Acne is a common (and bothersome) polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) symptom. Up to 30 percent of women with PCOS have acne. If you have PCOS and are wondering what the heck you can do to stop pimples popping into your 20s and 30s – you are in the right place!
I’m a women’s health Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and in this article, I discuss how PCOS causes acne and how a PCOS acne diet can alleviate your symptoms.
Does PCOS Cause Acne?
PCOS is a common cause of cystic acne in women of reproductive age. Hormonal imbalances in PCOS, such as elevated levels of androgens, lead to increased oil production and clogged pores, resulting in breakouts.
Additionally, insulin resistance and inflammation, which are common features of PCOS, can also exacerbate acne.
It is important to manage PCOS effectively and address underlying hormonal and metabolic imbalances to help reduce acne symptoms.
The root cause of PCOS acne is often high androgen levels.
Testosterone and other androgens stimulate the sebaceous glands under the skin to produce oil. Our pores then get clogged with oil. Then, bacteria grow within these pores.
Our body tries to rid itself of these bacteria by activating the immune system and triggering an inflammatory response. This causes swelling, redness, and pimple formation. If you’ve ever been prescribed antibiotics for acne, this is why.
A key to PCOS treatment is reducing androgen levels. Without this, it will be very difficult to treat your acne for good.
Up to three-quarters of women with PCOS have insulin resistance. This is problematic in the development of PCOS acne.
High insulin levels have been shown to worsen acne. A 2016 study found higher insulin and blood sugar levels in women with acne compared to women without acne, independent of high androgen levels.
Conventional insulin resistance treatments in PCOS (i.e. metformin and diet strategies), can lower insulin and testosterone levels and improve acne.
Like many chronic diseases, PCOS is a disease of inflammation. Research suggests that there is a link between inflammation, gut health imbalance, and acne in PCOS.
Women with PCOS are more likely to have altered gut microbiota composition, with a higher prevalence of bugs associated with inflammation and metabolic dysfunction.
Poor gut health can lead to low-grade chronic inflammation. In turn, this inflammation can affect skin health, leading to the development of acne.
In my practice as a PCOS dietitian, a major focus of mine is achieving good gut health in all my patients.
PCOS Diet Plan for Acne
I’ve explained the three major root causes of PCOS acne: high androgen levels, insulin resistance, and inflammation.
Nutrition plays a major role in PCOS skin care. Here is a PCOS diet plan for acne to help you tackle your root cause(s):
Limit added sugar
Reducing added sugar in the diet can benefit PCOS-related acne for several reasons.
First, it can help stabilize blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity, which can indirectly impact hormonal imbalances that contribute to cystic acne.
Next, high sugar consumption has been linked to increased androgen production. By reducing added sugar, you may help lower androgen levels, leading to a reduction in acne breakouts.
Additionally, by cutting back on added sugar, you can decrease overall inflammation levels and create a better environment for gut microbiota, which may positively impact your skin health.
Try removing dairy
Dairy products contain hormones such as progesterone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which can result in high levels of insulin. Dairy products may also contribute to inflammation and gut health disturbances in some.
Personally, I’ve seen improvements in PCOS acne in many of my patients when they limit dairy in their diet.
It's important to note that not all women with PCOS will experience improvements in pimple formation by reducing dairy intake. It's always best to listen to your body and consult with a Registered Dietitian for personalized acne treatment.
Heal your gut
You can get probiotics in one of two ways: through a good quality supplement or by eating fermented food. Foods rich in probiotics include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and naturally fermented pickles. Others include yogurt with live cultures and kefir, but these are dairy-based.
I would encourage you to introduce a source of probiotics daily in your PCOS acne diet plan.
PCOS and Acne Takeaways
As a PCOS dietitian, here are my key takeaways for acne treatment:
- Reduce added sugar
- Try a reduction in dairy
- Eat fruits and veggies at every meal for their anti-inflammatory goodness
- Have a daily source of probiotics
Trying to manage your PCOS can certainly be difficult. Reach out to a polycystic ovary syndrome Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for a personalized PCOS acne diet plan.