When I was suffering with acne in college, I noticed a huge lack of useful resources for treating the cause of blemishes.  I figured if I could find the causes, then I would know the best solutions.  In my own research – and, granted, this was back in the late 90s – the causes of acne were glossed over and the only “solutions” offered were harsh cleansers and creams and toxic medications or birth control pills.  The cleansers made my skin worse, and I was not interested in the side effects of the medication.  Almost never were the issues of diet or stress discussed as causes.  

Even now, the information on causes of acne – hormone imbalances mainly – is really confusing.  I was scratching my head trying to figure out how to make sense of it all.     

Acne exists due to clogged pores.  The pores are clogged due to over-production of oil from your sebaceous glands.  The causes of oil over-production are varied and could include: 

  • high testosterone levels 
  • adrenal gland imbalance (possibly caused by stress)
  • toxic liver
  • insulin resistance (could be genetic or related to a poor, carbohydrate-filled diet)
  • low thyroid function
  • low SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin)
  • pituitary disfunction (usually the least common cause)
  • low levels of magnesium

Of course, most times there are more than one cause.  For example, a poor diet could lead to a toxic liver and stress.  Or stress could lead to low thyroid and adrenal function, etc.  

My saving grace – and why I love Chinese medicine – is the simplicity of the 5 elements used in traditional Oriental medicine theory.  Time and time again, I can explain almost every scientific and complicated aspect of allopathic (Western) medicine into a clean and ridiculously simple Chinese medicine concept.  

Western medicine contains so many useful details about different hormones, macro- and micro-molecules, nutrients, cell types, chemical processes, and over 7500 human body parts.   In Chinese medicine, we have 5 main organs; we have yin and yang; and we have 6 pathogenic factors.    

For treatment of acne, according to Chinese theory, we only need to worry about 3 areas:  your Spleen (digestive function), your Liver (your detoxifier), and your Kidney (your hormones).  

1.  If your acne is due to poor diet, the Spleen will be weak.  The best way to check this is to do a candida test and then follow the candida diet plan for at least 3 months.  

A weakened Spleen also makes your Liver and Kidney more vulnerable to dis-ease.  

2.  If your acne is due to hormone imbalance, your Kidney will be weak.  You may notice symptoms of fatigue or trouble sleeping.  You may have irregular periods, unusually heavy or light periods, backache, fertility issues, hair loss, night sweats or hot flashes, PCOS, or unwanted hair growth (hirsutism).  There are several tests for hormone imbalances that you may want to try:

  • Blood testing 
  • Saliva testing
  • Adrenal gland test:  take your blood pressure from a seated position.  Stand up and check it again.  It should rise (the top number only) by about 5 – 10 points.  If not, your adrenal glands may be comprimised.  You probably feel tired in the afternoon and more awake at night.  
  • Thyroid test:  at home, leave a thermometer next to your bed.  In the morning, before you stand up, take your temperature.  If it is below 97.4 degrees, you may have low thyroid function.  If your temperature is above 98.6 degrees, that is a sign of hyperthyroid.  

Once you have determined that there is a hormone imbalance, the treatment may vary.  Again, the causes of hormone imbalance may be due to other factors such as a toxic Liver, stress, or improper diet.  Once those areas have been addressed, usually you have to take something to get your hormones back in order.  I usually recommend natural supplements, vitamins, or Chinese herbs.  Your physician may recommend a prescription of some sort.  

3.  If your acne is due to stress or toxicity, your Liver will be imbalanced.  Liver imbalances rarely show up in blood work until they are really bad.  However, there are some symptoms that may indicate you have a Liver problem:  emotional (depression, anxiety, or irritability); dizziness; and headaches (especially at your temples or eyes).  

When I tell people they have a Liver imbalance usually the first reaction is “but I don’t drink!” or “should I do a cleanse?”  Liver imbalances are only due to a drinking problem maybe 10% of the time.  Often, we crave alcohol as a side-effect of the Liver problem, and not the other way around!  Not all Liver imbalances respond favorably to cleansing.  My herb teacher, Jimmy Chang, told a patient of his with cirrhosis of the Liver “Don’t cleanse; eat EVERYTHING!”  The man’s physician had told him to cleanse, which had made him very ill.  After several rounds of Chinese herbs and following the prescription to “eat everything,” he was doing much better.  

A qualified herbalist can help you determine how to best treat your Liver condition.

Other things you can do to ensure a healthy Liver:  

  • make sure you get enough protein and B-vitamins and iron in your diet
  • ensure you absorb the vitamins in your diet by not eating too much carbohydrates and gluten
  • stress less
  • exercise
  • get enough sleep
  • drink plenty of water
  • reduce the amount of toxins in your environment
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