Acne is the most common skin condition in the United States. And really, that shouldn’t come as any surprise, as almost everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives, usually during puberty and adolescence.
Causes of Acne
Acne is caused when hair follicles are plugged or clogged with oil and dead skin cells, resulting in a small nodule or pimple. Acne typically occurs in places with greater concentrations of oil glands, which include areas like the face, the back, and the upper chest. Severe acne can cause itching and scarring, but most acne clears up as you age, and the levels of oil secretions and androgenic effects in your body decrease.
When you’re an adolescent, your body produces androgens as part of the growth process, in order to aid in the growth of muscle, bone, and other tissues. This also affects sebaceous glands in the body that secret oils which can cause acne. Sebaceous glands are located across most areas of the body, although as stated above they do concentrate in certain areas like the face and upper torso.
Of course, acne has many causes, such as diet, genetics, changes in natural hormones and the use of steroids. Steroids cause acne for much the same reason that adolescence does, i.e. the presence of androgens in the body. To a much smaller degree, whey protein increases anabolic hormone production in the body as well. This, then, has the effect of stimulating lipid production in the sebaceous glands, which in turn causes acne.
Nutrition and Acne
Nutrition has been linked to acne for a long time, and there are numerous studies that show the linkage between diet and acne. Loren Cordain, the developer of the Paleo Diet, based much of his diet on the observation that the western diet produces a number of negative side effects, including acne, and observed that western dependence on dairy has led to effects like the highest rate of incidents of acne.
In a study conducted by Dr. Cordain in 2002, natives of Papua New Guinea and Ache Indians in Paraguay were observed, and were found not to have any acne evident, a stark contrast to westerners, who have very high rates of acne. In fact, as Dr. Cordain wrote, “In westernized societies, acne vulgaris is a nearly universal skin disease afflicting 79% to 95% of the adolescent population. In men and women older than 25 years, 40% to 54% have some degree of facial acne, and clinical facial acne persists into middle age in 12% of women and 3% of men”. The speculation as to the cause of this acne is that its cause is due in large part to processed foods and refined carbohydrates.
Based on data like this, Dr. Cordain and others have postulated that the low glycemic load created by the diets of those native people was a primary cause for their lack of acne. In essence, this theory states that in a low glycemic-load diet, a state of elevated insulin is prevented, and the level of androgens in the blood is reduced. Conversely, high glycemic load diets lead to an increase of plasma-like concentrations of insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1. This, in turn, ultimately leads to the follicular obstruction that produces acne.
Further studies appear to back this assertion, such as a study conducted in 2012 by American Dermatologist Nanette Silverberg, who looked at a set of teenage boys aged 14 to 18, who were already in the habit of using whey protein, mostly to gain weight or increase muscle mass. Silverberg started a treatment of oral antibiotics, topical retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide, all of which are common treatments for acne. Interestingly, none were observed to have a measurable effect on the boy’s condition. However, after the boys stopped the use of whey protein altogether, their acne showed a measurable improvement within two weeks.
As result of her findings, Dr. Silverberg stated “Whey protein may be comedogenic in the susceptible host. Usage of whey protein supplements should be screened for when taking history from teenage males. A trial of avoidance or withdrawal from these products should be recommended, particularly in individuals whose acne is not clearing well on standard therapy.”
Likewise, a 2012 study conducted by a well-known dermatologist named Thierry Simonart observed an increase in acne after prolonged use of whey protein, nothing that the observations coincided with “biochemical and epidemiological data supporting the effects of milk and dairy products as enhancers of insulin/insulin-like growth factor 1 signaling and acne aggravation”. Insulin-like growth factor 1 is the ‘anabolic’ hormone mention earlier, causing the increased activity of the sebaceous glands.
Further, a couple of studies have shown indications of a relation between the use of milk (which is a prime source of whey protein) and acne. In 2005, the Nurses’ Health Study II evaluated data from over 47,000 women, and found a positive correlation between the use of milk and increased instances of acne. Later, those women’s teenage sons were studied in the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS), which also detected a correlation between the intake of skim milk and acne.
Although conclusive proof of the association between whey protein and acne has yet to be proven, it seems likely that there is some level of connection between the two. However, given the rather large benefits to be gained from the use of whey protein, the idea of simply abandoning is seems extreme.
This then, leads to the treatment of the acne as a solution. The treatment for acne varies, depending somewhat on the type of acne, but mostly on the severity of acne experienced. Common treatments include the use of benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics, alpha hydroxyl acid, hormonal treatments, and keratolytic soaps, among others. But in most cases, it’s readily treatable, and manageable.
Likewise, the amount of acne produced varies greatly. The user of why protein may experience some acne, or they may experience none at all. Moreover, acne is caused by a wide range of causes, including other dietary factors, so a change in diet may cause acne to clear up as well.
In the end, the potential for acne shouldn’t cause you to hesitate in using whey protein, especially if you’re engaging in weight training. And if you do end up experiencing some level of acne, try treating it and looking at other options before simply stopping your use of whey protein, because the benefits to be gained from it usually outweigh the negatives.
- An Bras Dermatol. 2013 Nov-Dec;88(6):907-12. doi: 10.1590/abd1806-4841.20132024.