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10 Simple Strategies to Eliminate Acne

“I still have acne even though I’m an adult,” writes this week’s House Call contributor. “Do I need to take antibiotics and put all these drugs on my face? Is there another approach to take?”

Studies show acne can place a heavy emotional and psychological burden on patients that possibly surpasses its physical impact. Researchers find acne’s toll can increase anger, fear, shame, anxiety, depression, embarrassment, bullying and stigmatization within peer groups.

While acne affects more than 85 percent of teenagers, this skin condition has also increased among adults. In fact, some eight million people visit the dermatologist every year for their skin. We spend over a billion dollars for prescriptions and over-the-counter (OTC) products to cure acne, yet at best these are short-term solutions.

Conventional medicine deals with symptoms, so their solutions for acne include lathering on potions and lotions, popping and pricking pimples and taking antibiotics or strong liver-damaging medications.

There’s got to be another way, right?

Fortunately, there is with Functional Medicine, which addresses the problem’s root cause. From this lens, we can understand that numerous factors contribute to acne, including nutritional status, stress, toxicity, inflammation and hormonal and gut imbalances.

That’s actually good news because it empowers us to make dietary and lifestyle changes that reverse acne and improve our overall health without the adverse side effects of pharmaceuticals and other invasive procedures.

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My Struggle with Acne

I want to tell you my own experience with acne. I never had it. That is, until I got sick with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Chronic fatigue syndrome involves toxicity, gut damage, inflammation, hormonal imbalances and stress, among other things.

I have told the story of my illness and recovery many times, but I don’t usually talk about the skin problems I had. My acne was triggered by a severe intestinal infection that resulted from an overload of mercury and stress.

Right away, my skin changed. My skin color turned gray and I developed dark circles under my eyes. I started getting pimples all over my face (a new adventure for me at age 36), and strange rashes around my eyes whenever I ate certain foods. I even developed itchy red patches on different parts of my body.

So what did I do?

Well, I didn’t need creams, gels or lotions such as benzoyl peroxide, retinoid acid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid peels, or topical antibiotics (all of which might have helped symptoms a little bit).

I certainly didn’t need oral antibiotics (which can cause long-term gut complications, immune problems and yeast overgrowth), or Accutane (which can cause liver damage and increase the risk of depression and suicide), or oral contraceptives (which I would have been offered had I been a woman). While these are the tools of modern dermatology, they overlook the role of overall health in the health of your skin. I didn’t need any of these things.

Instead, what I needed was to heal my leaky gut, correct my food allergies and nutritional deficiencies, detoxify from mercury, reduce inflammation, and rebalance my stress hormones.

And that’s just what I did. My pimples vanished, the skin around my eyes cleared up, and my rashes went away (along with my chronic diarrhea, disabling fatigue, brain fog, mouth sores, muscle pain and more). A miracle? Hardly! I have seen this happen with so many of my patients.

A Different Way to Approach Acne

Rather than attack acne through superficial solutions, Functional Medicine takes a roots-deep approach to acne and other skin problems. From that perspective, oxidative stress triggers inflammation, which in turn contributes to acne and a host of other problems.

What is oxidative stress? Well, your mitochondria (which create energy to run your cells) are built to convert calories and oxygen into energy that the body can use called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

Our cells contain a total of one hundred thousand trillion mitochondria, which consume 90 percent of our oxygen intake. This oxygen is necessary to burn the calories we eat in food.

But free radicals are produced as a by-product of this combustion, much like exhaust that comes out of the tail pipe of your car. These free radicals are dangerous because they damage or oxidize the molecules and cells throughout our bodies.

This damage is called oxidative stress. More damaged cells equal more oxidative stress or “rusting”.

This, in turn, leads to damaged DNA, damaged cell membranes, rancid or oxidized cholesterol (which is what truly makes cholesterol harmful), stiffened arteries that look like rusty pipes, wrinkled skin, and damaged brains.

We have our own built-in antioxidant factories that produce molecules that seek out free radicals and clean them up before they rust our bodies. But these systems are easily overwhelmed by a toxic, low-nutrient, high-calorie diet like the ones most Americans eat.

We can get more of these important antioxidant molecules if we eat the right foods. But most of us don’t.

The single most important controllable factor regulating the oxidative stress in your body is your diet. Eating too many calories and not enough antioxidants from colorful plant foods results in the production of too many free radicals, wreaking havoc on our bodies and our minds.

Oxidative stress, as I mentioned, creates inflammation. While a number of things including toxicity, allergens and nutrient deficiencies contribute to inflammation, the biggest culprit is a processed, sugary diet.

What you eat becomes the root cause of most acne. Along with a high-processed, high-sugar, high-dairy diet, studies show nutrition-related lifestyle factors can contribute to and exacerbate acne.