soy and acne: why we avoid this food for clear skin

here at skinSALVATION, we encourage our clients to adopt several healthy dietary changes, one of the most important being the avoidance of soy products. i know, i know – isn’t soy supposed to be a healthy wonder food, a complete protein dream? as all skinSALVATION clients learn, soy may not be as healthy for clear skin as we’ve always thought. this seemingly harmless legume may be reeking havoc on your endocrine, digestive and detox systems, contributing to painful acne in the process.

from an sS perspective, here are the top three reasons to avoid soy, especially if you are acne-prone:

1. soy can alter hormonal balance

soy contains phytoestrogens, or plant constituents that are structurally similar to the estrogen that we produce in our bodies.1 phytoestrogenic plants can affect our own hormones by altering the levels of estrogen in our bodies relative to other sex hormones.2 these phytoestrogens replace our biologically-produced estrogen in our cell receptors, disrupting the body’s hormonal balance and often resulting in a decrease in estrogen production and an increase in androgens.3 elevated androgens, specifically dht, can greatly impact the formation of acne by causing our glands to produce more oil. but let’s step back for one moment and talk about the liver. we all know that the liver’s primary function in the body is detoxification. our livers constantly work to remove not only toxins from our bloodstreams, but also excess hormones. estrogen happens to be the primary hormone that needs to be detoxed from our bodies, partially due to the nearly ubiquitous presence of xenoestrogens (also known as endocrine disrupters) in plastics, beauty products and in harsh household cleaners.4 if we bombard our bodies with this extra estrogen from plants and from our environments, our livers become taxed and are unable to perform their daily detox duties. and if the liver cannot perform its detoxing duties, it relies on other organs, like the skin, to pick up the slack. this can result in hormonal acne breakouts. additionally, these phytoestrogen-induced hormonal fluctuations can be especially detrimental for women dealing with pcos, infertility and other endocrine issues.5,6

2. soy inhibits the absorption of vitamins, minerals and protein

another major contributor to acne is inadequate nutrient absorption, either due to a poor diet or due to an impaired ability to absorb nutrients from foods as they move through the digestive tract. soy is a member of the legume family, along with other beans, chickpeas and peanuts. legumes, like nuts and seeds, are designed to survive the digestive systems of whichever creatures consume them so that they can reproduce successfully.7 in order to ensure their survival, legumes emit protective substances called lectins, which are associated with increased intestinal permeability and with inflammation of the gut.8,9 soybeans also contain phytic acid, which binds to vitamins and minerals like calcium and zinc, actively preventing their absorption.10 zinc, in particular, is crucial for keeping acne at bay because it helps reduce systemic inflammation and it can help lower dht levels.11 and even though soy is technically a complete protein, it is rife with protease inhibitors, which interfere with the digestion of protein.12 so put down that soy cappuccino – we all know about the anti-nutrient powers of coffee, after all – and start sipping a coconut milk matcha latte instead!

3. soy can be inflammatory

while it may be tempting to argue that cultures all over the world have been consuming soy for centuries to no detriment, we must keep in mind the ways in which soy crops have changed over time and in alignment with a western agricultural model. in traditional japanese cultures, soy was used only in small amounts at meals and was often fermented before consumption, allowing for easier digestion and for fewer hormonal impacts.13 soy is now rarely fermented and constitutes a relatively large percentage of western diets in the form of fillers in processed foods (soy lecithin, soybean oil, soy protein, etc). jumping from 8% gmo in 1997 to 94% gmo in 2014, soy is the most frequently genetically-modified crop in the united states today and it usually comes packed with a host of endocrine-disrupting pesticides.14 additionally, soybean oil is one of the most inflammatory omega-6 oils – the oil is extracted from the soybean using hexane, a solvent that has been characterized by the CDC as a neurotoxin.15 these chemicals, along with the indigestibility of legumes, elevate our internal inflammation levels, exacerbating acne breakouts.

looking for some alternatives to soy? here are some essential sS tips:

  • choose other legumes or green peas over soybeans or edamame
  • switch out that soy sauce (yes, including bragg’s) for coconut aminos by coconut secretbig tree farms or trader joe’s.
  • ditch the soy milk and start experimenting with rice, oat or nut milks. they’re delicious and creamy and you can even save money by making your own! califia farms and new barn are great options.
  • opt for products that use sunflower lecithin over soy lecithin – become a master label-reader!
  • if you’re vegetarian and need the protein, try pea protein, cheeses made from nuts, and black bean burgers with quinoa for the protein boost. check out kite hill nut cheese in the refrigerator section of your local natural foods store.

footnotes

1. ieh. (2000) phytoestrogens in the human diet (web report w3), leicester, uk, institute for environment and health. posted october 2000.
2. davis, s.r., et al. (1999) phytoestrogens in health and disease. recent progress in hormone research. 54:185-211.
3. nagata, c., et al. (1998) effect of soymilk consumption on serum estrogen concentrations in premenopausal japanese women. journal of the national cancer institute. 1998; 90:1830–1835.
4. mccormick, k. (2017) the liver’s role in hormone balance. connections: an educational resource of women’s international pharmacy.
5. patisaul, h.b., et al. (2014) soy but not bisphenol a (bpa) induces hallmarks of polycystic ovary syndrome (pcos) and related metabolic co-morbidities in rats. reproductive toxicology. 2014 nov; 49:209-18.
6. chandrareddy, a., et al. (2008) adverse effects of phytoestrogens on reproductive health: a report of three cases. complementary therapies in clinical practice. 2008; 14:132–135.
7. franco, l. & genovese, m.i. (2002) nutritional significance of lectins and enzyme inhibitors from legumes. journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 50 (22): 6592–6598.
8. puszatai, a. (1988) biological effects of dietary lectins. recent advances of research of antinutritional factors of legume seeds. 17-29.
9. chen, a. & donovan, s. (2004) genistein at a concentration present in soy infant formula inhibits caco-2bbe cell proliferation by causing g2/m cell cycle arrest. the journal of nutrition. 134 (6): 1303-1308.
10. 
sandberg, a.s. (2002) bioavailability of minerals in legumes. british journal of nutrition. 2002 cec; 88 suppl 3:s281-5.
11. stamatiadis, d., et al. (1988) inhibition of 5 alpha-reductase activity in human skin by zinc and azelaic acid. british journal of dermatology. 1988 nov; 119(5):627-32.
12. american nutrition association. (2015) review: the whole soy story. 38(2).
13. kresser, c. (2011) 9 steps to perfect health – #1: don’t eat toxins. posted 28 january 2011.
14. usda. (2016) recent trends in ge adoption. economic research service. 
15. centers for disease control and prevention. (2017) organic solvents. national institute for occupational safety and health.