It’s a quandary--skip your favorite wake-up call or welcome clear skin. Alas, it’s not that simple. Although caffeine is undeniably a stimulant, there is no consensus that it is a direct cause of acne. However, caffeine affects multiple lifestyle factors, from sleep to stress to digestion, which in turn can contribute to skin problems.
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The Acne Rumors
Caffeine and acne have been topically linked for decades because of widely publicized research studies. However, the studies (see "The Role of Diet in Acne and Rosacea" in the References) were problematic because the chocolate bars used in the study contained imitation chocolate and no milk products. Nonetheless, dermatologists now view a high glycemic load or cow's milk intake as factors in the prevalence of acne.
Sugar + Milk = Acne?
Glycemic what? Certain foods, such as baked potatoes, are digested quickly and release a higher amount of glucose into the bloodstream. As the blood sugar increases, so does the insulin level, leading to the production of IGF-1, a growth hormone involved in acne formation. Cow's milk is considered a contributor to acne because of the presence of hormones.
Your Skin as a Mirror
Your skin not only protects your internal body but it also enables fluid and temperature regulation via swelling and sweating. Your skin is also a mirror of sorts, reflecting information on your internal health. Although dark and puffy circles beneath the eyes can reflect lack of sleep, they may also indicate a bogged digestive and elimination system.
The presence of acne may also indicate digestive trouble, which can be improved by healthier eating and exercise. Ironically, caffeine is present in many skin care products because it temporarily dehydrates fat cells and reduces swelling, leading to smoother, tighter skin. Yet excess consumption can exaggerate these effects, which is why gynecologists recommend avoiding caffeine for a full week before getting a mammogram.
Caffeine, Sleep and Stress
As many have experienced, caffeine can have a strong effect on the trilogy of stress, relaxation and sleep. Stress calls the adrenal glands to action, which release cortisol, triggering the sweat glands to produce oil, which can then clog your pores. Sleep can counter the effects of stress by improving your immune system so acne can heal more rapidly.
Creating regular sleep schedules and making a conscious effort to slow down before going to sleep (i.e., no eating, TV or web surfing at least one hour before sleep) can intensify this immune upsurge. Relaxation or breathing exercises are brief, flexible and powerful ways to interject rest into a sleep-deprived and perhaps overstressed person.
Caffeine’s Shady Half-Life
The term “half-life” refers to the time the liver needs to eliminate half of whatever substance has been consumed. It’s a term more widely applied to medications. Few are aware that caffeine has a half-life, which varies widely depending on a person's age, health and lifestyle factors. Although caffeine may flush from a healthy adult within 3 to 4 hours, a pregnant woman may need triple the time. Liver problems or use of oral contraceptives (or other medications that have long half-lives) can also lengthen the half-life. A longer half-life in the body means longer-lasting side effects.
Caffeine: Use With Moderation
The good news is that there is no proven direct correlation between caffeine intake and acne, However, given caffeine’s effects on the skin, stress, sleep, tissue and the liver, it is clear that caffeine should be treated like any other alternative substance and consumed in moderation. Although energy drinks, caffeinated beverages and dark chocolate products may seem recreational and harmless, buyers and consumers should be aware.