Sugar and spice and all things nice may be what little girls are made of. But we can equally say, milk and sugar and all things sweet, that’s what little pimples are made of.
Leaving poetics behind, we come to the point of this post. Does sugar cause acne? The short answer is yes, and in this post I’ll explain why.
Research in the past few decades has uncovered two main factors behind acne: hormones and inflammation. Hormones put the skin glands to overdrive, resulting in excessive sebum production and skin cell growth. Combination of sticky sebum and dead skin cells is the ideal recipe for blocked pores.
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Inflammation damages sebum in those blocked pores and creates ideal environment for P. Acnes bacteria to thrive. Research has shown that it’s the inflammation of sebum that triggers acne – not bacteria. Bacteria add to existing inflammation, but don’t start the process.
Sugar has it’s dirty sweet fingers at both of these pies.
Sugar aggravates hormonal acne
All acne is hormonal to some degree. Because of genetics, acne-prone skin is sensitive to androgens (male sex hormones). They increase sebum production and skin cell growth.
Insulin and insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are other hormones that are linked to acne. Studies show that IGF-1:
- Increases acne severity, the higher the IGF-1 levels the more severe acne
- Increases sebum production
- Increase pore size, making them more visible
Clearly, high IGF-1 levels are not good for the skin. Insulin has similar effect than IGF-1, but it’s not as potent as IGF-1 is.
Connection to sugar
Insulin and IGF-1 are linked to blood sugar levels. As you eat carbohydrates, and especially sugar, your blood sugar levels increase. The pancreas responds by releasing insulin, a hormone that takes sugar into cells and reduces blood sugar levels.
Elevated insulin levels increase both IGF-1 levels and IGF-1 bioavailability. This is not a problem if you have a soda or donut once in a while, but becomes a real problem if you frequently eat sugary foods.
Here’s an easy way to think this. Sugar is sebum. Anytime you drink soda or eat a donut you are just adding sebum into your face and make it more likely that you get acne.
Sugar promotes inflammation
Inflammation is another critical factor in acne. Studies have shown acne patients have higher levels of inflammation than those with healthy skin. This depletes antioxidants and leaves the skin vulnerable to inflammation, making it more likely that you get acne. Increase in inflammation is the reason food allergies, gut problems, and some foods aggravate acne.
Sugar is bad for inflammation. Very bad. This study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows just how bad. In this study they took 29 young, healthy men and gave them either 1 or 2 12oz cans of soda per day for 3 weeks. These are people who normally don’t drink much soda. After 3 weeks here’s what happened to their C reactive protein (CRP) levels, CRP is one of the best measures of inflammation.
- 1 can per day, inflammation levels went up by 87%
- 2 cans per day, up by 105%
These are pretty shocking numbers considering the people didn’t drink that much. 1 – 2 cans per day is normal for many people.
Candida is a third way sugar wreaks havoc on your face. Candida is yeast that lives in the skin and the digestive track. Normally it’s harmless and the immune system keeps it in check. But under certain conditions (such as excessive sugar intake or frequent use of antibiotics) it can grow out of control.
When this happens in the digestive track it can cause gut problems and indirectly contribute to acne, see how gut problems are linked to acne. Candida overgrowth in the skin causes inflammation in the skin that can lead to acne. Read more about how Candida causes acne here.
Research links high GI foods to acne
Research over the last decade has finally debunked the myth that diet doesn’t cause acne. Lot of that research has focused on high glycemic index (GI) foods. Glycemic index measures how quickly a particular food increases blood sugar levels. Sugar and refined carbohydrates (such as white bread and pasta) are high in GI whereas whole grains and most fruits have low to moderate GI values.
Research clearly shows that low GI foods reduce acne and the hormones linked to it. Some studies show that simply switching from high GI food to low GI foods can reduce acne by 30 to 50%.
If you are not familiar with glycemic index The University of Sydney Glycemic Index website is a good place to start, you’ll find tons of recipes and meal plans here. Harvard website also has a handy table with glycemic index for 100 common foods.
We started this post poetically wondering if sugar causes acne. I think we can conclude that the answer is a resounding YES. Sugar aggravates the two major causes of acne: hormones and inflammation.
This doesn’t mean you have to obsess over sugar. Occasional soda or sugary snack is nothing to worry about. But expect trouble if you eat them frequently, as it increases hormones that stimulate sebum production and skin cell growth. Indulging in sugar can also feed Candida overgrowth that may indirectly cause acne.
Research has shown that this is more than just theory. Several studies have shown that low glycemic index foods improve acne whereas high GI foods increase sebum production and worse acne.
So in the end there is a price for having sweet tooth, and your skin is paying it.
You might also be interested in the other articles in the series:
- Low to moderate sugar-sweetened beverage consumption impairs glucose and lipid metabolism and promotes inflammation in healthy young men: a randomized controlled trial.
- Moderate Amounts of Fructose Consumption Impair Insulin Sensitivity in Healthy Young Men.
- Fructose Consumption: Considerations for Future Research on Its Effects on Adipose Distribution, Lipid Metabolism, and Insulin Sensitivity in Humans.
- Dietary pattern, inflammation, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in women.
- Role of Hormones in Pilosebaceous Unit Development.
- Serum levels of IGF-1 are related to human skin characteristics including the conspicuousness of facial pores.
- Correlation Between Serum Levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1, Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate, and Dihydrotestosterone and Acne Lesion Counts in Adult Women.
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