Even though there are currently not enough studies to draw conclusions about the relationship between eating low glycemic and acne, the preponderance of the evidence at this point sways toward a high-glycemic diet making acne worse.
High-glycemic foods cause large increases in blood sugar levels over a short period of time, and while research is still not conclusive, this may promote a worsening of acne symptoms.
As discussed earlier, when blood sugar levels increase drastically in a short period of time, the body initiates a cascade of hormones and molecules.
1. The organ called the pancreas increases production of insulin, which is a hormone that helps the body use the sugar for energy or store the sugar as fat so it can be used for energy later. More insulin is thought to correlate with more acne.
2. Increases in the amount of insulin in the body lead to an increase in another hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). Increased IGF-1 levels are also thought to lead to increased acne.
3. When the amount of insulin in the body increases, a decrease in a molecule called IGFBP-3 ensues. The job of IGFBP-3 is to attach to insulin and render it inactive. So, the less IGFBP-3 you have, the more insulin is able to damage the body.
Recent studies have shown that higher levels of insulin and IGF-1 may increase acne by:
Stimulating the production of skin cells, which can bring about clogged pores.
Increasing the availability of androgens (male hormones present in both males and females). Androgens increase sebum (skin oil) production when active, and this contributes to the formation of acne.3
Studies Show Low-glycemic Diets May Reduce Acne
An increasing number of professionals are recommending a lower-glycemic diet to help reduce acne. This idea is based on the following evidence.6-12
In a 2007 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers assigned 43 males (aged 15 – 25) either a low- or high-glycemic diet for 12 weeks. They found that participants who followed a low-glycemic diet showed a decrease in total acne compared with the males following the high-glycemic diet.6,7
The previous study also appeared in 2007 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.7
In a 2008 study in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, researchers gave 12 males (aged 15 – 20) either a low- or high-glycemic diet. After only one week, the males on the low-glycemic diet had less androgens and increased IGFBP-3 in relation to the males following the high-glycemic diet. The increased IGFBP-3 – reduced IGF-1 activity reduced acne.8
In a 2008 study in the Journal of Dermatological Science, researchers gave 31 males (aged 15 – 25) either high- or low-glycemic diets for 12 weeks. They found that, in males on the low-glycemic diet, both total acne and sebum production were reduced.9
A 2012 study published in the journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica and conducted with 32 Korean subjects (24 men and 8 women, aged 20 – 27) randomly assigned participants either high- or low-glycemic diets for 10 weeks. The participants given the low-glycemic diet showed reduced acne severity and reduced sebaceous (sebum-producing) gland size.10
A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology tracked the dietary habits of 50 people with acne and 36 people without acne over a week. The participants kept food diaries for seven days. The scientists found that participants with acne consumed a higher-glycemic diet compared to participants without acne. In addition, the participants with moderate or severe acne consumed a higher-glycemic diet than participants with mild acne. They wrote, “A high-glycemic-index/-load diet was positively associated with acne vulgaris.”11
A 2018 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics asked 34 people with acne to eat a low-glycemic diet while 32 other people with acne continued to consume their usual diet. After two weeks, the researchers found reduced IGF-1 levels in the people who ate a low-glycemic diet. They speculated that over a longer period of time, the reduced IGF-1 levels might translate into less acne for the people on the low-glycemic diet.12
Some Studies Find No Connection Between Glycemic Load and Acne
On the other hand, three studies have found no connection between eating a low-glycemic diet and improving acne. Each of these studies had limitations, such as using unreliable methods for collecting data, testing diets for only a short time, or treating acne with medication and with diet changes at the same time.13-15
In a 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers compared the diets of 49 people with acne and 42 people without acne. They found no connection between glycemic load and the presence of acne. In other words, they did not see people with acne eating a higher glycemic load diet compared to people without acne. However, their findings were based on questionnaires completed by the participants, which is not a very reliable form of obtaining data.13
In a 2010 study published in the journal Nutrients, scientists assigned 58 teen males to either a high- or low-glycemic load diet for eight weeks. The researchers made sure the nutrient content of both diets was the same. They found that acne improved equally on both diets – in other words, the high glycemic load diet was just as beneficial as the low glycemic load diet. The scientists concluded that a longer period of time and/or a larger difference in glycemic load between the two diets might have revealed a difference in acne.14
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