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A Guide to Digestive Issues and Acne digestive acne|young girl with acne on face digestive acne|anatomy of the human digestive system digestive acne|woman drinking a glass of water digestive acne|girl taking off makeup digestive acne

Health & Wellness

A Guide to Digestive Issues and Acne

The stereotype with acne is that everyone who suffers from it is a teenager—quite possibly a teenager who eats too much chocolate. This could not be further from the truth. Acne is a very common condition, with around 60 million people in the U.S. suffering from it, and it can affect people from all walks of life and at all ages. 1 The average acne sufferer today is in their mid-20s.

young girl with acne on face What Causes Acne?

Acne is a skin condition that occurs when the sebaceous glands become overactive. These glands produce sebum, which travels along the pore and helps protect the skin on the surface. If the pores become clogged with dirt or with dead skin cells, they can harbor bacteria, which will trigger an inflammatory response in the body.

It is this inflammatory response that brings about the swelling and pimples that people know as acne. A single pimple wouldn't normally be treated as acne, but several pimples could bring about the diagnosis. 2

Acne and General Health

What a lot of people don't realize is that the skin is an organ and that acne is affected by and can have an effect on general health. Studies show that people who have acne are more likely to experience constipation, heartburn, and other digestive issues. It is thought that the gut microbiome has an impact on the gut-skin axis and that those who are experiencing abdominal bloating and other issues are more likely to also suffer from acne as well. 3

anatomy of the human digestive system The Gut-Skin Axis Explained

The human digestive system is a finely-tuned, complex machine that includes far more than just the stomach and the intestines. We have already discussed gut bacteria and the gut microbiome at length. 4

Researchers have shown that the gut microbiome can have an effect on mood and digestive health, and more recently it has been found that the balance of gut bacteria can have an impact on the skin as well. What you eat can impact whether or not you suffer from acne and how bad outbreaks are, but for more reasons than you may know. 5

Throughout history, there have been many different treatments used for acne, including some dietary ones, although the Greeks and Egyptians were unable to agree upon treatments, with the Greeks leaning towards vegetable treatments and the Egyptians preferring animal products. 6 They both had the right idea, though.

Changing what you eat can change your gut bacteria, which can have a positive impact on your skin. Far more recent studies show that it is possible for probiotics to improve the balance of gut flora, thereby promoting better skin health. 7 It takes time, however, to change your gut flora, and it is easy to throw it out of balance again.

Eating foods rich in simple sugars will promote one type of gut bacteria. Eating foods rich in complex carbohydrates will promote another. Probiotics and fermented foods can introduce new gut bacteria that may not have been there in the past. Antibiotics designed to kill off infections may also cause issues with the bacteria that you need in your body. It's a delicate system.

The gut affects many parts of the body, not just the skin, but also the brain, so promoting good gut health and finding positive habits that can help to reinforce long-term health is important. 8

Treating Acne Inside and Out

Given what is known about the digestive system and skin, it's clear that simply living a healthy lifestyle is important if you want to keep yourself looking and feeling as good as possible. Small, simple changes can have a big impact:

woman drinking a glass of water Drink Lots of Water

The idea of going on a detox is overblown since the body has kidneys that detox for you. However, the kidneys work better when you supply them with plenty of water so that they can get their job done, which is why drinking enough water is associated with improved skin health.

Avoid Inflammatory Foods

Everyone is different, but there are some foods that are notorious for causing inflammation. Milk, sugar, gluten, and alcohol can trigger breakouts (and bloating) in some people. Cow's milk, in particular, can spike IGF-1, which leads to inflammation. 9

Treat Your Skin Naturally

Modern chemical-based skin cleansers do a very good job of cleaning your skin, but they can be quite harsh and dry your skin in the process. Many researchers have conducted clinical trials into aromatherapy and essential oils, and the results of early trials suggest that these can be helpful for managing acne. 10

Citronella, in particular, is promising as an anti-inflammatory that can help reduce scar formation and relieve blemishes. 11 Peppermint essential oil is thought to be helpful for digestive health and can be used topically or aromatically in a room diffuser. 12 Remember that if you’re using essential oils topically that it’s important to dilute them in a carrier oil like almond, coconut, or jojoba oil to avoid irritation.

girl taking off makeup Be Mindful of Your Hygiene

While the idea that people who have acne are someone “dirty” is overblown, it is particularly important for people who are suffering from acne sores to be mindful of general hygiene. Do not share cosmetics and be sure to remove any makeup that you wear before going to bed.

Wash your face with mild soapy water, and be sure to shower thoroughly after exercise, especially if you suffer from acne on your back. If you exercise regularly and play contact sports, consider using tea tree oil to keep your skin blemish free. 13


Most people will grow out of acne by the time they are in their late 20s, but for some people, it is a longer-term, persistent problem. If you are struggling with acne and find that home remedies do not help you, be sure to go to the doctor and ask them for advice.

Photo credits: yurakrasil/, Magicmine/, AfricaStudio/, puhhha/, srisakornwonglakorn/

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