The quick answer: There’s a link between acne, male pattern baldness, heart disease, and hormone-related cancers. The solution: a whole foods diet, sparing of animal products.
The Milk-Acne Theory
Acne has been linked to an inflammatory diet high in sugar and milk products and low in whole foods—the modern diet. (Other causes of inflammation include food allergies, and protracted stress.) The suspected role of milk and dairy products in acne was mentioned in the last post, but merits further attention.
In the ‘60s Dr. Jerome K. Fisher, a Pasadena, CA, dermatologist, studied 1000 acne patients and found a link to milk intake, when compared to teens studied in NYC. The Pasadena kids consumed more milk and had more acne. Fisher’s work was presented at a 1966 ADA meeting, covered here by Time Magazine.
The Time Magazine article noted that hormones like testosterone were a trigger for acne, and suggested (from Fisher’s work) that progesterone from cow’s milk played a similar role. In the 1920s, hard times for dairy farmers led to the practice of milking cows further into the pregnancy of the next calf, exposing consumers to higher levels of bovine hormones like progesterone. Progesterone breaks down into androgens that trigger the acne cycle in upper body pores. Dr. Fisher also studied the role of dietary sugar and stress in acne, noting surges of acne after school finals, and a decline by the end of a carefree summer. (The first time I read this excellent Time article it was free; the second time it required a subscription.)
In the ‘70s other studies linked bovine hormones increasingly found in milk butterfat with follicle DHT testosterone associated with acne, and baldness. Unfortunately, further study was not funded so the issue of milking pregnant cows and the health impact on consumers was ignored.
Today, three highly regarded doctors—Dr. Danby, a dermatologist and Dartmouth Med School professor, Dr. C. A. Adebamowo (who earned a 2nd doctorate at Harvard studying the link between dairy and acne), and Dr. W.C. Willett, the respected head of Harvard School of Public Health—maintain a website that addresses the milk-acne theory. For the scientifically minded, a copy of Dr. Fisher’s original paper is posted. To see an insightful animation on follicle maturation and acne development, go here.
The topic of our last post, acne, leads to this week’s topic, premature baldness. Both occur in the pores that grow hair, and both are driven by the hormone testosterone. Some testosterone facts:
- It’s the male hormone, but women have it too, about 1/10 as much. Women have less but—no surprise here—are more sensitive to its action.
- It’s the primary anabolic hormone, linked to muscle, bone, and hair growth.
- It’s also androgenic, driving male sexual development and aiding female maturation.
- It’s mainly produced in the testes (or ovaries), but also in the adrenal glands.
- Interestingly, falling in love reduces the male level and increases the female level, with the nice result that male/female behavior becomes more alike. (The proof is when you go to a sad movie and both cry at the same time—very scary for the guy.)
- Fatherhood also reduces testosterone level, increasing the paternal caring instinct.
- There is a seasonal cycle too, with higher levels in the fall, when the nights grow longer.
- There’s a nice story here: the testosterone explosion of puberty drives men to fall crazily in love; being in love and having children reduces testosterone while increasing the caring instinct; during the adult years testosterone levels slowly decline as the family grows, with the result that aggression and risky behavior are replaced by benevolent affection and wisdom. The final product—a grandfather.
In the hair follicles, enzymes convert about 5% of testosterone to a more potent form, dihydroxytestosterone, or DHT, which brings us to the subject of baldness.
Anyone else noticed how many virile young guys are going bald? It’s driving a new hairstyle: no hair—as in the shaved head reminiscent of Mr. Clean. What’s driving this, and does it have to do with diet? Is male pattern baldness another chronic disease? Here are some facts:
- Male pattern baldness runs in families—there’s a genetic influence.
- A high level of testosterone is linked to hair loss. A 1942 study of men who had their testes removed (the main source of testosterone) found that even in bald families, the men kept their hair. (One small job benefit for those eunuchs.)
- How is hair lost? In the hair follicle, testosterone is converted to the potent hormone DHT that in excess can kill the follicle. (While DHT is linked to baldness on the head, it’s perversely tied to unwanted hair growth elsewhere.)
- An excess of DHT testosterone in the hair follicles causes first acne, then hair loss, later BPH (enlarged prostate), prostate cancer, and even heart disease.
- Testosterone is tricky—guys need a little to be romantic, but too much leaves them like Samson after Delilah, hairless.
Diet and DHT Testosterone
Can diet play a role in healthy DHT testosterone levels? This is another topic where the science doesn’t get funded, but there are some clues to the hormone imbalance behind acne, baldness, and possibly heart disease and the hormone-related cancers. Hair loss, meaning male pattern baldness beginning with the crown, is an important indicator of health. Hair does matter.
Studies show that DHT testosterone can be managed through healthy exercise, stress management, and a whole foods diet. Studies suggest these dietary improvements:
- Reduce animal products like meat, milk, and dairy. Organic milk, though its twice the price, has fewer bovine hormones.
- Eat more cold-water fish, the source of omega-3 essential fats, and less omega-6, found in vegetable oils and margarine.
- Enjoy fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. They’re rich in vitamins, minerals like zinc, fiber, and antioxidants.
- Eat whole grains; minimize refined carbs, sugar.
Night Shade Plants
On the subject of antioxidants, cooks should be aware of the nightshade plants, a large group that includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant (shown above). They’re nutritious, rich in antioxidants, so fit the list above, but they do contain alkaloids that may be inflammatory to some. This isn’t well documented, but reactions may include eczema, rashes, and joint discomfort similar to arthritis. If you have these problems, consult your doctor. Otherwise, include these plants in your diet:
Potatoes: After wheat, corn, and rice, potatoes feed the world. “How the Potato Changed the World, in the November Smithsonian, recounts how planting potatoes from the New World stabilized the food supply of Europe in the 1700s, ending the cycle of famines, and enabling the rise of the West. It’s true that potatoes have a high glycemic index, but there’s still a place for them in a healthy diet. Store them in the dark and remove any green spots or sprouts.
Tomatoes: Rich in the antioxidant lycopene, tomatoes are good for your heart as well as the bones. Loaded with phytonutrients, they regulate fats in the blood stream (are claimed to be as helpful as the statin drugs), and protect against blood clots. Diced tomatoes add moisture and flavor to a baked potato. Cooking tomatoes, as in sauces, improves the bioavailability of lycopene antioxidants.
Peppers: With tomatoes, bell peppers are among the richest sources of vitamin A, the carotenoid antioxidants, and other phytonutrients. Laboratory studies have suggested they’re protective of certain cancers. Enjoy them at any stage of ripeness—green, yellow, or red.
Eggplant: After reading about eggplant, we resolved to add them to our menu. They’re rich in phenolic antioxidants.
Please comment, and share your experience with acne, or baldness. Does any reader have difficulty with nightshade plants? Also, we’re looking for a tasty eggplant recipe.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.