Give the milk a break and improve your breakouts

For a long time experts stated that there was no correlation between diet and acne however more and more research is popping up discounting this assumption. In this blog I look at the association between dairy, in particular milk and the incidence of acne.

The studies showing a correlation between milk consumption and acne cross a wide age group, from teenage boys and girls to adult women and while the dairy industry claim skewed data there is enough evidence to show a definite link.

Firstly though I want to be clear about what the research does and doesn’t show; milk consumption alone doesn’t cause acne but it seems that those that drink milk develop more severe acne than non-milk drinkers. Furthermore, the more milk consumed, the worse the acne tended to be.

While the link between the severity of acne and milk is strongest, other dairy products have shown similar effects including cottage cheese, chocolate milk and skim milk. From personal experience one of the worst offenders apart from milk is yoghurt. I had to cut out dairy completely for 3 months and until my breakouts cleared up completely, then I was able to reintroduce some dairy but only butter, occasionally hard cheese such as parmesan and very occasionally some icecream (just because I find it hard to resist). If I start back on dairy regularly, my system doesn’t like it and I start to break out.

One of the interesting things that emerged from the research is that skim milk induced more breakouts than whole fat milk indicating that fat is not the issue. Other research has shown that while high saturated and animal fat foods aren’t ideal from a health perspective, they do not necessary cause or worsen acne. High sugar foods on the other hand are another story completely and do show a strong correlation with breakouts.

So if not the fat, what is the culprit? While not conclusively proved, the hormones in milk may well be the driver. Milk contains androgen hormones, the most notably testosterone. The body converts some testosterone to di-hydrotestosterone (DHT) which has a simulating effect on the skin’s sebaceous glands promoting the production of sebum. The result is oilier skin, more pore congestion and therefore more pimples. The more milk consumed, the more hormones, which may explain the proportional effect of higher milk consumption and more severe acne. Genetics also play a role according to researchers with people who are genetically predisposed to acne breakouts having a stronger reaction to the hormones in milk.

It is common practice with the commercial production of milk for dairy farmers to give cows additional hormones as this stimulates a higher milk yield. One of the side effects of this is milk with a high IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor-1) concentration and again the more consumed, the higher the blood concentration of IGF-1 found. Like DHT, IGF-1 drives sebum production which can trigger acne breakouts.

The other issue that may be linked to dairy, keep in mind there is no specific research about this, is the protein in dairy. Skim milk is believed to be worse than full cream milk due to the whey protein which is added to give a creamier taste. There are many different proteins in milk and IGF-1 is only one that may cause issues. If your digestive system is not performing as optimally as it could, the proteins in milk may eventually lead to internal inflammation of the gut and poor detoxification of waste. There is a strong link between poor digestive detoxification and acne. I will address this topic in more depth in another blog very soon.

So while milk and dairy are not a direct cause of acne, cutting it out of your diet can help to reduce acne severity. Reducing dairy may help but giving your body a rest from it all together is going to get a better initial result. One way to test your response to dairy is to start with 3 weeks complete removal and monitor your skin’s response. Look for a decrease in overall breakouts and well as less redness (inflammation). If you find that it doesn’t seem to make a difference at all reintroduce dairy slowly, again still monitoring the response to see if there are any worsening effects. If it does make a difference, it is best to stay off or only have limited quantities (and can I just say, a latte a day is a lot, not a little bit of milk).

A note of caution, often when people give up cow’s milk, they move over to soy milk. While this may seem like a sensible substitute, soy contains phytoestrogens, which may also be problematic for acne sufferers. It is best just to see how you go without cow’s milk first before using a dairy substitute.

This is the first in a series of blogs I am going to do about acne, its underlying causes and triggers. Please let me know if there are any topics in particular you would like me to cover.

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