Inflammation is the immune system's way of repairing damage and fighting bacteria and viruses. Normally, inflammation is short-term and resolves itself once the threat is eliminated. However, ongoing inflammation is present with diseases such as acne. This is called chronic inflammation, which occurs when normal inflammation persists for months or years. Chronic inflammation can affect all parts of the body, such as in the case of arthritis, heart failure, diabetes, and dementia. In the case of acne, the skin is the organ suffering chronic inflammation.1,2
Unfortunately, medicating with anti-inflammatory medications is not a good option because of the severe side effects that accompany their usage.1,3 For this reason, these medications are reserved for severe auto-immune diseases.
However, there are healthy ways to reduce chronic inflammation through lifestyle practices like, (1) meditation and yoga, (2) acupuncture, (3) healthy diet, and (4) exercise.
As you read about these potential holistic acne therapies below, keep in mind that the scientific studies we have do not focus directly on acne, but rather on inflammation in general. Still, this research is revealing because it makes scientific sense that reducing inflammation in the body could potentially reduce acne, which is an inflammatory disease that affects the body's largest organ, the skin.
Four Alternative Therapies Used to Treat Chronic Inflammation
1. Meditation and Yoga. Stress can cause inflammation and increase the symptoms of chronic inflammatory diseases. Since acne is an inflammatory disease, ongoing stress may work to worsen acne. Meditation and yoga are two activities that researchers have found reduce stress. Scientists have performed three studies investigating the effects of meditation and yoga on inflammation and have found that both practices are effective in reducing or preventing inflammation:
A 2016 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology compared the stress and inflammatory response of 31 experienced meditators to those of a control group. To perform this experiment, the researchers used the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) to induce and measure stress and applied a cream to the participants’ forearms in order to cause an inflammatory reaction. The researchers found that the experienced meditators displayed a lower stress response and inflammatory response when compared to those of the participants in the control group. The scientists concluded that the long-term practice of meditation may reduce stress and benefit chronic inflammatory conditions, like acne.4
A 2011 study published in Trials investigated yoga’s ability to relieve pain and reduce inflammatory responses in 20 osteoarthritis patients and 17 carpal tunnel syndrome patients. Osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome are chronic inflammatory diseases. The researchers who performed this study found that yoga was able to reduce the pain and improve the mobility in each group of patients. They concluded that yoga caused “a reduction in inflammatory responses in body healthy individuals and those with a disease.”5
A 2014 review published in Indian Journal of Medical Research summarized various studies related to how yoga impacted inflammation in obese individuals. This review concluded that yoga could reduce weight, obesity-related inflammation, and stress, which reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Specifically, scientists found that an intensive yoga program can regress the effects of an inflammatory disease called coronary heart disease after just one year of yoga practice and that continued yoga practice causes further regression of the disease. The authors of the review mentioned that the effect of yoga on inflammation is partially due to a reduction in certain inflammatory molecules called IL-6 and TNF-α. Therefore, yoga is an excellent exercise to implement for weight loss, stress reduction, and potentially the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases. The importance of this study is that it identified how yoga can directly decrease the effects of a chronic inflammatory disease. Although not studied in relationship to acne, it is possible that yoga decreases the inflammation associated with it as well.6
2. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that involves the placement of needles into specific points in the body. Specifically, acupuncture stimulates a very large and important nerve called the vagas nerve. This stimulation is thought to send signals to the brain, which tell it to block the immune cell activation and the release of inflammatory molecules. When this signal is sent, inflammation is blocked.
Unfortunately, because of the strict traditional practice of acupuncture, researchers were unable to perform these clinical trials with the proper controls necessary to prove the connection between acupuncture and inflammation reduction. New trials and study methodologies are required to be able to determine if acupuncture reduces or prevents inflammation.7
3. Diet. While diet is notoriously hard to study, the typical Western diet is widely thought to be responsible for the presence of chronic inflammation and the development and/or aggravation of chronic inflammatory diseases.
Also, obesity, which is diet-related, is a major cause of chronic inflammatory diseases, and may also play a role in the development of acne.
A person who consumes a typical Western diet receives 70% of their energy from sugar, oils, dairy, and processed cereals and grains. This diet leads to an over-consumption of sugar and bad fats called saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids, and an under-consumption of important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium. Further, this diet results in consuming too much omega-6 fatty acid and too little omega-3 fatty acid. If the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid is unbalanced, it can cause more inflammation in the body.
Therefore, diet is crucial for regulating inflammation, and a healthy diet based on whole, unprocessed foods, colorful fruits and vegetables, and omega-3 fats may reduce the inflammation associated with diseases such as acne.8,9
4. Exercise is excellent for maintaining general health and is the best option we have for reducing stress. Since we know ongoing stress can cause inflammation, regular exercise also may prevent and reduce chronic inflammation.
Aside from stress reduction, another process by which exercise reduces inflammation is weight loss. Obesity is a major risk factor for chronic inflammatory diseases. Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of developing chronic inflammation.
Interestingly, a single bout of high-intensity exercise in people who normally do not exercise can have the opposite effect and can cause or worsen inflammation in the body. In other words, if someone does not normally exercise, and suddenly begins exercising intensely, this can have a short-term inflammatory effect. However, repeated, regular exercise decreases inflammation. So if you want to reduce inflammation, start an exercise routine slowly, keep it up, and build intensity over time.
What type of exercise is best? Research has also shown that performing both higher-intensity aerobic exercise and resistance exercise provides the highest reduction in inflammation in obese and healthy people.
Regardless of what type of exercise you engage in, it is clear that exercise is an effective alternative activity for reducing chronic inflammation and may prove beneficial in the treatment of acne in both overweight and healthy people.1,10,11