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whey and acne

Whey and Acne

By Dr Peter Griffiths

Can whey protein make acne worse?

Whey protein is the most popular sport supplement used by bodybuilders and sports people due to its proven muscle building and anabolic effects.

However many people have also reported that whey has caused them to break out with acne, or that it made existing acne worse. Of course many of these reports have been dismissed as anecdotal. Or the acne has been blamed on other factors such as use of androgenic pro-hormones or anabolic steroids.

Indeed the majority of doctors still peddle out-dated information that diet does not play any role in acne. They happily tell acne sufferers that individual foods don’t make acne worse despite the clear experience of the acne sufferers themselves.

Fortunately the more up to date doctors among us who stay in touch with the latest dermatological research are now realising that compounds in the diet can indeed cause an acne flare. Chief among the food culprits is milk and milk derived protein products such as whey protein.

The two problems with milk protein is its IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor) content and the insulin response it produces. As I will explain both IGF-1 and insulin can exacerbate acne.

Milk contains high levels of bovine IGF-1 which survives pasteurization and other processing methods. Bovine IGF-1 has the same amino acid sequence as human IGF-1 and binds to the human IGF-1 receptor. High milk consumption has been shown to cause a 10%-20% rise in blood IGF-1 levels.

In addition despite the fact that milk has a low GI index it has a relatively high insulinemic index, meaning it easily stimulates the production of insulin in the body. Whey protein has an even higher insulinemic index since it is composed of the fast absorbing small protein fractions of milk.

So how do IGF-1 and high insulin levels cause acne?

Both IGF-1 and insulin encourage the growth of sebocytes which are cells in the sebum glands. Acne sufferers have high sebum production and this has been linked to higher levels of IGF-1 in these individuals.

But IGF-1 has much worse system level effects which can increase the production of androgens in multiple locations throughout the body. As we all understand, androgens further increase sebum production and are one of the fundamental underlying causes of acne.

As we can see in the above diagram IGF-1 acts at many points in the endocrine system to increase the production of androgens.

It induces the expression and activity of key enzymes of adrenal androgen biosynthesis (the hormones DHEAS and androstendione).

It causes increased testicular and ovarian production of testosterone and androstenedione.

In the skin it increases the activity of the enzyme 5 alpha reductase which converts testosterone to the stronger androgen DHT (dihydrotestosterone).

Finally, in a double whammy effect, both IGF-1 and insulin induce androgen receptor trans-activation. So not only are androgen levels increased but the androgen receptors are made more sensitive to them.

In conclusion if you are one of those unfortunate people who find that you break out when you use whey protein, then you may have to investigate using a non milk protein source. Possible alternatives include egg protein, soy protein or rice protein concentrate.

Melnik et al. Role of insulin, insulin-like growth factor-1, hyperglycaemic food and milk consumption in the pathogenesis of acne vulgaris. Exp Dermatol. 2009 Oct;18 (10):833-41  Click here to read study

IGF-1 effect on endocrine system