What comes to mind when you think of superfoods that fight acne?
If you’re like most of us, nutrient-rich greens and vitamin-packed fresh fruits probably come to mind. Or maybe some antioxidant-loaded smoothies or colorful salads.
While it’s true that vegetables and fruit (in moderate amounts, fruit is high in sugar, which causes acne) are packed with a substantial amount of nutrients, including fiber, water-soluble vitamins, and trace minerals, the real acne-fighting superfood is something you’d never expect – liver.
Before we dive into why liver is the ultimate acne-fighting superfood, we need to take a look at what causes acne in the first place.
If you already have a solid foundation of how diet and nutrition are linked to acne, feel free to skip ahead:
Table of contents
What actually causes acne (hint: it’s not dirt, sweat, or poor hygiene)?
At its core, acne is largely a nutritional and dietary disease. While factors like stress and sleep have a huge amount to do with acne, we’re finding more and more evidence every year that diet is the single largest contributor to acne.
I’m not going to go in-depth into all the root causes of acne in this article (if you’re interested I have a whole series on the root causes of acne here), but I will give you a basic overview of how acne forms in the first place:
- A pore becomes blocked – this can happen because too many skin cells are being produced, they’re failing to shed properly, or excess oil production
- The blocked pore becomes infected – acne bacteria swarm the clogged pore and a bacterial infection occurs
- Inflammation – without access to outside air, the infected and blocked pore becomes inflamed, creating a red, angry pimple out of a relatively harmless infection
All of these things happen for one reason or another:
- An unbalanced gut microbiome from eating grains or dairy can lead to an overactive immune system. This turns a simple acne infection into a bright, red, inflamed pimple
- Eating too many carbs or too much dairy can trigger hormonal responses. These hormones tell the body to produce way too many skin cells – this ends up clogging and blocking pores
- Vegetable oils found in artificial foods and restaurants can lead to chronic inflammation. Inflammation takes a routine bacterial infection and turns it into a protruding pimple
At the end of the day, there are hundreds, if not thousands of factors that influence your skin’s health. There is no single factor that controls all of it.
Because of this, the strategy that I used to achieve clear skin through my diet was pretty simple – focus on the heaviest-hitting nutritional factors first, and worry about the rest later.
Looking at acne through this lens, it becomes crystal clear that there is are a handful of vitamins that stand ahead of the pack when it comes to healing and preventing acne. First on the list? Vitamin A.
Why vitamin A is crucial for clear skin
At least two studies have found that vitamin A, especially in larger doses, is extremely beneficial for your skin:
- Large doses of oral vitamin A in retinol form (found in liver) was “highly [effective]” in treating moderate to severe acne (source)
- When vitamin A levels were measured for both people with acne and people without, acne patients had significantly lower retinol (vitamin A) and retinol-binding protein levels in the skin (source)
The reasons for this are pretty simple. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that can help in every single aspect of the acne-prevention process:
- Reduces the size of sebaceous gland (the gland that produces oil that clogs pores) [source]
- Improves wound healing (can help heal acne scars faster)
- Acts as an antioxidant that protects the skin against free radicals
- Helps regulate the skin shedding process and ensures dead skin cells don€™t clog pores (source)
- Reduces inflammation
The importance of vitamin A can’t be overstated. I’ve seen dozens of cases of severe adult and teen acne that were simply a lack of bioavailable vitamin A.
There’s a reason so many prescription drugs for acne are based around vitamin A, including Accutane/isotretinoin and Retin-A/tretinoin. The problem is that the side-effects that come with these drugs are often not worth the risk, especially when dietary, safe, food-based vitamin A that’s been consumed for tens of thousands of years is available.
If we’re taking an approach to maximize our chances of clearing acne, upping your vitamin A intake is definitely the place to start.
The catch? Not all vitamin A is created equal, and unless you’re eating or supplementing with liver, you’re probably deficient in vitamin A.
Why you’re probably not getting enough vitamin A
At this point, you’re probably thinking – “I’ll just eat more vegetables that are high in vitamin A, no big deal, right?”
Unfortunately, if you load up on vegetables, you still might be deficient in vitamin A because you’re not getting the right type of vitamin A.
There are two main types of vitamin A:
- Carotenoids/pre-vitamin A – found in plants, not usable, must be converted into usable vitamin A before it can be utilized
- Pro-vitamin A – found in meat (liver), ready for the body to use right away
Consuming plenty of carotenoids wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that humans are extremely bad at converting this pre-vitamin A into usable vitamin A. Some studies estimate that as little as 3% of vitamin A from plants actually ends up being converted into usable vitamin A.
It makes sense that upwards of 50% of all Americans are deficient in vitamin A and that people with acne tend to have much lower retinol levels than people without acne.
What does this mean for you and your skin?
It means that even if you’re eating tons of vegetables, you still might be deficient in vitamin A.
You can certainly increase the percentage of vitamin A you absorb by consuming vegetables with healthy fats, but still, your best bet is to get retinol vitamin A.
And when it comes to animal foods that are high in retinol vitamin A, there’s one that tops the charts – liver.
The best type of liver for acne
In the days of our paleolithic ancestors, eating organ meats, including the liver, pancreas, and heart, was extremely common. You would eat almost the entire animal, not just the choice cuts.
Nowadays, how often do you indulge in liver?
If you’re like most of us, not very often.
Beef and cod liver are the two best animal sources of vitamin A out there. Each has their own unique benefits when it comes to your health.
Beef liver is:
- Extremely high in vitamin A retinol, with 1408mcg (100%+ DV) in a single ounce
- Very high in copper, which is necessary for zinc absorption (read more about why zinc is amazing for your skin here)
- Very high in selenium, which helps antioxidants protect the skin from infection
Cod liver is:
- Extremely high in vitamin A retinol, with 1350mcg (100%+ DV) in a single teaspoon
- Loaded with dietary vitamin D, another crucial vitamin for clear skin that controls thousands of bodily functions, including digestion, stress, and your skin
- Contains over 1,000mg of omega-3 fatty acids per tablespoon, which fights inflammatory acne
There are only a few negatives to eating cod or beef liver.
Beef liver is high in several B vitamins, so if you are sensitive to vitamin B12 or B5, you may want to opt for cod liver instead.
On the flip side, some cod liver oil can be low quality, and the fatty acids in them can be rancid, triggering inflammation and acne. It’s essential to get the best cod liver you can. I recommend a teaspoon of Carlson Cod Liver Oil per day. It’s sourced from wild-caught fish and loaded with vitamin A and 1,000+ mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
Beef liver is a little bit trickier because the taste can be so tough to handle – and I’m saying that as someone who eats plain sardines for days (yuck!).
On top of the taste, it’s tricky to find grass-fed beef liver. The liver stores a lot of fat and dietary toxins in it, so if you go for grain-fed, low-quality liver, you’ll be consuming tons of inflammatory fatty acids and toxins that can cause acne. High-quality beef liver is key. Unfortunately, unless you live in a major city or have access to a local grass-fed farm, it’s next to impossible to find good liver in the United States.
For these reasons, I don’t actually buy liver from a butcher – I opt to get my liver in through desiccated, grass-fed beef liver supplements.
Instead of choking down raw or cooked liver, I take a handful of pills in the morning with absolutely no taste what-so-ever – best of all, these aren’t really a supplement, it’s a food. All they contain is dried liver from grass-fed and grass-finished cows raised on New Zealand farms.
I’d recommend you take 6 pills or the equivalent of 1oz of beef liver per day. You don’t have to take them all at once, in fact, our ancestors certainly weren’t eating a steady amount of liver per day, but rather eating large amounts at once and then none for a prolonged period of time.
Putting it all together
If there’s one place to start in treating acne, it’s getting more organ meats into your diet.
Liver has been consumed for thousands of years, but today it’s nearly impossible to find high-quality liver. What this means is that we’re missing out on the single best source of bioavailable vitamin A.
Although plants have plenty of vitamin A, the amount that actually gets converted into usable vitamin A is as little as 3%.
The vitamin A found in liver (retinol) affects every single step of the acne-formation process:
- Makes skin less oily
- Regulates skin shedding
- Aids antioxidants in protecting skin
- Increases rate of wound healing in skin
Vitamin A effects your skin so much that it’d be crazy not to make sure you’re getting enough of it.
Beef and cod liver are among the best sources of the ready-to-use vitamin A form known as retinol. Supplementing at least once a week with liver can be a huge step in the right direction for clear skin.
While the taste might be a little tough to handle at first, I can promise you one thing – your skin will thank you for it later down the line 🙂