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Healthy Living

What Is Stress Eating Doing to My Skin?

BalmLabs’ chief dermatologist Dr. Robin Schaffran explains the link between that bag of fries and adult acne.

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Q: I’ve been pretty stressed out lately and I’ve been turning to more Diet Coke and carbs than usual to get me through. How much does what I eat actually affect my skin?

The idea that diet can affect your skin is an interesting area of study. It’s tempting to want to draw definitive links between the occurrence of adult acne and specific (hopefully not delicious) foods, but there’s no evidence of this yet. 

There is, however, research that suggests a western diet high in sugars and starches — otherwise known as a high glycemic index diet — can influence or exacerbate acne.

High glycemic foods (for example potatoes, white rice, white bread, pastries and yes, chips) cause spikes in blood glucose, which prompts the body to make more insulin. Over time, higher insulin levels can lead to inflammation, which can affect the skin. High glycemic foods can also elevate hormones that boost oil-gland activity, which is another known contributor to acne. 

It’s important to note that making changes to your diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

At the same time, there has been research that suggests a low-glycemic diet — including foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, beans, and steel-cut oats — can benefit acne sufferers. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 2,500 people were put on a low glycemic index diet to lose weight; about 87 percent reported improvements to their acne.

Some studies suggest that increased milk consumption could also lead to more breakouts, but more research is needed to truly understand the connection. Herbal spearmint tea is also making headlines, but for the opposite reason: It’s been suggested that its anti-inflammatory properties and anti-androgen effects could help improve acne. But again, more study is needed.  

It’s important to note that making changes to your diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Hormones can complicate things. I’ve seen people who stick to a healthy diet who but who still have very challenging skin, and the reverse as well. 

So while there’s no simple answer, I’d say a lot of people with acne could probably benefit from incorporating more low-glycemic foods into their diet. If you’re interested in learning more about how foods rank on the GI scale, this article is a good resource that offers a lot of different (and delicious!) options.

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