Could skipping breakfast be the secret to clear skin?
Celebrities, business icons, and health experts have been hyping up fasting quite a bit lately. Many people are now using it for weight loss, disease prevention, and even increased productivity.
Its scientifically-proven health benefits are practically endless:
- Anti-aging effects
- Immune system support
- Lower oxidative stress
- Cancer prevention
That’s why it’s no surprise that implementing fasting can be beneficial for our skin too. But is it worth the risks, and more importantly, the hunger? Let’s jump right in…
What are the different types of fasting?
The basic idea of any type of fasting is simple – stop eating for a period of time and resume eating after the fast is over.
In the case of intermittent fasting, you eat all your food for the day during a short period of time and don’t eat (fast) the rest of the time.
This usually means skipping a meal or two and having larger meals later in the day. It could be as simple as skipping breakfast or as extreme as having only one meal a day.
In the case of prolonged fasting, it entails not eating (or in most cases, drinking caloric beverages) for periods ranging anywhere from 36 hours to 30 days (or more).
A fast-mimicking diet is a new form of fasting in which calories are restricted over a prolonged period of time (typically 5 days) but not eliminated. Instead, you can eat small amounts of foods that will not trigger the biological mechanisms that throw you out of a “fasted” state.
Prolonged fasting and the fast-mimicking diet are a little more intense than intermittent fasting, so we’ll turn our attention to intermittent fasting for now and then cover prolonged fasting and fast-mimicking diets after.
Intermittent Fasting is NOT a Diet
One key thing to understand is that intermittent fasting is not a diet – it isn’t about what you eat, it’s about when you eat. Intermittent fasting can be looked at as a pattern of eating, providing a framework for when you should and shouldn’t eat throughout the day.
Does this mean you could eat pizza and spaghetti while intermittent fasting? Technically, yes – but it doesn’t mean you should.
Intermittent fasting is a powerful tool that can amplify the results of your existing diet and help your body recover from dieting mistakes faster. It’s not a license to eat acne-causing food and walk away untouched, but it can be an extremely effective asset for clear skin.
The Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
There’s a reason intermittent fasting has become so popular lately – it works.
The health benefits of intermittent fasting are huge:
- Decreased risk for certain cancers (R)
- Improved learning and memory performance (R)
- Promotes cardiovascular health (R)
- Reduced blood sugar and increased insulin sensitivity (R)
- Increased stress tolerance (R)
- Better sleep (R)
- Reduced inflammation (R)
- Increased life-span & anti-aging (R)
With that being said, there’s still a lot of research to be done on intermittent fasting. It’s only recently become a major topic of discussion in the scientific community, and several of the findings above are from animal studies.
I can tell you first-hand that intermittent fasting has significantly improved the quality of my own life and skin. Here are some of the benefits I experienced:
- Fewer cravings for acne-causing foods like pizza or french fries
- I spend less time thinking and planning my meals – I just eat until I’m full during my feeding window
- Increased energy, mood, and mental performance
- I fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer
- Less acne from cheat meals/foods
There’s a simple reason for this: intermittent fasting directly influences almost all the root causes of acne.
How Intermittent Fasting Eliminates Acne
A healthier body means healthier skin – so it’s no surprise that intermittent fasting is one of the absolute best things you can do for your skin.
Because intermittent fasting addresses several of the root causes behind acne, not only will you have more energy, clarity, and focus, but your skin will show it.
1. Intermittent Fasting Reduces Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance is one of the single largest drivers behind acne. It’s estimated that upwards of 100 million Americans have some form of insulin resistance (R). Let’s be honest, in a culture where carbs are around every corner, this isn’t that surprising. Is it simply a coincidence that rates of acne are at all-time highs too? I don’t think so…
For an in-depth look at how carbs, insulin, and acne are related, check out my in-depth article.
For now though, just know this – insulin is bad for acne. It triggers the release of hormones that block pores, force the skin to produce too much oil, and worsens inflammation. When you consistently eat too many carbs and don’t give your body a chance to burn them off, you develop something called insulin resistance, which is where your body needs more and more insulin to do the same job. More insulin means more acne.
Intermittent fasting is one of the best things you can do to keep your insulin levels down, deplete your glycogen stores, and decrease insulin resistance.
When you’re not eating for 16, 18, or 20 hours a day, you’re giving your body a chance to burn off the glucose it already has stored up. By doing this, you’re also giving your body a chance to decrease the levels of insulin in your blood.
It looks like the sweet spot for intermittent fasting is somewhere around 18 hours. That’s where your insulin levels dramatically drop and an amazing process called autophagy really gets going. More on that in a bit…
2. Intermittent Fasting Decreases Inflammation
Have you ever wondered why red, angry, inflamed pimples occur in the first place? Chronic inflammation is to blame, and it’s one of the core drivers behind acne
From time to time, pores on the skin become blocked. With no exposure to the air, bacteria floods the area and causes a minor infection. In response to this infection, your body sends out inflammatory chemicals to deal with it. Two problems occur here:
- The infection in the pore isn’t all that dangerous in the first place
- The body overacts to this minor infection due to chronic inflammation
The end result is a large and inflamed pimple that just won’t seem to go away.
The reason this occurs is that most modern diets are extremely high in pro-inflammatory foods, like vegetable oils and processed foods, and extremely low in anti-inflammatory foods, like wild-caught seafood (salmon, sardines, mackerel) and meat liver.
While balancing out your omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids should always be the first step in beating chronic inflammation, intermittent fasting can play a huge role.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to suppress pro-inflammatory proteins (R) and produce anti-inflammatory gut hormones (R). This double effect can significantly reduce redness and swelling associated with acne.
This is by far the first thing I noticed when I started intermittent fasting. A pimple that might drag on for days or weeks at a time could be shut down with a single day of intermittent fasting. You can literally watch throughout the day as a pissed-off, inflamed pimple slowly simmers down and heals itself.
3. Intermittent Fasting Promotes Better Sleep
“Beauty sleep” isn’t just a cliché – sleep is one of the most important factors outside of diet for clear skin. That’s why it’s no surprise that both sleep deprivation and rates of acne in America are at all-time highs.
- Sleep deprivation leads to higher levels of the “fight-or-flight” hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases insulin resistance, weakens your digestive system, and makes your skin more acne-prone (R)
- A bad night’s sleep has been shown to increase insulin resistance the next day, further contributing to acne (R)
- Poor sleep leads to poor immune health and increased inflammatory chemicals that can worsen existing pimples (R)
It’s simple – if you’re not sleeping enough, it’s going to be harder to fight acne.
Lucky for us, intermittent fasting is one of the best things you can do to promote healthy sleep.
While things like blue light exposure, exercise, and caffeine have a big effect on your body’s circadian rhythm (the body’s internal “clock”) – it turns out that what and when you eat are also major factors.
Numerous studies have shown that simply shortening the window of time you eat during the day can promote a healthier circadian rhythm:
- Intermittent fasting enhances the overall effectiveness of circadian rhythm activators (R)
- Decreasing eating time from 15 hours/day to 11 hours/day improved sleep, decreased body weight, and increased energy during the day (R).
- Changing when mice ate, not even what they ate, had a significantly positive effect on sleep (R)
Since I started intermittent fasting I’ve found myself falling asleep considerably faster and staying asleep longer. I wake up a lot more refreshed too, which always helps.
4. Intermittent Fasting Protects You From Free Radicals
You might have heard of free radicals before – pesky little molecules that can cause a lot of stress on the body. Without enough antioxidants to fight them, free radicals can go from cell to cell causing damage – most notably the oxidation of oil on the skin. When oil on the skin becomes oxidized, it can easily clog the pore and make it ripe for infection.
Free radicals can be caused by exposure to air pollution or sunlight, overuse of certain acne cleansers like benzoyl peroxide, and even sugar. They’re everywhere, and if you’re not eating a healthy diet and taking care of your body they can easily cause acne.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to increase oxidative stress resistance (R) and help fight against damage done by free radicals.
The best part? This increased stress resistance promotes anti-aging and longevity too.
5. Intermittent Fasting Leads to Lower Levels of IGF-1
Insulin-like Growth Factor, or IGF-1, is a growth hormone that triggers the production of new cells throughout the body. IGF-1 is great if you’re looking to bulk up and gain muscle mass, but it’s a disaster when it comes to acne.
Just like nearly every hormone in the human body, the key to proper levels of IGF-1 is balance – too much IGF-1 and you can increase your risk for certain cancers and develop acne. Not enough IGF-1 and you can stunt your growth and possibly lower your sex drive.
The problem with IGF-1 is that most of us consume a diet that triggers way too much IGF-1. With our massive consumption of carbohydrates and dairy products, we see more and more people struggling with IGF-1-related acne as a result.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to reduce levels of IGF-1 while increasing levels of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), a healthy growth hormone that protects muscles and assists with autophagy.
Potential Drawbacks of Fasting for Acne
While the pros of intermittent (and pretty much all other types of fasting) fasting widely outweigh the cons, that’s not to say that intermittent fasting is totally fool-proof.
The largest negative side-effect of intermittent fasting on acne is increased cortisol levels.
Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. It’s released whenever your brain thinks it’s in a stressful situation and needs to conserve resources. Sometimes it’s a real threat (a tiger is about to eat me!) or a perceived threat (I HATE this traffic!). When you fast for prolonged periods of time your body elevates its cortisol levels.
Makes sense, right? Your body is without food for an extended period of time, and this is sure to be perceived as a stressor, even if you’re doing it by choice (ie: intermittent fasting).
So does this means intermittent fasting is bad for acne? Well, not quite – just like pretty much every other hormone in your body, cortisol isn’t inherently bad – in fact cortisol can be good for weight loss and increased energy. Where cortisol becomes a problem is when it’s chronically elevated, meaning you’re constantly in “fight-or-flight” mode. Cortisol triggers the release of dozens of other hormones that directly cause acne. That’s why if you’re stressed out all the time, no matter how healthy your diet is, you may still experience acne.
Intermittent fasting likely isn’t going to raise your cortisol levels to this degree, and there are ways around it, like occasionally breaking out of your fasting pattern and eating all day.
That being said, if you’re stressed out, don’t intermittently fast. Work on decreasing stress first with things like meditation, yoga, or exercise before you jump into intermittent fasting.
Most importantly, listen to your body – are you stressed out when you fast, or do you feel good?
Intermittent Fasting and Your Thyroid
If you’ve read our Guide to Thyroid-Driven Acne, you probably know just how important thyroid health is for acne.
An underactive thyroid can lead to hormonal imbalances, inflammatory acne, and dry, flakey, pale skin. Without a healthy thyroid, you can’t have healthy skin.
So, what does this have to do with intermittent fasting? Well, a lot of folks believe that intermittent fasting decreases thyroid function, which leads to acne.
This is not true.
All the research we have suggests that chronic calorie restriction, or constant undereating, leads to an underactive thyroid, not intermittent fasting. Fasting temporarily decreases thyroid function, but after eating it goes back to normal. Basically, if your body doesn’t have enough energy from food, your thyroid won’t be able to do its job properly.
You may find yourself eating less and losing weight while intermittent fasting, so just don’t go overboard and your thyroid should be fine. If you find yourself feeling tired, cold, and weak, it might be time to back off on the fasting and focus on getting your thyroid back in check.
Intermittent Fasting 101
So, you’re ready to jump into the world of intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting doesn’t have to be complicated, and there’s a ton of different resources to help you get started. But before we do that, let me make two quick notes:
Intermittent Fasting Doesn’t Replace a Healthy Diet
Intermittent fasting doesn’t replace the role of a healthy diet in creating clear, beautiful skin. It’s not an excuse to eat junk food and load up on omega-6’s. It should be treated as a tool to improve health and build on the existing positive effects of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
If you’re looking for the easiest way to start eating for clear skin, check out the simple one-page GoodGlow Diet Blueprint.
Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Intermittent Fast
One important disclaimer: some people should not intermittent fast.
I’m not a doctor and I don’t pretend to be one.
Seriously, talk to a healthcare professional before taking on intermittent fasting. Make sure you’re healthy and capable of intermittent fasting before jumping into it.
Furthermore, take it slow. You don’t need to dive in headfirst. Listen to your body, experiment, and tweak. If intermittent fasting isn’t for you, that’s just fine – don’t force it.
There’s also some evidence that intermittent fasting might not be as healthy for women, and that it may worsen blood sugar control (which can cause acne). While there aren’t any human studies that confirm this, women should be careful and ease into intermittent fasting.
Lastly, if you suffer from chronic stress or anxiety, intermittent fasting probably isn’t for you. Intermittent fasting elevates cortisol levels, which can be problematic if you already have high cortisol levels from stress.
Got it? Great – now let’s jump into the easiest ways to intermittent fast.
Types of Intermittent Fasting
There’s a broad range of intermittent fasting methods out there. I’m going to cover just a few here, but feel free to experiment and research others:
The easiest and most popular method of intermittent fasting. You simply don’t eat for 16 hours a day, and then eat for 8. Here’s an example of what this might look like:
- 7:00am – Wake up, skip breakfast
- 11:00am – Eat lunch
- 1:30pm – Snack #1
- 4:00pm – Snack #2
- 7:00pm – Dinner
The exact hours you fast doesn’t technically matter. You could skip dinner if you wanted to or eat your first meal at 1pm.
16/8 is a really easy strategy to follow, and skipping breakfast can actually add a huge amount of simplicity into your day.
This is a little bit trickier and requires you to restrict yourself to 500-600 calories two days a week (with at least one day in-between the fasts). For example:
- Monday – Eat normally
- Tuesday – Eat normally
- Wednesday – Eat 500-600 calories
- Thursday – Eat normally
- Friday – Eat normally
- Saturday – Eat 500-600 calories
- Sunday – Eat normally
This method involves a simple 24-hour no-calorie fast once or twice a week. A 24-hour fast can be pretty tricky to pull off, so for many people this option isn’t viable, but if you can muscle it, the benefits can be worth it.
Many of the benefits that come from autophagy, the process where your body recycles old protein for energy, begins at 24 hours.
OMAD is exactly what it sounds like – you eat one meal a day. It might sound crazy, but many experts argue this is likely the most similar eating pattern to our ancestors.
OMAD can simplify your day, jump-start weight loss, and increase autophagy – a process where your cells recycle old, damaged proteins and replace them with new, healthy cells.
This is actually the form of intermittent fasting I used to get my acne under control while trying to gain weight and muscle.
Fat fasting (sometimes called “Bulletproof” intermittent fasting) involves a 16 to 20 hour modified fast, followed by a 4 to 8-hour eating window of clean, healthy foods. The reason I say “modified fast” is because in the morning, instead of consuming breakfast, you consume a zero-carb, zero-protein drink, like Bulletproof Coffee. Bulletproof Coffee is just coffee with grass-fed ghee butter and extra-virgin coconut oil in it. It tastes great, and because it’s purely fats, the insulin response is next to zero, and it shouldn’t affect autophagy much.
Bulletproof coffee allows me to extend my fasts upwards of 21 hours without feeling hunger. I still get close to the maximum positive effects on insulin resistance while still consuming enough calories to get through the day. If you’re struggling to get started with intermittent fasting, I’d highly recommend you try fat fasting.
Can intermittent fasting cause skin problems?
Fasting could increase cortisol secretion. In a meta-analysis of 13 studies, fasting showed a very strong effect in increasing serum cortisol levels. When it comes to hormone induced acne, cortisol can make acne significantly worse.
Cortisol is released as a stress response hormone. Excess cortisol released into the system can lead to an increase in overactive sebaceous gland secretion. It can also increase the production of specific signalling cells called cytokines that lead to inflammation of the skin.
Prolonged Fasting for Clear Skin
A lot of people wonder…
“If intermittent fasting is so great, then what about prolonged fasts? Are they even better?”
The answer to this question is complicated – while we have solid evidence that prolonged fasts are a great way to supercharge the benefits of intermittent fasting (and achieve many benefits, like autophagy, that aren’t possible in many shorter-duration fasts), it’s not quite that simple.
Prolonged fasts carry with them their own unique risks, and are generally more challenging to pull off.
With that being said, I think that they’re worth covering.
In the eBook included in the new GoodGlow Clear Skin Resource Kit, I take a look at several forms of prolonged fasting for clear skin and the research-based benefits to back them up.
Here’s a quick peek at two of them: water fasts and the fast-mimicking diet…
Prolonged fasting compounds on a lot of the benefits of intermittent fasting: it gives the digestive system a break, it helps curb insulin resistance, decrease inflammation, and improve gut microbiome health. In addition, prolonged fasting has two unique outcomes that typically don’t occur when intermittent fasting: deep healing of autoimmune disorders and autophagy.
Studies have shown that prolonged, multi-day fasts (and fasting-mimicking diets, which we’ll talk about shortly) have a profound and rapid effect on autoimmune conditions. Individuals have found relief from acne, eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis with prolonged fasting.
On top of that, prolonged fasting leads to something called autophagy, which is basically the process of your body recycling old, damaged cells. Because this is a cellular mechanism, it affects just about every organ and part of the body, giving you a full-body health boost that’ll carry over to your skin. On top of that, many people experience extremely rapid and pronounced healing of old wounds and scars after completing a prolonged fast – this could help with acne scars. I’ve personally seen benefits related to acne scars after completing 6-day fasts.
Basically, prolonged fasts can supercharge your intermittent fasting goals, but should only be done by experienced fasters and under medical supervision. Again, I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice – prolonged fasts can be dangerous, a lot more dangerous than intermittent fasting, at least, if done improperly. Fainting is far more common, for instance.
There are several different and beneficial ways to complete a prolonged fast.
Prolonged Water Fasts
A water fast (no food or beverages besides water) is arguably the most beneficial way to complete prolonged fasts, but it’s also quite challenging and daunting for many. We’ll cover this in further detail in the “What Breaks a Fast” section.
A common question that arises is, “how long should I fast”. There are no studies around the impact of prolonged fasting specifically on acne, so instead I’ll summarize the findings related to prolonged fasting and autoimmune disorders, inflammation, and insulin resistance:
- 24-36 hours: Autophagy, the process of old, damaged cells being recycled, begins at about 24 hours, so this is really the minimum length of time for a prolonged fast to be more effective than an intermittent fast
- 3 days: Powerful effects on the immune system, autophagy, insulin resistance, and inflammation – a perfectly adequate amount of time for a prolonged fast
- 7 days: Even more pronounced effects, wound healing results may begin, however, only safe for individuals in the moderate BMI range
- More than 7 days: deep healing and extreme results for autoimmune disorders, but also potentially more dangerous
This is not a recommendation about how long you should fast. Again, this should all be discussed with a healthcare professional.
Fast-Mimicking Diet (FMD)
Because of the potential dangers that come with water fasting (and the generally negative or shy sentiment around it from healthcare professionals), it may be helpful to consult your doctor about the fast-mimicking diet (FMD) instead of the prolonged water fasting.
The fast-mimicking diet is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a diet that tricks your body into thinking it’s fasting. In simple terms, it’s a period of caloric restriction in which you eat foods that avoid triggering a non-fasting bodily state, followed by refeeding.
The goal of the fast-mimicking diet was to allow people to reap many of the benefits of fasting without the extreme nature of pure water fasting. Studies show that it has many benefits related to key markers of adult acne – insulin resistance and inflammation chief among them.
There are “official” FMD kits with prepackaged foods and such, but honestly, I think that’s just overpriced and gimmicky.
The easiest, and in my opinion, best way to do the fast-mimicking diet is simply to eat between 600 and 800 calories of high-quality fat per day, for 3-5 days. 5 days is ideal (and where most of the research-based benefits come in), but 3 is great too.
My fast-mimicking diet looks like this:
- Day 1: Cauliflower rice sprinkled with olive oil, and a large avocado
- Day 2: Avocado and a handful of macadamia nuts
- Day 3: Two handfuls of almonds, handful of macadamia nuts
- Day 4: Two large avocados
- Day 5: Coconut flakes, handful of macadamia nuts, cauliflower sprinkled with olive oil
The key is to avoid protein intake and focus on easily digestible foods, as protein is the primary mechanism for signaling pathways in the body that put us in a fasted state.
While the official FMD doesn’t advocate for a high-fat meal plan (they recommend 40% carbs, 40% fat, 10% protein), if you want the most benefits for acne, high-fat is the way to go, especially if you can stick to skin-safe high-fat foods like avocados, olive oil, ghee, macadamia nuts, almonds (if you can tolerate them), coconut, etc.
Again, you’re not going to get all the benefits of a prolonged water fast, but in my opinion, it may be worth it, as you’re also not taking all the risks that come with water-only fasting.
Again, you can check out the full book (also includes clear skin food/drink database and members-only content) for more details on other fasting protocols, but water fasting and the fasting-mimicking diet seem to be the most common.
Are they more potent and powerful than intermittent fasting?
But do they bring with them an increased risk for fainting, potential refeeding issues, and willpower issues? Absolutely.
That’s why I recommend starting small…
The Best Fasting Method For Clear Skin
In the same sense that there is no “best” diet for clear skin, there is no “best” method of intermittent fasting either. Every person’s genetics, dietary needs, and personal preferences vary, and what may work for one person might not work for another.
Most beginners find the 16/8 method doable and the skin-clearing benefits to be significant, but remember to implement it after you have your diet under control.
There are a few tweaks you can make to any intermittent fasting routine to make it more effective for fighting acne:
- Don’t break a fast with carbs – Save your carb-heavy meals for dinner. Carbs are bound to spike your insulin levels, so if you can consume them at night and in one sitting you’ll have fewer carb cravings. Plus you can ride that post-carb high right into a great night’s sleep
- Carb Quality Matters – The carbs you consume are the largest determining factor behind insulin levels. While intermittent fasting, it can be tempting to break a fast with a pizza. Try to stick to skin-friendly starches like sweet potatoes or white rice instead of bread or pasta
- See if you can hit some 20+ hour fasts – Studies have shown that the sweet spot for lowering insulin levels happens between the 18-21 hour mark. 16 hours is great, but if one day a week you can push through to 20+ hours your skin will thank you for it
Above all else listen to your body and your skin – Intermittent fasting isn’t for everyone, and for some people the stress of intermittent fasting can cause acne. If you’re not feeling it, don’t do it. You don’t need to fast to eliminate acne. Focus on your diet, exercise, and reduce stress.
Fasting can be one of the most powerful tools possible for tackling the root causes of acne. It can limit inflammation, decrease insulin resistance, and fight free radicals. In addition to its skin-clearing benefits, intermittent and prolonged fasting has a host of positive health effects from anti-aging to decreasing the risk of certain cancers. I personally feel more focused, energized, and calm when I utilize intermittent fasting – not to mention my skin dramatically improves when I incorporate it into my daily life.
But fasting is only as powerful as the diet that it’s combined with.
If you neglect your diet and consume too much omega-6’s, splurge on carbs, or consume lectin-filled foods, intermittent fasting won’t clear your acne. If you have a clean diet and seem to be stuck after your initial improvement, intermittent fasting might just be the tactic you need to break through and achieve the skin you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for a starter guide to achieving clear skin through diet, check out the GoodGlow Clear Skin Resource Kit. It has everything you need to get started eating a diet for clear skin, all in one place.