Why Acne Occurs
Acne is never pleasant, and according to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology it is the most common skin disorder in the United States, affecting about 50 million people in America alone (2004). With these odds, it is very likely you or someone you know suffers from acne. While pimples are most common among teenagers, many young people continue to have acne into their adult lives while some have clear skin in their youth and don’t suffer from acne until they are middle aged.
Acne is one of the first signs of disease because, according to Ayurveda, the skin is a direct reflection of what’s happening inside of the body. If acne is present then there is an imbalance in all three of the Doshas. A Vata Dosha imbalance causes weakened digestion and a buildup of ama (toxins); imbalanced Pitta creates problems in the blood (Rakta Dhatu) and liver, resulting in inflammation; an excess of Kapha Dosha results in clogged pores because of the overproduction of oil. This negative combination of weak digestion, toxins and inflammation builds the ultimate environment for the growth of too much bacteria and consequently, chronic acne.
But diving deeper than that we must look at what is unbalancing the Doshas – ultimately, a diet and lifestyle that is creating toxins. Eating hot, spicy and very salty and sour foods aggravates Pitta, as well as consuming coffee, meat and alcohol. Staying up past 11pm and eating dry foods like crackers and salad aggravates Vata Dosha. Overeating, eating too much oily and sweet foods and excessive sleeping will throw Kapha Dosha out of balance. Taking medications, smoking and eating foods with preservatives will also negatively impact all three Doshas.
You already know the saying – you are what you eat! This is more than a metaphor; it is the truth. Every single layer of our tissues and every organ in our bodies are either indirectly or directly nourished by the food and drinks we consume. An unwholesome, unhealthy diet and bad eating habits like wrong food combinations and eating late at night will undoubtedly impact the body and manifest itself on the skin.
During the teenage years acne is usually blamed on changing hormone levels that affect the oil glands. Dead skin cells are shed and the excess oil makes the skin cells stick together and block the pores, creating an environment for bacteria growth and eventually a pimple. Then the bacterium that is growing in the blocked canal breaks down the oil, creating inflammation and dryness (Kumar S., Chandrasekar M., Nanjan M. & Suresh, B., 2005). This is all true and scientifically proven, but Ayurveda says that even skin problems during the volatile teenage years when hormones are changing can be lessened and even healed entirely with a proper diet and lifestyle that promotes strong digestion and a cleansing of toxins.
Now that we’ve covered the root cause of acne we’ll go into the different types, depending on which of the Doshas is the most out of balance.
Different Types of Acne
Our hard-working, fiery friend Pitta Dosha always has a hand in the cause of acne, but there are two other types of acne related to Vata and Kapha if you happen to have one of those more dominant in your constitution.
Like we mentioned above, Kapha-type acne will be oily and produce large whiteheads of a cystic nature. It will usually be on the forehead and upper cheeks. To help your Kapha-type patients reduce this Dosha and bring it back into balance, prescribe these simple tips.
- Avoid heavy foods like pumpkin, sweet potato, avocado, bananas and dates
- Eat light fruits like apricots, pears, pomegranates, apples and cranberries
- Greatly reduce intake of dairy, oil and salt. Favor coconut oil over ghee
- Eat smaller, light meals
- Eat legumes because they help to reduce excess Kapha
- All spices (except salt) pacify Kapha. Favor ginger, cayenne, pepper and mustard seed
- Greatly reduce intake of oats, rice and wheat
- Favor grains such as buckwheat, quinoa and millet
- Each morning drink hot tea (LINK) made with freshly chopped ginger to stimulate slower Kapha-type digestion
Dryness, pain and blackheads characterize Vata acne. It will typically be on the lower half of the face from the nose down. Bringing Vata back into balance is essential to balancing Pitta Dosha.
- Increase healthy fats and oils in your diet such as ghee, fresh cheese, coconut oil and avocado. This will help to smooth and strengthen your digestion
- Avoid eating raw vegetables or drinking juices
- Favor sweeter, heavier foods like bananas, mangoes, rice and wheat
- Eat Vata-pacifying cooked vegetables like asparagus, sweet potatoes, beets and carrots
- Use spices like cardamom, cumin, ginger and cinnamon
- Absolutely avoid dried fruit, crackers, salad and dried beans except split mung and lentils.
Redness, inflammation and pain are characteristic of Pitta acne. It is usually found on the cheeks. This is the first Dosha to focus on balancing when healing skin disorders.
- Incorporate cooling organic dairy into the diet, such as small amounts of warm milk at night and fresh cheese as an addition to lunch
- Completely cut out fermented food, foods with refined sugar and preservatives, sesame oil and alcohol
- Reduce intake of honey and use pure maple syrup as a sweetener instead
- Increase use of coconut oil, olive oil, grapes, melons, cherries, asparagus, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and leafy green vegetables. These are all cooling foods
- Favor wheat, rice and oats to reduce Pitta
- Completely cut out or at the very least greatly reduce tomatoes, hot peppers, eggplant, onions, radishes, garlic and spinach from your diet
- Spice meals very lightly and favor cooling spices like cilantro, cardamom, saffron, coriander and fennel
- It is best to adopt a vegetarian diet when wanting to clear the skin of acne but if one does continue to eat meat, favor turkey, fish and chicken and avoid red meat
The Current Medical Approach (And Why It Doesn’t Really Work)
Modern day medicine’s main approach in getting rid of acne is focused on preventing an over-growth of bacteria in the skin, regulating the production of oil and managing hormone levels. This is a very superficial approach and most of the time requires taking heavy medications, the chronic use of antibiotics and harsh (not to mention very expensive) lotions that do more harm than good. Using broad-spectrum antibiotics will create an excess of the yeast Candida albicans – this infection will likely make the acne even worse and then must be treated with still more antibiotics – an unfortunate cycle (Kumar et al., 2005)!
The excess of bacteria growth is just a symptom of the underlying problems that are actually the root cause of the breakouts. This is exactly why trying to get rid of acne with topical and oral antibiotics might never clear up your skin. Focusing on changing the chemistry within the body is what is needed to completely heal from the inside out.
Read Part Two Here.
Bickers DR, Lim HW, Margolis D, Weinstock MA, Goodman C, Faulkner E et al. The burden of skin diseases: 2004 a joint project of the American Academy of Dermatology Association and the Society for Investigative Dermatology.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 2006;55:490-500.
Kumar, S. M., Chandrasekar, J. N., Nanjan, M. J., & Suresh, B. (2005). Herbal remedies for acne. Nat Prod Resour, 4(4), 328-34.
Disclaimer The purpose of this article is to provide information about Ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have serious acute or chronic health problems, please consult a trained health professional or physician. If you are seeking the health advice of a certified Ayurvedic practitioner or doctor, please call us at (800) 215 – 9934 or email us. We will provide you with the contact information of our affiliated Ayurvedic professionals. Check with your physician before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.