In the Clear
by Dianne Drucker
August 3, 2003
Your skin needs protection even as
it offers itself as your body's first line of defense
against the outside world. Skin is always in danger of acne
and inflammations during its daily encounters with stray
microorganisms, streams of ultraviolet light and a barrage
Tending to your skin, keeping a clear complexion while
safeguarding your well-being, requires proper feeding,
watering and tender, loving care.
Your skin not only has to protect you, it has to look
good while doing it. Unfortunately, much can go wrong with
skin. One of the most common skin irregularities is the acne
that often arises when pores clog and inflammation creates
While conventional medicine has long insisted that your
chances of developing pimples are unrelated to what you feed
your body and your skin, recent studies are calling that
accepted wisdom into question.
Research in the Archives of Dermatology (12/02) argues
that today's pimples are linked to what you ate yesterday.
Skin scientists now suspect that the typical American diet,
filled with refined foods, sugars and simple starches,
causes the exaggerated release of insulin and related
secretions that foment pimples and blemishes.
The evidence: When researchers spent two years combing
through the rainforests of New Guinea and trekking to remote
parts of Paraguay, they took a close look at indigenous
people's faces and couldn't find a single pimple. The
inhabitants of these isolated areas eat homegrown food and
wild game. They've never eaten crackers or cookies from a
box or slurped a milkshake through a straw. And they've
never had to cope with embarrassing acne.
The researchers concluded that no refined foods meant no
Refining the Pimple Process
According to this latest theory, pimples can start when
your digestive tract quickly absorbs refined, starchy
carbohydrates from white bread or potatoes or sugary soft
drinks. These foods are ranked at or near the top of the
so-called glycemic index. That means that these foodstuffs
cause your blood sugar to climb rapidly, the process that
the glycemic index measures.
That rise in blood sugar causes the release of insulin
from your pancreas into your bloodstream. Insulin, a
hormone-like substance, helps cells soak up the excess sugar
circulating in your blood. However, along with insulin,
another substance, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), is
also released. These two chemicals boost the production of
testosterone, the male hormone that, in turn, can cause the
skin to overproduce sebum, an oily goo that plugs up pores
and gives birth to acne. (Previous research has already
established the causal relationship of testosterone to
Lorain Cordain, PhD, a health professor at Colorado State
University and lead researcher in this study, points out
that more than 80% of the grains we eat are highly refined
and cause significant blood sugar increases, a factor that
makes skin break out. In addition, he says, teens are
especially susceptible to pimples because they are growing
rapidly and, as a result, tend to be insulin resistant.
Insulin resistance means it takes more insulin to persuade
cells to take sugar out of the blood. This condition
consequently results in even larger amounts of insulin being
released and more skin blemishes being created.
According to Dr. Cordain, eating low-glycemic foods like
whole grains, vegetables, fish and lean meat should lower
your risk of acne. These foods don't bump up blood sugar as
much, cause less IGF-1 to be released and, as a result, are
kinder to your skin.
Aside from improving your skin condition by improving the
food you eat, taking supplements to help the bacteria in
your lower digestive tract may also clear up your
undesirable dermatological developments. Eczema, a
discomforting and embarrassing skin inflammation, is now
believed to depend on the interaction between intestinal
bacteria and your immune system.
According to research in Finland (The Lancet 2001;
357:1076), eczema may appear on your skin when your immune
system, influenced by the gut's bacteria, misbehaves, using
unnecessary inflammation to defend against a non-existent
infection that it mistakenly believes threatens the skin.
Atopic eczema, a variety of eczema that often runs in
families, has long been known to be linked to allergies and
In looking into the fact that more and more people have
been suffering eczema, scientists came to the disturbing
conclusion that this increase may be at least partly
attributed to our obsession with cleanliness.
When we are young, our immune systems learn the proper
ways to fight off germs by interacting with the bacteria and
viruses they encounter. But during the past ten years, so
many of us (and our parents) have kept our houses so
neurotically spic-and-span, according to the latest theory,
that our immune systems are failing to develop the proper
responses. So, like a bored, inexperienced security guard
who imagines a threat when there is none, our immune
defenses are going slightly haywire, causing the defensive
inflammation of eczema even in the absence of real
bacteriological invasions. The possible solution: Probiotic
supplements of harmless bacteria like Lactobacillus GG. This
bacteria, similar to the friendly bacteria that live in our
large intestines, seems to calm immunity so that it is less
likely to panic and start an unnecessary inflammation.
These supplements are so safe, medical researchers are
now giving them to pregnant women and newborn babies. In the
research in Finland, giving these probiotics to mothers and
newborns cut the rate of infant atopic eczema in half.
(Similar, live bacteria are also found in yogurt, although
yogurt should not be fed to newborns.)
The skin on these children is benefiting for long periods
of time. "Our findings show that the preventive effect of
Lactobacillus GG on atopic eczema in at-risk children
extends to the age of 4 years," notes Marko Kalliomäki, MD,
author of the study.
Tea Tree Help
Further natural skin help can be had from Australia in
the form of tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). Long
revered by the aborigines of this continent, tea tree oil
was allegedly given its English name by British sea captain
James Cook, who used the plant to make a tea that improved
the flavor of beer.
But Australians have long used tea tree oil as an
antiseptic. Its popularity increased during World War II,
when, after it was used as a lubricant on heavy machinery,
mechanics who got the oil on their hands noticed it fought
skin infections. As pointed out in The Chopra Center Herbal
Handbook (Three Rivers Press), "The essential oil of tea
tree...contains a number of terpenes, of which terpinen-4-ol
is believed to be responsible for its beneficial
anti-infective activity." Terpenes are special, beneficial
types of protein found in essential oils.
Tea tree is especially useful against skin outbreaks
caused by fungus infections. Research in Australia shows
that it can help quell athlete's foot (Austr Jrnl Derm 1992;
33:145) as effectively as some pharmaceutical preparations.
Other research confirms that it can help quiet many
different fungi that cause unsightly skin outbreaks (Skin
Pharm 1996; 9:388). The Chopra Center Herbal Handbook
recommends that "every household should keep some tea tree
oil close at hand. It can be applied directly to skin
Revered by the pharaohs' healers in Egypt during the
ancient age of the pyramids, and depended upon for centuries
by the Greeks for a variety of medicinal purposes, chamomile
(Matricaria recutita) is still employed for a range of skin
problems. This botanical helps ease abscesses, bruises or
sunburn, and is included in many massage oils. (But never
apply chamomile's undiluted essential oil to the skin.)
In addition, creams and sprays with chamomile are used to
calm the nerves and nourish the skin. As an element in
aromatherapy, chamomile, whose odor has been compared to
apples, is well-known for soothing and rejuvenating the
spirit. Explaining exactly how chamomile heals and calms has
not been easy for scientists. Essential oils like chamomile
contain so many different natural chemicals that exploring
their holistic effect on the human body requires detailed
analysis. As an aromatherapeutic agent, researchers believe
chamomile and other essential oils may interact with the
brain, activating glands that stimulate healing systems
within the body. But that has yet to be proven.
What has been proven is that herbs like chamomile and tea
tree, and natural treatments like probiotics, can make a big
difference in keeping your skin healthy and clear. With
their help, you can present your best face to the world.