What Foods Make Acne Worse?

Acne & Insulin - The Link With Food

You may have heard of insulin by now - it’s a hormone made by the pancreas that helps to break down and metabolise carbohydrates in foods.  So what’s insulin got to do with your skin and your acne?

Well, as it turns out, there’s quite a few studies that show that following a low glycaemic index diet (which has specific effects on insulin) has assisted in improving severe acne.

So, let’s get into how this works and what it means for you.

Insulin helps to get glucose into the cells of the body so that we can produce energy.  In this instance, imagine that the cell has an insulin-shaped keyhole in it, that insulin can unlock so that glucose can get into it.

Just like when we use a lock too much, and with too much force, it wears the lock out… the same thing happens with insulin and the cell.

The more that insulin has to connect with the lock, the less effective the whole lock and key mechanism is.

The cell gets sick of insulin constantly knocking on the door and starts to pretend it’s not home… AKA the cell becomes less sensitive to insulin.

Low insulin sensitivity can eventually lead to insulin resistance.  And, what happens as a consequence to this is that insulin is less effective in its job, and we end up with an increase of insulin floating around the blood.  

Low insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance occurs commonly in type 2 diabetes & is also a prominent factor in Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.  

High levels of insulin in the blood increases levels of insulin-like growth factors (IGF), which are responsible for… you guessed it… growth! 

Insulin-like growth factors increase the growth of keratinocytes AKA the upper layer cells of the skin. 

IGFs also stimulate hormone production, which, in turn, can cause an increase in oil production in the skin. 

Both of these factors - the growth of the skin cells, and the increase in sebum production, are major players in the development of acne.

But, wait, that’s not all!

You would know by now, if you’ve read a fair bit of our content, that when you dig deeply enough, a LOT of things come back to the gut.  Well, insulin resistance isn’t any different.

The microbiome (AKA balance of bacteria) of the gut has been shown to contribute to insulin resistance (if you want to get nerdy, here’s a study that shows dysbiosis in patients with acne; and specific microbes called Prevotella copri and Bacteroides vulgatus were found to be at higher levels in correlation with those with insulin resistance).

The microbiome has also been shown to have an influence on the risk of developing acne vulgaris, which you can read about in this study.

So, what can we do to assist with insulin resistance and to increase our sensitivity to it? 

How can we help with reducing its production and stabilising blood sugar so that we don’t have these flow on effects of increased keratinocyte production and hormone production??

Of course, what we eat has a hell of a lot to do with what happens in our body.

Foods that increase insulin production include:

  • dairy proteins (specifically A1 proteins in milk)

  • processed sugars

  • high sugar foods 

  • high carbohydrate choices that don’t have much fibre to slow down the sugar release (classic packaged snack items!)

This is why low-glycaemic index (low GI) diets have been shown to improve insulin resistance, blood sugar regulation, as well as improvements in severe acne (see article here).

Foods that help insulin sensitivity include fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, berries, grapes, red wine, cinnamon and green tea; and something all these plants have in common is an antioxidant compound called polyphenols (which is what’s responsible for these foods’ beautiful colours).

Something that I notice a lot in my acne clients is that they have high levels of oxidation, which contributes to the changes that can occur in the sebum which makes the sebum pro-inflammatory and encourages bacterial growth changes on the skin that causes and worsens acne. This is something that happens very commonly with post-pill acne as well!

But, there’s more powerful things we can do with plant chemicals as herbalists to improve insulin sensitivity and the microbiome.

A plant compound that you may not be as familiar with is one called berberine

It’s an incredibly well studied phytochemical and has been shown to relieve insulin resistance in liver cells and has astounding anti-inflammatory effects. 

It’s also antimicrobial, and can work specifically against common microbes found on the skin that proliferate acne.  It’s this antimicrobial effect that is targeted when antibiotics are prescribed for acne.

Second to that, it also reduces the growth of keratinocytes - which is another key factor in the development and aggravation of acne!

In fact, in one study, herbal remedies comprised of berberine containing fruits was used to treat 92 patients with acne vulgaris, while the control group took antibiotics (specifically minocycline).  

The results of the study showed that 98% of the group that took the berberine containing fruits improved compared to the 91% of the group that took antibiotics. 

It was concluded that there was no difference between berberine and antibiotic groups - suggesting that herbal supplementation was just as effective as antibiotics but without the consequences of antibiotics (such as antibiotic resistant bacteria & dysbiosis of the gut and the skin).

Ummmmmm…. can I get a HELL YEH for berberine???!!

So, what can you do with this information?

  • Firstly, if you’re currently eating foods that are contributing to increased insulin activity, then this is your sign to stop.

A lot of improvements can happen with acne when the diet is cleaned up. 

This isn’t just due to the insulin factor involved with acne, but also with the benefits that occur to the overall health of the gut and microbiome when we consume a wholefood, healthy diet that’s rich in antioxidants.

If you are not going to seek professional advice to have your nutrition individualised (which of course we always recommend), then the generic advice is to avoid sugary foods (including natural sugars like fruit) and avoid dairy, especially milk as your first step.

Increase plant-based foods into the diet, especially those rich in polyphenols. 

Unfortunately it’s a bit tricky to incorporate foods that contain berberine, and to eat enough of them to have a therapeutic effect, so when it comes to this amazing plant chemical, you are best to seek out some support.

We think it’s massively important for your health to be assessed thoroughly so you can be prescribed things like berberine without causing further harm. A practised Naturopath (like us!) will know whether berberine is the right thing for you.

  • Secondly, knowledge is power when it comes to finding what will work for you.

I’m not saying that when you focus on insulin, your acne will disappear.  Insulin resistance or altered sensitivity is just one factor of many to be considered in acne, which is an incredibly multi-faceted problem.

Your life, your hormone balance, your diet, your bowel function, your intestinal function, your medical history and medications all play a role in its development, and therefore in the isolation of the most effective treatment of acne.

As I say so often, it’s never just one thing when it comes to health.

If it were, the tipping point would be so easy to identify and so easy to rectify.

Problems are usually a progression of lots of different factors - and acne is a perfect example of this.

Hormone imbalances play, in my opinion, one of the most dominant roles in acne.

Followed closely, of course, by gut function and inflammation, which in turn affects the immune system and creates ripple effects of inflammation throughout the body.

Followed by changes to the microbiome of the skin and a loss of integrity of the skin barrier.

Followed by stress and stress hormones (which all increase inflammation, and can lead to further hormone dysregulation).

Then there’s the lymphatic system, the liver detoxification pathways, exposure to environmental factors that can worsen inflammation and change the skin microbiome, diet, water intake, food sensitivities, and increased histamine.

LOTS of factors to consider.

And now you’re aware of one more… the link with insulin and acne, and what foods you can start to focus on eating and avoiding to give your skin and body a better environment to heal and restore.

If you’re on the rollercoaster of acne, have a read of some of our other blogs about it so you can build your repertoire of knowledge, or take our FREE health quiz to better understand what factors might be contributing to your acne.

This is a quiz that we use strictly in the clinic to understand all aspects of your health - but, hey, if you’ve made it this far then you’ve passed the test to gain access to it!


Emily (Principal Consultant)