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Can Dairy Trigger Acne? The Hormone Story

If you're anything like me, the saying "you are what you eat," has never been particularly satisfying. For years, acne sufferers have been told one of two extremes: that it's the food they eat that directly causes their acne, or that diet has no effect on their acne at all. Criticism has emerged regarding the design of past diet studies, whichever hypothesis they followed, suggesting that there are several gaps in up-to-date scientific studies on the acne-diet link. Modern research seems to be sitting on the fence between these two factions, saying that there is no direct link between diet and acne, but allowing that certain factors within foods can have an influential role on the occurrence and severity of acne breakouts. For instance, a finger has long been pointed at specific components of dairy products as acne triggers. So why the blame on dairy, and where does current research stand on this link?

Cows are the most common source of milk extracted and used in the Western diet. Reports suggest that this process generally starts a month or two after the birth of a calf, and is continued on for several months after that point. This is accomplished by artificially inseminating the cow to keep it pregnant and thus producing milk. Since cow milk is coming from a pregnant animal, several hormones are known to pass into the milk and therefore to humans. Although the hormones naturally occur in milk, it is still highly questioned as to whether humans should be consuming milk after the age of five.

Studies report that cow milk contains estrogens, progesterone, and several androgen precursors. These hormones can influence acne in different ways. Estrogen is thought to have a positive effect on acne, reducing overall outbreaks and counteracting negative effects of other hormones. Progesterone sounds like it can be positive, negative, or neutral; it increases water retention in the skin, pinching off pores and causing blockages, but can help in masking the effects of androgen hormones on the skin. Androgen precursors seem to be the biggest problem, because they create the potential for androgen expression which is thought to lead to increased activity in the sebaceous glands. More activity means more sebum, and overproduction of sebum can block the pores and start a chain reaction that results in acne.

Estrogen, progesterone, and androgens are not foreign hormones; all are naturally found in the human body. The reason for concern, then, is that hormones brought into the body through dairy-containing food or drink could potentially upset the delicate balance of naturally occurring hormones in a person's body, tipping the scale towards a surplus of androgens and therefore consequent acne. These effects are thought to be more extreme in women, since many have a genetic over-sensitivity to androgen hormones in the first place. This means that additional androgens brought in through dairy could exacerbate that reaction, making acne-prone skin even more sensitive.

In 2005, Clement A. Adebamowo et al. published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology which had some interesting results. The authors studied 47,355 questionnaires completed by women answering questions about their high school diet and acne severity. The results established a positive relationship between acne and consumption of milk in teenage girls. Milk-based instant breakfast drinks, cream cheese, and cottage cheese were also found to cause acne. One important thing to note was that skim milk actually had a higher rate of severe acne associated with it than whole milk; this merely stresses that the resultant acne is not related to the particular fat content in milk.

Since the study was focused on establishing or negating the relationship between acne and milk, no reason for the link was proven. However, the authors did hypothesize that the hormones found in milk are in amounts large enough to effect girls in a biological manner. It would be interesting to see if the same is true for women, given height and weight changes in the years following high school.

More studies need to be done before this study can be taken as conclusive evidence. It is certainly a good start, though, and it does provide food for thought. Dairy does have many positive health benefits associated with it, not least the role it plays in strengthening our teeth and bones. So if you're thinking of reducing your dairy consumption to see the effect it has on acne control, talk to a doctor or dietician first to make sure that youíre getting enough calcium and nutrients from other sources.

About the Author: Author C. L. Jackson wishes the topic of acne was simply an academic interest ... but unfortunately thatís not the case! You'll find much more information on this topic at the author's website

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