Whilst scientists do not fully understand the cause of acne, the role of essential fatty acids in the body, including the skin, is reasonably understood. This understanding has led to some scientists and natural health practitioners looking at the effects and benefits of essential fatty acids for skin conditions such as acne.
Udo Erasmus is a writer with post graduate studies in genetics, and biochemistry, and a PhD in Nutrition. He believes there are nutritional deficiencies and problems that can cause or exacerbate acne, though they are not as simple as the usual ones about chocolate!
Central to his belief is that: “Hard fats and (hard) protein debris clog narrow pores and channels in our skin, and invite infection by bacteria who feast on the mess”. (p346)
He believes acne is a result of “fatty degeneration”. Factors in this are:
* fats associating poorly with protein
* too many ‘hard’ fats
* not enough essential fatty acids
Hard fats are also called saturated fatty acids. These are the fats that are found in most food, including animal fats and dairy. Their name comes from the fact that the fat molecules carry the maximum amount of hydrogen molecules that they possibly can. This has significance in the way these fats act in our body. Some of these saturated fats have a high melting point, like butter and milk fat.
An excess can cause problems for our arteries and heart health.
Fatty acids, of the essential and non essential kind, are found in our cell membranes. This includes the membranes of the skin. Erasmus describes the characteristics of saturated fatty acids as tending to stick together. And because they have a higher melting point, they are more likely to be clump together and form deposits when we consume them in excess. So, they are harder for the body to get rid of. And as well as clumping together, they can clump with other things like protein, minerals, and cholesterol. Excess sugar can be a problem because our body converts excess sugar into saturated fatty acids.
Other problems with excess saturated fatty acids includes the fact that the body can convert them into unsaturated fatty acids, which can then oxidize if we don’t consume enough fatty acids.
Saturated fatty acids can reduce the supply of oxygen to our tissues, by making blood cells which carry oxygen stick together and so impede that vital transportation system which normally carries oxygen to our cells.
Excess fat, including excess saturated fats, are stored in the adipose cells in our skin. These are fat storage centers.
Erasmus recommends consuming W3 (alpha linolenic acid) and w6 (flax and linoleic acid) essential fatty acids in the correct ratio.
Essential fatty acids have free receptors for hydrogen bonds. This characteristic changes the way the molecules are structured in terms of the shape they have. And it is this different shape, a kinked shape, that means they don’t clump together with the affinity that saturated fats do. And they also have a lower melting point – so they are more liquid also. Because of this difference in structure, they also have a slight negative molecular charge, and given that like charges repel, this is another reason why they don’t clump together. Erasmus characterizes these properties of unsaturated fats as providing ‘fluidity’ to cell membranes. He says this allows the cells to fulfill important chemical functions.
Inflammation, a characteristic of acne, is associated with a deficiency in the essential fatty acid LNA, or alpha linolenic acid. Erasmus writes that whilst inflammation is not a classical symptom of LNA, when people take alpha linolenic acid supplements, this symptom can be reversed.
Essential fatty acids as a group are strongly anti-inflammatory. Another essential fatty acid, linoleic acid (LA) has particular reference to acne. When there is a deficiency of linoleic acid, the oil producing glands in the skin make sebum that is mixed with oleic acid. Oleic acid is found in butter and land animal fats. However, in excess, it can interfere in essential fatty acid use. But more importantly for acne sufferers, sebum mixed with oleic acid is irritating to the skin. It lends itself to blockages of the pores that result in acne, blackheads and whiteheads.