sure how long to continue my no-dairy experiment. Any ideas? I've been through a cycle already, so I got to witness how that combination affected my acne (no real effect from my period, actually). I'm thinking I need to go at least six weeks in good faith but am wondering if going longer than that would be beneficial.
In full disclosure of confounding factors, I'm continuing my topical medications, because otherwise I wouldn't want to be seen in public. (I previously used only 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, which continues to work well on me, but I got irritated with all the fabric bleaching so switched to a high-quality 5% salicylic acid — actual brand I use, no affiliation — which was doing great on its own up till now.) I have in the past halted the use of chemical topicals and tried more natural methods, and that was terrible for me. (See photo proof above.) The only exception was pregnancy — pregnancy was awesome for my skin! But, no, I'm not going to get pregnant just for that reason… I'm also taking zinc supplements (this kind, and that's an affiliate link to Amazon), because some people said their acne cleared up once they cleaned up their diet and cured an underlying zinc deficiency. I don't think I actually have that, but it's cheap enough to try a bottle of zinc supplements in addition to giving up dairy and grains, so I am. I also continue to take a whole-foods multivitamin, cod liver oil capsules, probiotics, and vitamin D drops (no changes there). I don't wash my face with anything but water and occasional oil cleanses, and that's been just dandy for me for some time so shouldn't have anything to do with this recent population swell in Zit-topia.
So that's where I am for now, blemished and sick of it. Any advice or suggestions? Any personal stories of skin conditions cleared or worsened through diet?