Acne is a condition that causes distress for many people, affecting up to 85 percent of teenagers and 20 percent of adults. While there are seemingly innumerable acne treatments and solutions available, the vast majority of them are focused upon three goals: Inhibiting oil production, limiting bacterial growth or exfoliation of the skin. Antibiotics, both oral and topical, remain a popular treatment option. However, emerging research suggests rather than killing off the offending bacteria involved in the development of acne, it may be a better idea to crowd them out with probiotics.
The average human body has about 100 billion bacteria on the skin comprising somewhere between 500 and 1,000 different species. The vast majority of them are harmless and some of them are beneficial. It may turn out to be the case that, as with so many other conditions, the key to successfully treating acne may have more to do with adding the “good” than removing the “bad.”
What Acne Is and What Causes It
Acne is a skin condition that develops when oil and dead skin cells clog up the pores. Often bacteria, such as Propionibacterium acnes, can get into the pores and feed off the oil and dead skin cells collected there. This sets up an inflammatory process which can manifest as blackheads, whiteheads, blemishes, pimples or zits. Acne can also be exacerbated by hormone levels -- especially during adolescence -- as well as eating fatty foods and using oil-based skin care products.
Testosterone is the hormone responsible for producing the oily sebum along with a protein called keratin, that creates the lining of the hair follicle. When acne is present the skin cells created by keratin shed and stick together at the same time that the follicle is secreting excessive levels of sebum. These combine and cause the follicle to become enlarged. This sets the stage for bacteria to get caught in the pores. However, not all skin bacteria contribute to acne -- most of them don't and some of them may even help to prevent it. This is the basis for using probiotics as an acne treatment.
Antibiotics vs. Probiotics
On the surface, conventional treatment of acne seems rather straightforward: Take a drug to kill the bacteria which contributes to the acne. While this can certainly be effective in the short-term, antibiotic use over the long-term is linked to several negative side-effects. Most of these result from oral antibiotics and are digestive complaints, such as abdominal pain and diarrhea. These may result from the killing off of beneficial gut bacteria. As most prescribed antibiotics have a broad spectrum, “shotgun” effect, taking them can result in the inadvertent killing of symbiotic gut bacteria which help to regulate the body's immune, endocrine and neurological systems, in addition to the more troublesome species which are associated with acne. This may contribute to further hormone imbalances which could, in turn, work to create the very conditions which cause acne in the first place.
Probiotics were initially identified as a supplemental form of treatment to prevent the chronic diarrhea often caused by antibiotic treatments, but further benefits were identified. Probiotic treatment can be used to address a variety of issues that are associated with the development and persistence of acne:
Probiotics promote balance of the bacteria in the body. Many people with acne are shown to have low stomach acid, which puts them at risk for bacterial imbalance. A probiotic helps to normalize the helpful bacteria within the digestive tract, thereby contributing to acne control.
Probiotics also inhibit the growth of the harmful bacteria that thrive in the gut and on the skin.
Probiotics may also be useful in reducing sebum production as well as inflammation.
Choosing a Treatment
Some studies have indicated that taking a probiotic in conjunction with antibiotics can reduce the negative effects on the gastrointestinal tract without compromising the effectiveness of the antibiotic agent. While the development of topical probiotic applications is still in its infancy, there are oral probiotics available to meet various needs.
There are also herb-based oils that have been shown to have antibacterial and inflammatory properties. Many common herbs used for cooking, such as thyme and oregano, have a tendency to kill off harmful bacteria, while sparing the beneficial ones -- a result of co-evolution between the human body, bacteria and plants.
As the volumes of studies on beneficial bacteria continue to churn out of research institutions, there is little doubt that acne will come to be viewed as just one of many conditions which are best treated -- and prevented -- by promoting the growth of symbiotic bacteria.
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