The next big breakthrough in acne treatment may be the humble bag of green tea sitting in your kitchen cupboard. A Chinese proverb says “Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one.” Research done in the past two decades tells why.
A large and growing body of research shows drinking tea, and especially green tea, has countless health benefits. What we as acne patients are interested is the fact that green tea fights all the underlying causes of acne: inflammation, insulin resistance and hormones. And in this post I’ll explain why it may be one of the few true miracle solutions to acne.
Before we get started you better put water to boil. Because once you are done with this post I know you are yearning for a cup of the green stuff.
The antioxidant potential of green tea
Pretty much every article about the health effects of green tea talks about antioxidants. While in most cases hype far outruns reality, green tea has significant antioxidant potential. Green tea, like many fruits and berries, contains lot of polyphenols. Polyphenols have been studied for their antioxidant potential with promising results. In the case of green tea, lot of research attention has focus on a catechin called (–)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG).
EGCG is the predominant antioxidant in most forms of green tea, and it’s also the most potent. For example, one review study noted:
EGCG has been shown to be 25 to 100 times more potent than vitamins C and E in terms of antioxidant activity
Another study (PDF) measured the antioxidant potential of various forms of green tea. The study concluded that ½ cup (100 ml) of green tea has the same antioxidant potential as 1 kg of fresh fruit. That’s pretty impressive in my books!
But we have to keep in mind that high antioxidant potential doesn’t mean anything yet. It’s just a proxy measure. What we are interested are the real health effects of green tea. Because too often what looks really promising in in vitro (test tube) studies turns out to be completely useless in living humans. What’s the use of all those antioxidants if the body doesn’t absorb them and you just pee them out?
A review paper published in 2011 examined high quality human studies on the antioxidant effects of green tea. Here’s what the study concluded:
There is limited evidence that regular consumption of GT [green tea] in amounts of at least 0.6-1.5 l/day may increase AC [antioxidant capacity] and reduce lipid peroxidation (especially oxidation of LDL). This may contribute to the protection against CVDs [cardiovascular disease] and different types of cancer. Beneficial effects seem to be more likely in participants exposed to oxidative challenge.
As expected, results from these studies are somewhat conflicting. Some studies show better antioxidant effect than others, but the overall trend in the studies was positive. In fact, 15 out of 22 studies showed a positive antioxidant effect from green tea. Epidemiological studies also shower lower levels of DNA damage and inflammatory damage in heavy green tea drinkers (6+ cups per day).
It also seems that the people with higher levels of systemic inflammation got the most benefit out of green tea. The study mentioned higher antioxidant effects in smokers and sedentary people. This makes sense since both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects are vital for your survival. Inflammation is one way the immune system kills pathogens. So too little inflammation is as bad as too much inflammation. Inflammation is like fire. When kept under control it’s very useful, but also very destructive when it gets out of control. So it makes sense that the body passes out the antioxidants it doesn’t need.
As I talked in one of my earlier posts, acne patients have higher than normal levels of systemic inflammation. So drinking green tea might be very helpful for people suffering from acne. Unfortunately nobody has yet published a study on the effect of drinking green tea on acne. But user reports and other anecdotal evidence looks very positive indeed.
Effect on insulin resistance and blood sugar control
High blood sugar and insulin levels are bad for acne. Very bad. Anything you can do to keep blood sugar and insulin levels stable can help your skin. That’s why going on low glycemic index and low carbohydrate diets often helps your skin. Regular consumption of green tea can also help.
A large epidemiological study from Japan showed that drinking 6 or more cups of green tea per day reduced the risk of developing type-2 diabetes by 33%. The effect was even larger in women and there was a robust dose-response relationship, i.e. the more you drink the larger the risk reduction. In women drinking 1-6 cups per week reduced risk by 21%, 1-2 cups per day reduced the risk by 34%, 3-5 cups per day by 39% and 6 or more cups by 51%.
Results from intervention (treatment) studies are not so clear. But the overall trend is fairly clear. Most studies show at least a mild positive effect to insulin resistance and blood sugar levels. As this one review study noted:
However, the majority of human epidemiological and intervention studies demonstrate beneficial effects of green tea or green tea extracts, rich in EGCG on weight management, glucose control and cardiovascular risk factors.
Insulin resistance and glucose tolerance are closely linked to obesity. Fat mass is perhaps the most significant cause of insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels. Several studies have shown that regular consumption of green tea leads to weight loss by increasing metabolic rate and boosting fat burning, thought the effect is fairly small.
But weight reduction is not the only way green tea affects insulin resistance. Studies indicate it can 1) reduce carbohydrate absorption, 2) increase insulin secretion and possibly even repair the insulin secreting beta-calls in the pancreas, and 3) reduce production of glucose in the liver.
I don’t want to bore you with too many technical details and studies, so let me conclude this part with the following. There’s a very good reason to believe that regular consumption of green tea reduces insulin resistance and blood sugar levels. This in turn is really good for hormonal acne.
Hormonal effects of green tea
Studies have shown that green tea also has anti-cancer effects, particularly against breast and prostate cancers. Interestingly those cancers are connected to IGF-1 and sex hormone levels – the very same hormones that cause havoc on your skin.
Green tea increases the molecules that bind to sex hormones (called sex hormone binding globules), and thus effectively reduces levels of bioactive hormones.. As I covered in the topical use of green tea post, ECGC prevents conversion of testosterone to DHT. DHT is perhaps the most harmful hormone when it comes to prostate cancer and acne. So lower levels are definitely good for you.
So in summary, we can say that green tea appears to ‘balance’ many of the hormones that are linked to acne.
How many cups
So hopefully I’ve persuaded you of the acne-fighting benefits of green tea. So the next question is how many cups of this stuff you should drink? First I have to say that the optimal dose of ECGC in these conditions is yet to be determined. In the studies doses usually vary from 300mg to 1000mg, but to get that amount by drinking green tea can mean anything from 2 to 20 cups per day – depending on the quality of the tea you drink. For a detailed look at how different green tea qualities and brewing techniques affect ECGC content, please see the hack you tea post.
In epidemiological studies 3 to 6 cups per day seems to bring good results, so I would go with that.
An easy way to add lots of green tea into your day is to brew it in bulk and then chill it. I always have a bottle of cold green tea in my fridge and often drink it in place of water. I don’t do this anymore. See the tea hacking 2 post for why this is a really bad idea. Always consume your green tea fresh.
Conclusion and take home messages
I don’t believe in ‘silver bullet’ solutions. But every rule has an exception, and green tea makes a strong case for being it. Studies have shown it improves pretty much all the causes of acne: inflammation, insulin and hormones.
Several studies have shown that green tea is strongly anti-inflammatory. Some papers note it’s 25 to 100 times stronger antioxidant than vitamins C or E. People with high levels of systemic inflammation, such as many acne patients, will benefit the most from green tea. Regular consumption of 3 to 6 cups per day also cuts down the risk of diabetes and improves insulin resistance. Finally, green tea can treat hormonal acne by reducing the levels of potent sex hormones.
While green tea may not be a miracle solution, it’s definitely a big step towards clear skin. And, in combination with diet and lifestyle changes and smart topical treatments, can make a huge impact on your skin.