I suffered from cystic acne for years in my twenties. Nothing I tried could make it better. In fact everything I tried, antibiotics, steroid creams, peels, even a heart medication (!), just seemed to make my skin worse. Super frustrating, as some of you may know.
This is what I learned: If the eyes are the window to the soul, the skin is a window to the digestive system.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the foods I was eating combined with chronic stress, from medical school and a bad breakup, had compromised the lining of my digestive tract. That sensitive lining is only one cell layer thick and behind it lies 70% or more of the immune system. By breaking down that sensitive barrier through anxiety and bad foods, not to mention too many Advil for my tension headaches, I exposed my gut’s immune system to foods I was eating and, my immune system reacted.
Unbeknownst to me I had developed food allergies, low grade, chronic ones, the kind that result in chronic inflammation instead of hives and itching. Those food allergies kicked off my acne, and not all the medications or creams in the world were going to stop those zits from coming week after week, if I kept eating those foods.
Later I learned about functional medicine and changed my diet. After cutting out gluten my skin cleared up by 80% but something was still off. Then I cut out dairy, and started taking probiotics and digestive enzymes. I also started meditating regularly in order to handle stress in a more productive, less toxic way. My skin has been 99% better ever since.
I also cleaned up my skincare and started using all green products. I even started using probiotics on my face once per week!
Essentially instead of destroying the natural ecosystem of my face, and my gut, I restored both and now have radiant clear skin.
It’s never perfect. I still have to work at it. All these years later I have a daily routine that keeps my skin and my gut healthy.
Here’s how I do it:
8 am: Lemon water first. Coffee second.
Water keeps things flowing in the digestive tract. During sleep, we fast and dehydrate. Giving yourself a good dose of H2O first thing is an essential easy move, and one that too many people skip. The lemon juice aids absorption of the water, and the limonene (in the lemon peel, which I crush in along with the juice) gives the liver an extra detox boost.
Then coffee. I’m shameless about my love of, and addiction to, my morning almond milk macchiato. I take a splash of unsweetened almond milk instead of regular milk because even now dairy is still a trigger for my acne.
10 am: Breakfast
I have a protein smoothie every morning on weekdays, which means our Parsley vegan protein shake. It has 26 grams of protein, about 10 grams more than any other vegan shake I’ve found. I avoid whey protein because I’m sensitive to casein and whey, the proteins in dairy, so whey protein would give me acne too! The best part about the shake is that protein revs up my metabolism and stabilizes my blood sugar so I’m not hungry all morning, nothing like the stress of being hangry to kick off a snacking binge or a second dehydrating coffee! And the multi-vitamin that’s included in the shake gives me an energy boost.
I mix protein powder which is packed with phytonutrients, essential fatty acids, and turmeric, which reduces inflammation in the gut and helps balance estrogen levels, with unsweetened coconut milk, frozen berries for their anti-oxidants and a little almond butter or ½ an avocado. It’s essential to remember that all of our cell membranes are made of fats, specifically omega 3 fats, as is 70% of our brain. Healthy fats are also key to feeding your skin and your digestive tract.
Last but not least, I also add 5 drops of Vitamin D3/K2, or 2500 units, to my shake to support my immune system and my bones.
I follow a plant-based-paleo eating philosophy which is gluten-free, dairy-free, and focused on getting greens, protein, and healthy fats onto every plate. Surprisingly I don’t feel in any way restricted in my diet. I know I am feeding myself what my body needs and there are so many options these days! The hardest part is being cool being the weirdo but these days I’m used to ignoring what everyone else is eating because I know what’s right for me.
A typical lunch includes roasted vegetables, artichoke (an awesome prebiotic food that feeds the good bacteria), grilled wild Alaskan salmon, pumpkin seeds and avocado in a big bowl of fiber-heavy greens like kale, spinach, and swiss chard. For dressing I always go for a simple blend of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. Sometimes I add fresh crushed garlic for it’s antimicrobial, immune boosting benefits.
I keep healthy snacks at work because I like to eat light if I’m sitting most of the day but I can’t focus if I’m hungry. Keeping your blood sugar steady and balanced is also important for keeping insulin levels stable. Higher levels of insulin can cause testosterone spikes which can trigger an acne flare. High insulin is also inflammatory. For me this means I stick to protein/fat dense snacks like raw almonds, walnuts, nut butters, and I even keep avocados in my desk drawer. I’ll indulge in a little dark chocolate (85% cacao) too for a sweet to round it off.
I eat out a lot because of my schedule and generally go for the protein and produce on a menu, like grilled or roasted fish or lean meat along with veggies and salads. If I don’t see something simple on the menu, I ask. It’s usually no problem to prepare a grilled or steamed fish. Cooking up delicious farmer’s market veggies at home is still my idea of the best meal ever though.
Before Bed: Meditate, Magnesium and Microbiome
I take two Magnesium Glycinate tablets at night to have a deeper more relaxing sleep, and two Prescript Assist probiotics to support my microbiome. I usually do a short meditation before bed – maybe 5 or 10 minutes of a simple breathing practice. As I learned too well back in medical school, psychological stress is closely linked to the skin’s appearance and overall inflammation in the body. Meditation is one of the most powerful ways to lower stress, cortisol and inflammation.
Your skin is a living, evolving regenerative organ and beauty is an inside job. Things shift when you start paying attention to which building blocks you’re giving yourself every day. From food to nutrients to bacteria to stress relief.