What is Your Face Telling You?

Many of us have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” As a Naturopathic Doctor, I believe that what you eat and drink can have a direct effect on the appearance of your face. This is because your face can be a reflection of the overall health of your gut. Many people are not aware of the immense immune system that originates and lives in our digestive tract. When we consume food and/or drinks, the immune system residing in our digestive tract may react, and consequently produce unwanted effects on our facial appearance. Let’s discuss the most common facial presentations, the science behind what causes it, and what you can do to fix it.


What it looks like

Sugar face will most commonly display as a combination of fine lines or deep wrinkles on the forehead, sagging under the eyes, an overall gaunt look to the face, pustular pimples throughout the face, and a gray or “pasty” appearance to the skin.

The science behind it

Many of us are familiar with the substance known as collagen. It is responsible for our skin’s elasticity, flexibility, and ability to “bounce back.” Healthy collagen fibers provide us with that “youthful” appearance. However, sugar induces a biochemical reaction called glycation. It is during this process that excess sugar will attach itself to healthy collagen fibers, stiffening and hardening of otherwise elastic collagen fibers. The end result can produce sagging and thinning of the skin, and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles especially on the forehead and around the eyes.

Sugar is brought into the cells with the help of insulin produced by the pancreas. The more sugar we eat, the more insulin the pancreas must produce. When insulin levels remain increased for an extended period of time, the adrenal glands are stimulated to produce more of a stress hormone known as cortisol. Cortisol sends signals to the body to divert energy to our “fight or flight” responses, such as supplying oxygen to large muscle groups by increasing blood flow. This diversion of energy results in contraction of small vessels in the face, producing that pale and grayish complexion.

Perhaps the most disruptive effect of sugar on our body occurs in our gut. Sugar can have a direct impact on the delicate balance of “good” bacteria in the gut. More specifically, diminishing the amount of “good” bacteria in the gut needed for healthy digestion, immune function, and absorption of key nutrients. A bacterial imbalance in the gut will often show on the face in the form of painful, pustular pimples distributed throughout.

How do you fix it?

While the answer seems obvious, sugar addiction can be a very difficult habit to kick. What makes it even more difficult is the fact that hidden refined sugars live in most prepared and prepackaged foods such as salad dressings, bread and fruit flavored yogurt. Cutting consumption of refined sugar in half can often produce dramatic results in one’s facial appearance. Taking a high quality probiotic can also be helpful.


What it looks like

A typical gluten face will present with red, puffy cheeks, with spots of hyperpigmentation around the chin. Some people will also have pimples spread out over the chin. Your face can also become bloated or swollen.

The science behind it

Social media has been all over gluten sensitivity for some time now, and you may have already read several articles with various opinions about its validity. However, you should understand that there is a true medical condition where the body reacts to gluten. Celiac disease is a medical condition where the immune system reacts to a particular protein found in gluten. It can be diagnostically tested, and diagnosed, by determining whether particular antibodies are in one’s blood, followed by a biopsy of the small intestine. Currently, 1% of the US population lives with Celiac disease.

Gluten sensitivity is a term used for people that react to gluten, but do not have Celiac disease. While there are many different variations as to how people react to gluten, I have seen many patients complexion be affected by the consumption of gluten.

Generally, when one reacts to the proteins found in gluten, an inflammatory reaction, or protective response involving immune cells, immune mediators, and blood vessels, occurs. An inflammatory reaction can look and feel different to each individual. However, it will consist of some combination of the 5 cardinal signs inflammation: pain (dolor), heat(calor), redness (rubor), swelling (tumor), and loss of function. For gluten face, a combination of redness, swelling, and sometimes heat, will occur, resulting in the red, puffy cheeks displayed in the picture.

Last, but certainly not least, consumption of gluten can cause spots of hyperpigmentation and pimples on the chin. The constant inflammatory reaction due to gluten consumption can really exhaust the immune system. This can, in turn, can throw off the balance of hormones in your body. When hormones are out of whack, it often shows on one’s face, particularly on the chin.

How do you fix it?

While you could try enzymes to aid in the digestion of gluten, the fact of the matter is that nothing will resolve this issue as well as cutting it from your diet completely. I offer many resources to patients cutting gluten from their diet to make the transition as seamless as possible. To help your body clear gluten more efficiently, increase your water and fiber intake by drinking more water and eating more green leafy vegetables, fruits, and legumes.


What it looks like

Fine lines and wrinkles with or without redness between the eyes, redness on the cheeks and nose, pronounced “smile” lines (think lines between your nose and the corners of your mouth), enlarged pores, droopy eyelids, and dehydrated skin.

The science behind it 

When one consumes alcohol, it can have a direct effect on the immune system. More specifically, immune cells will emit more pro-inflammatory chemical messages to the blood stream resulting in redness in between the eyes, on the cheeks and nose.

Alcohol can be very dehydrating, which is why you may be familiar with the recommendation of alternating alcoholic beverages with a glass of water. The dehydration related to alcohol consumption can be held responsible for those fine lines and wrinkles between the eyes, and those deeper lines between your nose and the corners of your mouth. These lines and wrinkles will often soften and dissipate when you rehydrate.

Because alcohol is high in sugar, the skin plumping collagen responsible for your youthful appearance can suffer due to the damage sugar can do to collagen’s delicate fibers. Damaged collagen, along with a loss of elasticity, will explain those drooping eyelids, and enlarged pores you can wake up with after a night out.

If you have ever heard of face mapping, you may not be surprised to learn that the space in between the eyes is associated with the liver. Alcohol puts great stress and strain on the liver with regular use. Some people have deficiencies in liver enzymes that process alcohol, and will tend to show these deficiencies on their face in this area. Another sign your liver needs some extra TLC? Open your mouth and say “Ahhhh!” Does your tongue have a purple hue?

How do you fix it?

I would recommend taking a break from alcohol to see how your face responds for a minimum of 2 weeks, but preferably 4 weeks. After abstaining for 2-4 weeks, I would recommend limiting your alcohol intake to 7 drinks per week (if you are a female). However, there are some people that can react severely to just one glass of wine. If this is you, you may want to consider some diagnostic allergy testing to determine what exactly you are reacting to.


What it looks like

Dark circles under the eyes, with or without “bags,” and swollen, puffy eyelids. Pimples concentrated on the chin, and dispersed throughout the face.

The science behind it 

Most people with a dairy intolerance struggle to digest the sugar, known as lactose, found in products such as milk, cheese, and ice cream. This is due to a lack of activity from the enzyme that breaks down lactose called lactase. While many will experience symptoms of this enzyme deficiency early in life (gas, bloating, diarrhea, etc.), what many don’t realize is that one can develop issues digesting lactose later in life. This is because as we age, we can lose the proper enzymatic activity needed to thoroughly digest lactose. In this case, it can be common to experience dairy intolerance as an inflammatory response seen on the face, rather than the more common digestive symptoms. 

For me, the most telling sign on someone’s face of a dairy intolerance is what I refer to as “allergic shiners.” Some of us may be familiar with the term “shiner” to describe a puffy, inflamed eye that is black and blue from some sort of trauma. Allergic shiners are somewhat similar. They will present with dark, prominent circles under the eyes, with or without puffiness of the upper and lower eyelids. We can thank our robust immune system in our gut for this inflammatory response producing these hard to cover under eye circles and puffiness around the eyes.

So what about the pimples? Many dairy products are made with milk from cows treated with antibiotics, hormones, painkillers, growth promoters, and more. Not to mention the fact that many cows are fed corn being grown with the help of cancer causing chemicals. Your glass of milk can contain over 20 hormones and chemicals! All these hormones can wreak havoc on the delicate balance of your hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone. A hormonal imbalance can potentiate skin cells to grow at a faster rate, producing blocked pores and trapping bacteria, resulting in breakouts. Many breakouts that are hormone related have a tendency to erupt on the chin.

How do you fix it?

This is another situation where I would recommend complete elimination of the culprit, in this case dairy, for a minimum of 2 weeks, preferably 4 weeks. If you decide to reintroduce dairy into your diet, I would recommend trying hard cheeses first, followed by soft cheeses, yogurt, and lastly milk and cream products. While all dairy products are made from milk, the transformation from milk to other dairy products denatures proteins and enzymes, which may change the severity (or probability) of a potential reaction.

We all want to put our best face forward. In fact, women spend over $426 billion dollars on beauty products, and almost $12 billion dollars on invasive surgical cosmetic procedures each year! Wow! What if you could treat the cause of your facial woes? What if you could save thousands of dollars on beauty products and cosmetic procedures, simply by changing your diet? Now, that my friends, is food for thought.

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