Vitamins and minerals. We all know that if you don’t get enough, you’ve got problems. On the flip side, does consuming high levels of vitamins and minerals improve health? There are a lot of people that believe that they do, and there are many people who advocate taking high doses of specific vitamins for particular ailments (e.g. Vitamin C and the common cold). It is important to recognize that while some vitamins and minerals are safe at even very high dosages, others may become toxic if taken in abundance. In this section we look at some of the commonly recommended vitamin and mineral supplements for acne and summarize the potential benefits and risks, and of course, the science behind them.
Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin that is essential for normal eye function and maintaining skin health. Vitamin A serves as the starting component for the biosynthesis of retinoic acids, which are involved in cell signalling, differentiation and development. Some of these retinoic acids, such as isotretinoin (accutane) and tretinoin (Retin-A), are approved medications for acne. In fact, isotretinoin was originally proposed as a potential acne treatment after studies showed that high doses of vitamin A lead to decreases in sebum production and secretion. Vitamin A is a commonly recommended supplement in holistic medicine. However, it is important to note that research into the efficacy of vitamin A in acne treatment has shown that significant improvements in acne symptoms only occur at very high dosages. At these doses, vitamin A becomes toxic to the liver, where it accumulates. Therefore, while normal supplementation may be helpful, high dosage treatments are generally discouraged due to the risk of liver damage. Common natural sources of vitamin A include liver (including cod liver oil), butter, carrots, broccoli, spinach and many other leafy greans and vegetables.
Vitamin B Complex
The vitamin B complex includes several water soluble vitamins that are essential for normal cell function and metabolism. The primary members of the complex include: Vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B7 (biotin), vitamin B8 (inositol), vitamin B9 (folic acid) and vitamin B12 (cobalamin). Deficiencies in these essential vitamins can cause a myriad of health problems, including acne and acne like symptoms. Because many foods are supplemented with all of the essential B vitamins, most people consume the recommended amounts of B complex vitamins in their normal diet. Supplementation with a B complex preparation is an easy way to ensure sufficient B vitamin intake. Because B vitamins are water soluble, excess vitamin B is readily excreted in the urine and B vitamin overdosage is generally not an area of concern. While there are numerous claims that high dosage B vitamin treatments are effective acne treatments, there is little scientific evidence supporting those claims. Natural sources of vitamin B include meat, whole grains, legumes, bananas and brewer’s yeast.
Perhaps the most popular nutritional supplement, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a vitamin that is essential for proper functioning of the immune system, connective tissue and cellular metabolism. In addition to being an essential component in normal functioning of the human body, vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant. Like the B complex vitamins, vitamin C is water soluble and excess amounts are efficiently excreted from the body, making overdose unlikely. Supplementation with vitamin C is commonly recommended to help resolve infections like the cold and flu. For the treatment of acne, vitamin C is promoted as a way to boost the immune response and improve the elasticity of the skin. Unfortunately, outside of correcting vitamin C deficiency, there is very little scientific evidence that vitamin C supplementation will have any significant effect on acne. Good natural sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, kiwifruit, strawberries, broccoli and chili peppers.
Vitamin D is an essential, fat-soluble vitamin that is important for proper bone health and immune function. Vitamin D is manufactured in the skin upon exposure to sunlight, but many people may suffer from minor vitamin D deficiencies, particularly in the winter. Vitamin D can also be obtained as a supplement or in certain foods, such as fish, eggs, liver, milk and mushrooms. Because vitamin D is fat soluble, excess amounts of vitamin D are not efficiently excreted by the body and toxicity is possible. Toxicity generally occurs in people who regularly take high dosages (50,000 IU) for periods of weeks or months. High levels of vitamin D can lead to abnormal calcium deposits, kidney damage and other health problems. Beyond the general health benefits of correcting vitamin D deficiencies, there is little evidence that vitamin D supplementation has a significant impact on acne symptoms.
Vitamin E is commonly understood to be an important vitamin for maintaining skin health. Vitamin E is the generic name for a family of similar molecules called tocopherols. The vitamin E family of molecules are potent anti-oxidants which are involved in preventing oxidative damage to cellular membranes. In addition, vitamin E may play a role in cell to cell signalling. Despite the popularity of vitamin E, the majority of the actual scientific research suggests that supplementation of this vitamin is at best marginally beneficial. Good natural sources of vitamin E include seeds and nuts, tomatoes, pumpkin, mangoes, broccoli and many kinds of leafy greens.
Standard multivitamins contain reasonable doses of most of the recommended vitamins and minerals and can be an excellent way to ensure well rounded nutrition. That said, beyond the positive effects of avoiding deficiency associated disease, there is virtually no evidence that multivitamin treatments will improve acne conditions. In addition, consuming excessive multivitamins can be toxic and potentially harmful.
An abundance of recent research has emerged suggesting a vital role for zinc in the proper functioning of many bodily systems. Zinc is an important cofactor in a wide array of biological functions and enzymatic reactions. Furthermore, recent reports have suggested that large portions of the population may not be getting sufficient zinc in their diets. Supplemental zinc is a common homeopathic remedy for the cold and flu, and is purported to reduce the time necessary to recover from illness. Zinc itself is antimicrobial and topical applications are used in OTC treatments for diaper rash and dandruff. There is limited direct research into the effect of zinc supplementation on acne symptoms. Zinc has also been shown to help reduce inflammation. The research reports that do exist on zinc and acne suggest that zinc supplementation may be an effective therapy for inflammatory acne. Like many other minerals, overdoses of zinc can be toxic and potentially harmful.
Chromium picolinate is a supplement intended to prevent or treat chromium deficiency. Chromium is essential for insulin metabolism and glucose regulation. Chromium picolinate supplements are occasionally recommended as a treatment for acne. However, there does not appear to be any scientific evidence linking the two or demonstrating any efficacy. In addition, it is unclear what type of causal relationship between chromium and acne exists, as there does not seem to be any directly overlapping biochemical pathways and most people are not deficient in chromium.
Copper is another elemental metal that is essential for a number of biological functions. Copper is absorbed and transported by the same system as zinc. As a result, consuming excessive levels of either can lead to deficiency in the other. There is little scientific evidence that oral supplementation of copper can improve acne symptoms. However, copper itself is toxic to bacteria and several studies have indicated that topical application of copper can inhibit bacterial growth, including P. acnes bacteria.
While both calcium and magnesium are essential minerals, there is essentially no evidence indicating that they may be helpful in the treatment of acne.
Iron is another essential mineral, and its most function is as part of the hemoglobin complex that transports oxygen in red blood cells. There is minimal evidence suggesting a role for iron supplementation in acne treatment.