It’s well known in herbal circles that all disease starts in the gut. The way we fuel our body’s functions is through our digestive system, so if there’s a hitch somewhere within that system, all sorts of imbalances can happen.
Acne is certainly a bear of a problem to deal with day to day—but if your digestive tract is part of why you’re having acne, it could be really helpful for you to figure out what else could be going on internally in your body.
How do I Know if my Acne is Caused by my Digestion?
Like with other causes of acne, the answer to whether your digestion could be causing your acne can be evasive. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Do you notice your breakouts a day or so after eating certain foods (like sugar, red meat, or a stick of butter)?
- Does there seem to be no cyclical pattern to when your breakouts show up?
- Is there a specific place where you’re breaking out? The forehead is often associated with the digestive system. This face map could be a real help to get you started.
- Do you have frequent stomach aches or any other type of gastrointestinal distress?
- Do you notice that you tend to break out before, after, or during periods of gastrointestinal distress?
Digestive Imbalances Can Lead to Acne?
The short answer is yes! I’ll give you the long answer too, though.
If you have acne, you’ve probably read a hundred blogs about how what you eat can make a difference in your skin. But why? (This is where the complicated stuff that they don’t tell you on most blogs comes in.)
There are a lot of ways that the digestive system can affect the skin. Let’s take a walk through one common digestive process and see where we might find some potential breakout-causing intrusions.
The first step is looking at what you eat. Diets high in sugar, trans and ‘bad’ fats, and highly processed foods don’t feed the body quite right. How well does your car run on contaminated fuel? Similarly, an imbalanced diet can create imbalances within the body. Acne is one symptom of this. Since everyone’s body is different, your optimal diet will be specific to you.
The next step is how your upper GI (the mouth to the stomach) is processing what you’re eating. Active digestion starts in the mouth with the saliva. Make sure that you’re chewing your food very well; your saliva starts the process of breaking down proteins and starches.
As your food travels down to your stomach, more digestive secretions (sorry, I know it’s not pretty) are produced. The most common issue we see with digestion is that not enough digestive secretions are available to completely break down the food in the upper GI.
There are many possible reasons for this lack of digestive juices in the stomach, and a lot of different symptoms can show up if this is happening for you. But the essential concept is that undigested food travels to the lower GI.
Okay, the third step on our walk is to the lower GI (the intestines to the colon). This is where our body checks out the digested food and sorts out the nutrients from the waste. Well, if you have undigested food in the lower GI (now it’s all beginning to make sense, I know) then the lower half of your digestive system has to do some of the work from the upper half. Then it still has to pull out the nutrients to feed the whole body.
Think about what happens when you work too hard and too fast. You start missing details and making little mistakes. Pretty soon those little mistakes add up, right? Well, in the body, some of the work that gets passed over is the proper metabolism of fats. Fat stores a lot of toxic waste, hormones, minerals and vitamins, so they need to be properly sorted. If fats aren’t being completely broken down when they’re supposed to be, undigested fats get into the intestines, the liver and into the bloodstream. Over time, this effectively slows down the complex systems that feed the body.
At this point the stomach isn’t digesting properly, the intestines have extra work to do, and the liver is receiving blood with undigested fats (without the broken down hormones, toxins, proteins, vitamins and minerals). The liver starts to work on these imbalances, and inevitably misses some things in its sorting processes. Sometimes it speeds up and other times it slows down—that depends on your personal bio-makeup. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’re right.
When the liver can’t do all of the things being thrown at it, the body does this cool thing where it creates “collateral veins” for the blood to keep its flow. Collateral veins in the digestive system are extra blood vessels from the intestinal tract that bypass the liver all together and put unfiltered blood into the general circulation of the body. If you’re thinking “but that blood has impurities in it!” you’re right on track. This causes all sorts of bodily imbalances. Acne is just one of them.
Okay, but What Does this Have to do with Acne?
Remember that the skin is an elimination system in the body and acne is a function of the skin doing its job. If you’re seeing an increase in acne, it comes back to the toxicity in your blood.
I’m not trying to beat a dead horse here, but just like with the first two installments of The Causes of Acne (hormones and air pollution), it’s all about what’s in the blood that’s feeding the skin!
Like with other acne causes, this one is multi-faceted. It’s important to find the root cause of what’s going on in your digestive system and try to work on that. It could be that you have a food allergy and your body isn’t able to digest a certain type of food, so it’s wreaking havoc on your face. It could be that there is too much stress in your body and you have to find a way to calm down before taking bites. Here are some things that might help, but I also suggest checking in with a holistic practitioner to see what’s right for you.
I say this all the time. Water is amazing for your body because, just like Earth, we’re all made up of about 75% water. We need water to carry nutrients throughout our body and to help flush out the toxic buildup that we’re having. Drink it!
2—Keep a Consumption Journal!
Changing your diet to help your face is hard. A great way to find what works and what doesn’t is to write down what you eat and how you feel for a full week. Start to notice patterns about how you’re feeling before, during, and after what you’re eating and drinking. Try to see if you notice more or less breakouts when you eat a certain type of food. While this won’t solve the problem, it’s a good first step towards clearing up your acne, and possibly clearing up any stomach issues you might have.
3—Increase the Digestion in your Upper GI.
One way to do this is to take bitter herbs. We use lemon balm in my house because it’s gentle and its useful secondary actions help with the nervous system. If you’re curious about bitters, check out this article. It talks a little bit about how the nervous system works with the digestive system too, which is an additional piece of this puzzle.
Another thing you should do is eat probiotic foods. Fermented foods are delicious and so good for you—kimchi is my favorite. Kombucha, sauerkraut, real yogurt and even classically fermented pickles are all probiotic.
Making your own Ginger Beer is a great way to get your probiotics, stimulate your upper and lower GI tracts, and work on your central nervous system. You can do it with just ginger, sugar, water, and time.
4—Help Heal the Lower GI.
As a general rule, working on the upper GI and the liver will help the lower GI function more efficiently.
Taking demulcent herbs to help coat the lining of the intestines can be helpful because the digestive process can be corrosive to the lower GI. Marshmallow is my favorite herb to help heal with lower GI distress.
Herbs that help the liver:
- Burdock helps the body process toxicity and increases secretions throughout the digestive system.
- Milk Thistle is one of nature’s best liver protecting and strengthening herbs.
Ask yourself, “Do I need an oil change?”
The types of fats that you’re consuming is as important as the amount of fats you’re consuming. Fat is an important building block and energy store in our bodies, so it’s important to be eating good fats that help sustain your body. Researching the types of oils that you use can be a bit harrowing, but here’s an infographic that might be helpful for you to start!
Understanding Acne: The Series
Acne is really complicated. This is part 3 of our 4 part series, here's where you can read more:
Michael Moore – Principles and Practice of Constitutional Physiology for Herbalists
Merek Manual – Portal Hypertenstion