Different from the whiteheads and blackheads that afflict many a high school teenager's morning, cystic acne is made of achingly large and swollen bumps that form nodules deep beneath the skin's surface. You can usually feel one 'cooking' for awhile before it jumps out in all its crimson glory, fated to take up residence on your face for so long, I used to joke that I should start charging rent.
From antibiotics to Retin-A creams to a purge of all oil-containing cosmetics in my vanity and gulping down copious amounts of water like a fish, I tried every Cosmo tip and dermatologist's prescription. I ordered ProActiv kits under the glow of the infomercial midnight hour, and succumbed to the cutting words and extractions of estheticians who told me it was all my fault for not taking care of my skin properly. (The solution entailed seeing them monthly, of course.)
When not even fancy new microdermabrasion and laser treatments would end the breakouts and I stopped short of trying Accutane for fear of the freak-tastic possible health effects (balding and stomach ulcers are not usually a top my to-do list), I finally relegated myself to a lifetime of applying a daily face of heavy makeup to camouflage the unsightly bumps and purplish discoloration that breakouts left in their wake.
It was at this point when a friend mentioned she had heard that dairy could be a cause of cystic acne. In my countless visits to every kind of 'skin expert' out there, no nutrition-based plan had ever been prescribed. Cheese addict that I was, it seemed a painful proposition to part with my comfort food -- but I was desperate. So I decided to go dairy-free for a solid two weeks as an experiment. After all, I told myself, I had tried far stranger and more arduous regimes. And if nothing happened, I could always abate my disappointment with a slice of pepperoni pizza.
During those two dairy-free weeks, something happened that I had never witnessed in all my years of high school, college and beyond: My acne breakouts ceased.
I was speechless. How was it that not a single skin expert I had seen all those years had ever once mentioned a link between food and breakouts as a possibility to me? In fact, I had once even asked a dermatologist if foods like cheese and chocolate could cause breakouts, and was only told with a shrug that there was no scientific evidence linking the two.
Reflecting on all of this now after well-earned time spent enjoying a clear complexion, I asked famed medical-turned-holistic doctor, Manhattan's Dr. Frank Lipman, how this could be.
"I'm not sure why traditional dermatologists don't recognize the link, because it is so very clear. Then again, doctors don't believe that diet has an effect on many diseases. It may be because we aren't taught about nutrition in Medical School," explains Lipman.
Harder yet was finding an explanation as to why dairy can have such a profoundly negative effect on the skin. Again, I was looking in the wrong place by searching traditional medicine for the answer. It takes an expert in the science of nutrition, and how the body processes food, to get to the heart of the matter.
Another medical-turned-holistic doctor, Dr. Susan Blum of Rye Brook, New York, says that sugar causes inflammation in the body, which is often reflected in acne -- an inflammatory condition of the skin. White sugar and dairy products, which are high in milk sugars, are prime triggers of this kind of inflammation inside the body.
There's also another way that sugar whips acne eruptions up into a frenzy. "Many people with acne have too much yeast in their digestive tract, and yeast love sugar. So when you eat sugar, the yeast have a party, and grow. Your skin has yeast in the sebaceous glands," explains Blum, of the microscopic cells that secrete the oil known as sebum in the skin.
"When yeast grows from the sugar, your skin reacts against it. Something about the dairy sugar is especially reactive for the yeast in the skin, so I suspect that is also something else in the dairy that causes a yeast reaction," adds Blum.
When it comes to what else could be floating around in your dairy products, the options nowadays are endless.
"There are over 60 hormones in an average glass of milk. The process of pasteurization eliminates many of the beneficial components of milk, and homogenization creates fats that are foreign to most human digestive systems," says Lipman.
Now before you all think I'm writing a dissertation on dairy as the anti-Christ, let me make it clear that I still enjoy some here and there. Just because you decide to eliminate something from your diet doesn't mean that you have to abstain from it for the rest of your life, or else risk lightning striking you down as you pluck away at a piece of string cheese.
Once I cleared my system from the build-up of eating so much dairy by going off of it cold for several weeks, I've found that a yogurt parfait or spinach quiche here and there have no adverse reaction on my skin now. I'll even enjoy a slice of pizza or toasted bagel with cream cheese as a treat occasionally, although I often do get a red bump afterwards. I'm a New Yorker, after all.
But in addition to drastically cutting down on dairy, I've also flooded my diet with anti-inflammatory foods that help balance, hydrate and heal skin from the inside, too.
Celebrity nutritionist Kimberly Snyder is launching a book this month, The Beauty Detox Solution, that dedicates an entire chapter to the ill skin effects of dairy. With image-conscious clients on her roster, she hones in on the foods that best combat an inflammatory reaction in the skin.
Snyder recommends incorporating nutritionally dense leaves like kale and romaine into your daily diet, as well as antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies that burst with flavor and color. Zinc promotes the repair of skin cells, and can be found in pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and coconut. You can also take 30mg of zinc citrate a day.
"Good" fats like those found in avocado, nuts and fish, will help keep skin healthy and glowing. Incorporating green smoothies into your diet, which I do as a breakfast ritual every day that gives me a clear mind and focused energy in addition to clearer skin, is a great way to start your day with a knockout punch to inflammation. I've included two signature recipes by Lipman and Snyder at the end of this story as options.
It's of course ideal to buy organic when it comes to fruits and veggies, though if you're budgeting, The Environmental Working Group has this handy list of the most important foods to buy organic, as well as those where organic doesn't matter as much.
Yet don't let the price tag of organic foods be the make-or-break factor for your decision to eat a skin-clearing diet.
"If you can't afford organic, don't let that deter you. Wash your produce extremely well, and you can dilute some apple cider vinegar in a soak to help remove some of the waxes and pesticides," offers Snyder.
And remember; no matter how much good you do for your skin, you're not going to see results unless you cut down or out the inflammatory factors. That means dairy and sugar -- and according to Blum and Lipman, can also include gluten and factory-farmed meats.
Gluten, the chewy glue-like bond that comes from wheat and related items like rye and barley, can be difficult to avoid in our carb-centered society, but multitudes of gluten-free options are springing up in grocery stores and on menus alike, now that more people are trying to avoid the often troublesome ingredient in a quest for more balanced energy and health.
After going on a gluten-free stint (I now keep about 60 percent gluten-free), I can attest to the further skin-enhancing and energizing effects of freeing your diet from its doughy grasp.
Another bonus? Since aging is essentially a disease of inflammation, eating an anti-inflammatory diet will also help combat wrinkles, sagging, dry skin, and other telltale signs of age.
Friends ask me all the time how I can cut down on so much 'fun' food. With my palatte cleared of the junk and processed foods, I found that my taste buds readjusted pretty quickly, and I can savor the "good stuff" as far more flavorful and rich now. I also rapidly got used to the taste of clear, beautiful skin and an overall sense of wellness and energy.
And that sure lasts longer than that slice of pepperoni pizza.
Both of these recipes can be made in larger batches and refrigerated for easy breakfasts or snacks.
Greena-Colada Avocado Smoothie
(Provided by Dr. Frank Lipman)
1 cup frozen pineapple chunks
1 cup coconut water
3-4 tablespoons protein powder
2 teaspoon greens powder
1/2 to 1 tablespoon coconut oil
4 ice cubes
Blend in a blender until smooth and creamy, and enjoy! If you can't find coconut water, you can use almond milk or water instead.
Glowing Green Smoothie
(Provided by Certified Nutritionist Kimberly Snyder)
1 1/2 cups water
1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
3-4 stalks celery
1/2 head of a large bunch or 3/4 of a small bunch of spinach
1 apple, cored and chopped
1 organic pear, cored and chopped
1/2 lemon's fresh juice
1/3 bunch of organic cilantro (stems okay)
1/3 bunch of organic parsley (stems okay)
Add the water and chopped head of romaine to the blender. Starting the blender at low speed, mix until smooth. Gradually moving to higher speeds, add the celery, apple and pear. Add the cilantro and parsley, if you are choosing to add them. Add the banana and lemon juice last. If diabetic, you may want to omit the banana due to its naturally high glycemic index.