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Acne from a Naturopathic Medicine Perspective

Acne from a Naturopathic perspective


While many of us were told that our acne was just a byproduct of adolescence – as if we needed anything to make us feel more awkward at this stage – how come nearly half of men and women in their third decade of life are still affected by the condition? The truth is that Acne vulgaris occurs in 50 million persons living in the US. Treatment recommended by the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology aims at symptomatic relief. In other words, treatments such as topical therapies, antibiotics, oral contraceptives, and retinoids are often used to reduce the number of outbreaks, but often don’t get at the underlying cause. The list of side effects of these therapies are long and can be quite serious. From a naturopathic perspective, there are several common patterns that result in the presentation of acne, and the fixes may surprise you.


  • Acne results from the sluggish clearance of hormones
    • Its no secret that female hormones play a role in acne, these are the players we have to thank for those pesky zits that pop up around our time of the month. However, failure to clear metabolized hormones such as estrogen, is a separate problem that can perpetuate the acne-causing ability of estrogen. Estrogen is metabolized by the liver and excreted as waste in the feces. When there is prolonged gastrointestinal transit time (as is the case during constipation), waste products stay in the large intestine longer and have the potential to be reabsorbed by the body. This is true of both hormones and toxins. Luckily, there are a few strategies to help that don’t involve interfering directly with the hormonal system:
      • Increasing fiber intake to reduces GI transit time. For individuals prone to constipation, adding ground flax seed or psyllium husk increases the bulk of stool, making bowel movements more regular. Fiber may also bind up hormonal waste products and increase their elimination.
      • Employing alterative herbs. Alterative herbs aid in the clearance of metabolites or toxins, and are effective at improving acne. Berberine is a phytochemical found in Berberis aquifolium (commonly known as Oregon grape) and Berberis vulgaris (barberry). Berberine also has additional helpful actions in the body, providing antimicrobial and antioxidant activity. While the root of both of these species is traditionally used in Chinese medicine, a trial recently reported that barberry juice consumption resulted in an almost 50% reduction in the number of zits and inflamed zits in adolescence! So whether consumed in tea, tincture, or whole berry form, the equivalent of about 3tsp dried barberries could day could make a world of a difference, all with fewer adverse effects than the dermatologist’s Rx.
    • Acne results from dietary factors including dairy
      • Population based studies have demonstrated an association between dairy consumption and acne in the western world. New evidence also helps us better understand this phenomenon with a mechanism. Dairy consumption results in the activation of the enzyme mTOR which promotes the neonatal growth of mammals. However, that is not the only role of mTOR as mTOR activity has also been found to be an active driver of acne progression. Reducing the consumption of cow’s milk (and other animal products), in favor of a more plant based diet not only stops the excessive stimulation of mTOR but can actively inhibit it via natural plant derived compounds. This dietary switch comes with the added benefit of not only clearing up your skin, but reducing the risk of obesity, cancer, and a long list of other chronic diseases.
    • Acne from a Chinese Medicine Systematic Imbalance
      • Eastern populations who maintain aspects of their traditional culture experience much lower rates of acne than the western world. In traditional Chinese medicine, ‘dampness’ is a pattern of presentation characterized by stickiness and lethargy while ‘heat’ is characterized by redness and constipation. Acne falls into this presentation, and can thus be treated by restoring the balance. Cooling foods such as cucumber, lettuce, and squash should be chosen over warming foods such as red meat, chocolate and processed grains in order to restore the balance. From this perspective, it is often the gallbladder, liver, and digestive system need to be restored and out of balance.


Whether acne has plagued you for years of your life, or the occasional zit just always happens to appear at the worst time, some of these dietary, herbal recommendations can help. The side effects?  With these interventions you can only expect better nutrition, vitality and all-round health.




Arayne, M. S., Sultana, N., & Bahadur, S. S. (2007). The berberis story: Berberis vulgaris in therapeutics. Pak J Pharm Sci, 20(1), 83-92.


Cordain, L., Lindeberg, S., Hurtado, M., Hill, K., Eaton, S. B., & Brand-Miller, J. (2002). Acne vulgaris: a disease of Western civilization. Arch Dermatol, 138(12), 1584-1590.


Greger, M. (2017). Nutrition Facts. In Treating Acne with Diet.


Hauk, L. (2017). Acne Vulgaris: Treatment Guidelines from the AAD. Am Fam Physician, 95(11), 740-741.


Mahanian, M. (2006). Looking east. Alive: Canada’s Natural Health & Wellness Magazine, (283), 112-113.


Melnik, B. C. (2012). Diet in acne: further evidence for the role of nutrient signalling in acne pathogenesis. Acta Derm Venereol, 92(3), 228-231.


Zaenglein, A. L., Pathy, A. L., Schlosser, B. J., Alikhan, A., Baldwin, H. E., Berson, D. S., et al. (2016). Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. J Am Acad Dermatol, 74(5), 945-973.e933.


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