How to Fight Adult Acne with the Paleo Diet


Dealing with acne both as a teenager and as an adult has been one of the most frustrating challenges in life. Like most teenagers, I developed spots but instead of disappearing as I entered my twenties, it just got worse until finally after years of unsuccessful attempts to control it I was prescribed a powerful medication that brought it under control and gave me back some form of complexion.

Now my skin in not perfect now and I still suffer with outbreaks but compared to how it was it is a massive improvement and this is due the diet and lifestyle changes I made that I want share in this article.

When I was growing up the uniformed view of acne was that it was caused by a bad diet and not washing properly.
Then the medical profession claimed that acne was a hormone issue and nothing to do with food or lifestyle.

Like many others, I found the whole issue very confusing and in the end went along with my doctor’s advice of using topical and oral medications to deal with the issue.

None of these worked until the final one I used by which time I was in my late twenties and absolutely pissed off with my lot.

Looking back because I was relying mostly on over the counter and prescription products I, didn´t really make any big changes to my diet and lifestyle that with hindsight were definitely contributing to the severity of my acne.

Although studies linking acne and diet have been around for many years they, haven´t been as widely promoted as in the last few years as more and more research is revealing a definite link to certain food sources and acne.

With a value of over 3 billion predicted in 2016, the global acne treatment market is big business so it is probably no surprise research showing people how to control acne through diet and lifestyle does not receive the attention it deserves from the medical profession.

A slightly cynical view but if you have visited your doctor for acne treatment and not discussed diet as part of your treatment it does make you wonder.

I know there are many different factors that cause acne and unfortunately, there is not one cure all for everybody.

However, I now truly believe that nutrition especially a paleo focused diet can certainly help most people improve their acne condition by following a few nutrition guidelines that can be seen later the article.

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So what is acne?

Ok before we delve into what foods that cause acne in adults and teenagers here is a quick overview of this condition that is driving us crazy.

In our skin, we have hair follicles that create openings in the skin. Hair follicles come with sebaceous gland the produce sebum, oil based substance used for lubrication of the hair and skin.

Acne forms when follicles block with dead skin cells that have stuck together due to excessive oil production from the sebaceous glands.

If the blockage occurs, right at the top of the follicle it causes a blackhead, it the blockage is under the skin close to the top then a whitehead appears.

If the blockage is infected with bacteria from the skin, we get the red, sore and possibly swollen spots and cysts associated with severe acne.

As you probably know if you suffer with acne, most breakouts tend to occur on the face, neck, upper back, and chest as this is where most follicles are located.

From this simple explanation the main causes of acne are:
Excessive sebum production,
The Level of skin reproduction and length of time to complete the process
Amount of bacteria on the skin surface
The Inflammatory response to the follicle blockage.

Main Causes of Acne

Growing up the cause of acne is primarily driven by the changes in our hormonal environment from puberty. During puberty large levels of hormones such as growth hormone, testosterone and estrogens are present in the body and these can create the issues that lead to acne such as new skin growth, skin cell division and sebum production.

As we get older and our natural hormone levels start to decrease especially after 35 then the causes of adult acne can be associated with various other factors that affect our hormonal environment, one of which is our diet.

Before we review how the food we eat can hinder or help our adult acne, a few more triggers need looking at.

Fluctuations in Hormonal Environment –This is mainly concerned with women and the certain physical changes they go through as they get older. This of course happens during monthly periods, pregnancy and the menopause. All these event s cause a fluctuation in natural hormone levels that may trigger acne.

Taking certain drugs or medications.-If you are taking medications to treat other issues this may cause a flare up in acne. Drugs that stimulate or decreases hormones such as the birth control pill or steroids are also responsible for leading to increase in acne breakouts.

stressed out

High Stress Levels – Research has linked adult acne flare ups with high stress levels. When under a lot of stress the body produces hormones such as cortisol and androgens. These hormones stimulate sebum production in the oil glands that may result in acne appearing. Stress causes inflammation in the gut and research over the years has connected gut health and acne together. If you want to deal with acne do all you can to reduce stress and your response to stress as much as possible.

Genetics – Unfortunately, some people are just genetically set up to suffer with acne and it can be a problem for many people in the same family gene pool.

Beauty Products – Certain products for hair and skin may trigger adult acne breakouts so if you are prone to acne, be very careful choosing which products to use.

Insulin and acne

Studies have increasingly suggested that excess insulin production stimulates a hormonal and endocrine response that may lead to the increased sebum production and inflammation both of which play a key role in acne development.

High blood sugar levels that stimulate the release of insulin also lead to the increase of another hormone associated with acne called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1).

Research is linking both insulin and IGF-1 to acne because they both promote blockage of the follicles through inducing more sebum to be produced and causing the skin cells to increase in number.

This study for example took 34 adults, 16 of which had acne and the rest didn´t. Sebum levels in all participants were then studied for IGF-1 levels and androgen levels. Androgens are also hormones with the most widely known being testosterone.

The study concluded that “Increased IGF-1 levels in addition to androgens may influence acne in adult men and women”…..with IGF-1 playing more of a role in acne for women and androgens having more effect on acne for men.

low GI Foods

Foods that clear acne

So if there is a strong link with acne and insulin and IGF-1 both associated with high blood sugar levels then it makes sense to follow a nutrition plan that limits the levels of sugar in your diet, which as you probably know, is called a low glycemic diet.

There are studies to support this notion although they did not come out and say that following a low glycemic diet would clear up your acne. However, the results were encouraging and suggest that if you are suffering with acne this is the best way to eat if you want to control and calm it down.

This study on 12 male acne sufferers split them into two groups with one on a low glycemic load diet and the other on a high glycemic load diet. After 7 days, the study concluded that the increased glycemic loads might increase the potential factors that lead to acne.

In another study again on males aged 15-25, the participants were again split into two groups following either a high or low glycemic diet. After 12 weeks, the researchers saw a bigger improvement in the acne from the group following a lower glycemic load diet.

Although they did state further research is required to gain conclusive proof the results were attributed to the reduced glycemic dietary changes.

What Foods Cause Acne?

So now we know what foods can help with acne, let us turn our attention to the foods that cause acne.

Processed Foods

Many processed foods especially those containing sugar are going to cause a big insulin response when eaten. Not only that but low quality high processed foods can lead to inflammation again another contributor to causing acne. There are many foods I could mention but I think you know what types of food I am talking about, fast foods, refined bread products, sugar based products, you get the picture.

grains and starch foods

Grains and starch based carbs

These types of foods produce a large insulin and insulin-like growth factor response when eaten. Both these hormones especially IGF-1 can lead to conditions in the skin that can promote acne. Not only that but also any grains can cause inflammation in the body which again can trigger acne. You can choose to cut out all grain and starches at once or pick out one, cut out that for a month, and see what happens. If you see, no changes then take out another one.

Some Fruits

Fructose a form of sugar and found in fruits will also cause insulin and IGF-1 levels to rise so it is best to limit consumption while trying to deal with your acne. If you want to eat fruit then stick with berries and other low GI fruits such as apples, peaches and plums.


Dairy and acne have long had an association although nothing has come back conclusive.

What we do know is that dairy products produce a high insulin response and production of insulin-like growth factor-1(IGF-1) which studies have connected with causing acne.

In fact, by drinking cow’s milk it can raise IGF-1 levels 10-20% in the body.

Other studies are also suggesting that dairy supplements such as whey protein may stimulate acne.

Other Dietary Factors to Consider.

Reducing high glycemic foods and dairy products is certainly the best place to start when trying to control your acne but there may be other nutritional factors to consider as well.

Get more antioxidants and minerals– A diet lacking in antioxidants vitamins A, C and E plus minerals such as zinc and selenium may cause an issue with issue. In fact, a diet low in zinc was shown by a recent study to have some correlation to the severity of acne in 100 patients.

Antioxidants are involved in protection and repair of the skin from free radical damage so keeping the skin as healthy as possible is a benefit in fighting off acne. There are many Antioxidants“>supplements to use but ideally, you want to get your antioxidants as much as possible from whole natural foods.

Cut down on Alcohol

Although I can´t find any direct studies on alcohol and acne there is a link it makes sense that drinking too much could lead to acne problems.

Many alcoholic drinks are loaded with sugar causing big insulin spikes that we know now are just no good for acne.

Alcohol is a toxin and if consumed in high quantities will cause inflammation in the body from damage to the liver.

Alcohol can lead to hormone imbalances in testosterone and estrogens that may contribute to acne.

Alcohol dehydrates the body affecting your skins health and increasing the potential for acne to form.

Even if there is no direct link to alcohol and acne if you drinking a lot and prone to getting acne there is a good chance it will increase the severity of your problem. Keep your intake to moderate levels or cut it out completely if you want to beat your acne.

better gut health

Improve Gut Health

There have been studies linking acne with gut health for many years although the research has not been completely conclusive. In this review of such studies up to 2011 the researchers as part of their summing up stated “ there appears to be more than enough supportive evidence to suggest that gut microbes, and the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract itself, are contributing factors in the acne process” . They ended by saying still needed more research to understand how much this was contributing factor.

If you have acne and issues with your gut such as bloating or constipation there may be connection.

As certain food sources such as wheat and gluten cause inflammation in the gut for many people, it is definitely worth removing them from your diet temporarily and monitoring results.

Summing it all up

As stated before adult acne is a complex issue and may be the result of a whole range of issues.

However I believe there is no doubt that if you can set up your diet to be paleo focused in that you cut out processed foods, grains and you will give yourself a great foundation for controlling or even getting rid of your acne.

I know that the diet and lifestyle changes may seem overwhelming to apply and stick to but the result of having no or very little acne is well worth it.

Once you go through this process and actually start to understand the triggers causing your issue you can manage it accordingly and finally have some form of control.

That is a great place to be.

I am here to help so ask any questions or share, your own experience with adult acne by leaving a comment below.

Please share this article with anyone you feel may benefit from the information.