“Are you lactose intolerant?” Is usually the first question people ask when they find out that I don’t eat dairy. My quick answer is: “No, it doesn’t bother my stomach at all.” I go on to explain that I’ve had “bad” skin my whole life, and I found that when I don’t eat dairy, I don’t break out! That’s the short version. Here’s a more detailed account of it all:
I have to credit this revelation to a lovely roommate I had while living in Brooklyn in 2010. She had been forced to listen to me complain about my persistent acne and “waking up with new zits again!” for months. Finally, one day, she asked me if I’d ever tried giving up dairy to see if it helped my skin. Horrified at the idea, I said “NO, ARE YOU A CRAZY PERSON?!” or something like that. I did not think I could give up dairy; it would be too big a loss! I usually ate cheese with my eggs every morning, yogurt every afternoon, and I loved to bake cupcakes, which included a serious affinity for buttercream icing.
I resisted the dairy-free idea for about a year, though it always stuck in the back of my mind. Then, for some reason, my breakouts began to worsen, and began to bother me enough that I decided to try losing dairy for a week. A real skeptic at heart, deep down I didn’t think it would actually make a difference. I think I was even hoping it wouldn’t work so I could continue on with my dairy-loving ways. However, I was shocked to find that that whole week, I didn’t get any new blemishes…And the ones I had were healing up quickly. I thought maybe I was crazy. I thought it was a coincidence – maybe I was just having a good skin week. But to my surprise, as soon as I re-introduced dairy into my diet, I woke up with more blemishes. I had to admit that there was a connection. So, I quickly went back to avoiding cheese and milk products. As an added bonus, I began to notice that when I didn’t eat dairy, I had much more energy throughout the day. I remember after a few weeks of consistently staying away from dairy, I caved at the grocery store and bought some yogurt. I ate it one afternoon, and that night, I felt SO TIRED, I thought there was something wrong with me. I honestly felt drugged. Wracking my brain to try to figure out what I had done that day that could have made me feel so lethargic, I couldn’t come up with an answer and thought I must have been coming down with a cold…But, then I realized – “oh my gosh, I ate yogurt today.” It was a revelation. That’s when I was sold on the fact that dairy definitely affected my skin and even more, my energy level. So, I committed enough that I stopped buying cheese and yogurt at the grocery store, but would indulge if there was some delicious cream-filled dessert at a restaurant. I loved dairy so much (and I’m such a stubborn person,) that it took me a solid 18 months to fully remove it from my diet. By 2013, I was a nearly 100% dairy-free consumer with mostly breakout-free skin. Now, I still make exceptions for a really amazing dessert or a bite of an awesome looking mac and cheese, but I’m careful and deliberate about it. My skin is under control for the first time in my adult life! I no longer have to deal with surprise breakouts or painful blemishes, and I don’t think I ever thought I’d be able to have skin like this. I had problem skin for so many years, and tried so many remedies and treatments and prescriptions, including Accutane, I had resigned to the fact that I would always have bad skin. It’s an amazing feeling to know that I have control over it by simply leaving dairy out of my diet.
Over the past few years, there has been more and more information coming out in the mainstream linking dairy to acne in specific and scientific ways, which is great. At first, this connection was considered a theory only, and no dermatologist I ever saw recommended I change my diet in any way – they only wrote me prescriptions or tried to sell me a treatment or specialized face makeup. I still am not convinced on any one reason dairy causes me to break out, but here are three things we do know about the connection between dairy and acne:
#1: It’s full of hormones
Milk comes from pregnant cows, so it makes sense that it is full of hormones. Most of these are anabolic, or growth hormones, which also makes sense – seeing as cow’s milk is made to grow baby cows. When we ingest these as humans, it can cause imbalances and that can mess with our pores and oil glands, which in turn, can cause acne. Also of note is the fact that the hormones Insulin-like Growth Factors 1 & 2 (IGF1 & 2) are present in cow’s milk. These are hormones that have been shown to increase insulin levels, which has been linked to acne and even worse, of course, diabetes.
#2: It is pro-inflammatory
Milk, and the dairy products made from it, are some of the most inflammatory foods you can eat. This inflammatory property can cause things from joint pain to muscle aches, and of course – acne. It is thought that the milk protein, casein, is what causes the inflammatory reaction in many people, but I’m not sure that’s 100% the case for me. I have found that I can consume products that contain casein, and not have any adverse reaction. However, the products I’m talking about here do not contain actual milk in their ingredient list, just casein (derived from milk), so this may go to show that not all proteins or ingredients are created equal. Maybe it’s only casein when still in milk that affects me. I think this really shows that everyone is different, and reacts differently to foods, environments, etc. And not every chemical, protein, ingredient, etc. is created the same, or acts the same in every environment. But I could be wrong. If you know more about this, I’d love to hear!
#3: It contains natural sugars
Milk naturally contains about 12 grams of sugar per cup. But, this actually isn’t a terrible thing, as it is natural sugar. It shouldn’t be a reason for you to look for “sugar free” dairy products if you are going to consume dairy, BUT this is a point to keep in mind, especially if you are consuming yogurts or ice creams that have added sugar in addition to the natural sugar. We’ve long known that sugar is not a great thing to eat in large quantities, but it was news to me when I found out that sugar can be an aggravator of acne. This is for lots of reasons, but mostly because it can affect your insulin levels, which in turn can cause acne.
I would recommend to anyone who eats dairy to try giving it up for just a week, especially if you struggle with acne, and see how you feel. Like me, you might not know how it’s affecting you until you remove it! And in the end, you may not decide to give it up completely, but I hope I’ve helped you simply be able to make more informed choices next time you visit the grocery store. There are new dairy-alternative products being introduced all the time, so it’s not as hard to go dairy-free as you might think!
If you’ve given up dairy, tried it, or are even thinking about it – tell me in the comments!