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The Willow Journal

A Clinical Herbalist's Guide to Healing Acne

A Clinical Herbalist's Guide to Healing Acne

Written by Elliott Brinkley, Clinical Herbalist and Owner of Dancing Willow Herbs

Skin was what originally brought me into the world of natural healing. From age 14 to 24, I struggled with chronic deep cystic acne. In my teens, I took the conventional route where my dermatologist put me on antibiotics, birth control, and eventually Accutane, all of which did not resolve my skin issues. The lack of conventional progress heightened my interest in plants, nutrition and mental/emotional healing. This led me to try countless natural remedies, eagerly awaiting my magical cure. It wasn’t until I became dedicated toward impeccably changing my diet, working with the right plants, and repleting my body with the proper nutrients that I started seeing a tremendous difference in my skin. This journey, and the emotional resilience it took to find my inner self confidence have made me who I am today. 

This guide is composed of the tools and practices that made the biggest difference in my personal experience in resolving my acne. I have also drawn from experiences working with clients in clearing up their skin.

It is important to mention, that skin is a multifaceted and complex organ. I witness people in the natural medicine field touting quick fixes, or belittling the magnitude of this phenomenon by neglecting to address the emotional aspect of what it is like to have acne. In addition to nutritional, herbal and lifestyle recommendations, I will also provide ways to support your emotional process while healing your skin from within.


Elimination Diet

One of the first stops on a vitalist herbalist’s healing train is almost always, removing food allergens. 

For me, removing food allergens have been the biggest piece in shifting the picture of my skin. I spent years dabbling in mostly being gluten free, but ordering glutenous items at restaurants, or having “bites” here and there. It wasn’t until I spent 1 month completely gluten free that my skin started to turn a corner. While it was challenging at first to assert my needs at restaurants or dinners with friends, after seeing such dramatic results, it became easier and easier to choose my own health over the comfort of others. My skin was clearer than it had ever been before but I also felt more mental clarity, blood sugar stability and less digestive disruption. 

After cutting out gluten impeccably for several years, I continued to have occasional cysts pop up on my face or back. At this point, I was working with a clinical herbalist who identified the low hanging fruit… I was eating astronomical amounts of butter. I had identified that when I had dairy in my coffee, or cheese regularly, I broke out more often. For this reason, I avoided it- mostly, besides the fact that I was cooking with butter… and making butter sandwiches with pecans. Yeah, read that again, butter was like the cheese in the middle of my pecans… it was delicious and a bit excessive. After completely removing dairy from my diet for 6 weeks, I noticed a marked difference in the inflammation shown in my skin.

This is the same experience I have seen reflected in my clients with acne. Most of the folks who do an elimination diet, don’t seem to want to even re-challenge because they feel so much better.

The foods that may be irritating to us are unique to each individual. For folks struggling with skin issues gluten, dairy, corn and sometimes eggs seem to be the biggest triggers. By removing an irritant from the diet, the body has a chance to play catch up: to quell the fires of inflammation, to heal irritated gut tissue, to mop up lymphatics and retrain the immune system.

Elimination diet:

The golden standard for identifying a food allergen is by doing a 6 week elimination diet. Take notes on your current symptoms for your personal records before removing any foods. Then stock up with alternatives. I tend to prefer people leaning on whole food meals and vegetables instead of finding alternatives that are highly refined and filled with poor quality oils (see oil change below)- such as gluten free breads, alternative butters or cheeses, etc. Mark your start date on a calendar, and get excited about some recipes within your parameters. Because inflammation from a given intolerance happens on a molecular level, even the tiniest amount can trigger an inflammatory cascade. If you eat the food that you are cutting out, even a small amount, you will need to start from the beginning and do another 6 weeks. 


At the end of the 6 weeks, do another symptoms chart and see how your skin and any other symptoms may have changed. Reintroduce the food by eating it at every meal for 1 day, see how you feel after 2 days. If you don’t notice any symptoms by day 3, eat the food at every meal for another 2 days in a row. If you don’t notice any symptoms, this food may not be an issue for you! If you do notice symptoms, you may decide to refrain from eating this food.


Oil Change

Are you due for an oil change? An oil change is when you remove all highly refined seed oils from your diet and replace them with high quality Omega 3 oils. This change dramatically shifts our inflammatory cascade, cellular communications, immunological function, and skin health overall. Our cells are made up of a phospholipid-bilayer, which is essentially a porous layer of fat that still allows for the exchange of water and other essential materials. Every time we consume oils, they get incorporated into the phospholipid-bilayer of our cells. If these cells are made up of highly processed oils with an incompatible molecular structure, they cannot properly communicate with other cells. This can lead to cellular damage, disfunction and inflammation.

Moral of the story, less highly refined seed oils and more Omega 3s and other good quality oils will promote healthy skin that heals quickly and is less inflamed.

Highly refined seed oils are found in almost all processed or packaged foods, snacks, nut/oat milks, or restaurant foods. You should never cook with these or have them in your kitchen, and avoid purchasing any foods that contain them on the ingredient list. The good news is that by eating a whole foods diet, you can mitigate the consumption of these inflammatory oils significantly!

Avoid: Canola oil, cottonseed oil, rapeseed oil, margarine, safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil

Omega 3s are found in fish, grass-fed beef, grass-fed butter, organ meats, free-range eggs, algae, flaxseed, chia seed, black currant seed.

Unfortunately, the plant sources of Omega 3s do not convert very efficiently to EPA & DHA in the body. EPA & DHA are what get incorporated into the cellular makeup or used to communicate anti-inflammatory messages. The best way for vegans/vegetarians to make sure they are getting enough EPA & DHA is to supplement with an algae omega. In addition to the algae, it is wise to take one ounce of flaxseed oil daily and supplement with black currant seed oil daily.

The most bioavailable option for getting optimal levels of Omega 3 is to supplement with a high quality fish oil from reputable brands (I like Nordic Naturals). Better yet, supplement in addition to eating a diet with many whole food sources of Omega 3s and Omega 9 (Olive and avocado oil). 

For acne, and other skin conditions, I start my clients on 4g Omega 3 daily for 1-2 months. In addition to an elimination diet and herbs, this higher dose can be supportive at more quickly turning the needle of inflammation to start seeing results in your skin.

*Bonus points- Vitamin D is also critical for skin health and when paired with Omega 3 acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory. Consider supplementing 5,000 IUs daily.


Supporting Organs of Detoxification & Elimination

If you have researched herbs for clearing up acne at all, you have probably learned about “liver herbs”. In western herbalism, the liver tends to be the main focus of anything to do with the skin. I agree that supporting liver detoxification is an important piece in clearing up skin conditions, and it is not the whole picture. I think instead of tunneling in on “liver herbs”, we need to think about supporting all organs of detoxification. If we stimulate liver detox, and are not having regular bowel movements, we are doing more harm than good. For this reason, detoxification needs to start in the GI tract.

GI Support: 

GI health becomes complex and individualized quickly, and deserves its own in depth blog post. What I see most often with folks struggling with skin issues is a matter of gastrointestinal lining permeability (aka “leaky gut”). Luckily, herbal formulas designed toward healing the gut also tend to address other common digestive issues- such as bloating, abdominal pain, constipation/diarrhea, and bacterial overgrowths. In addition to an elimination diet, and an oil change, drinking a gut healing tea helps to repair optimal digestive function.

Tummy Tea is our gut healing tea made at Dancing Willow Herbs. This tea is powerful because it has been formulated to address the multifaceted nature of digestion. It includes vulnerary herbs, aka herbs that heal wounds, Plantain and Chamomile. Carminative herbs, that ease gas/bloating, such as Fennel, Licorice, Peppermint and Fenugreek. Demulcent herbs that help to coat and soothe the gut lining, such as Marshmallow. And even a nervine, Chamomile, which helps to reduce stress that may be relating to digestive issues. For optimal results, we recommend drinking 2-4 cups daily.

Other digestion therapeutics:

-Probiotics in the form of fermented foods like sauerkraut, Kim chi, pickles and/or a probiotic supplement.

-Prebiotics in the form of root vegetables, onions/leeks, burdock, dandelion, artichoke, asparagus.

-Eat the rainbow, mostly cooked for easier digestion.

-Bone broth to help heal the gut lining and provide the body/skin with amino acids for healing.

Liver Support:

There are a few herbs which help support liver detoxification as well as digestion, these are some of the premier skin herbs in western herbalism, namely, Burdock root and Yellow Dock root.

Burdock is an alterative herb, meaning it helps to purify the blood by supporting organs of elimination. Compared to yellow dock, which has a very liver stimulating effect, Burdock focuses more on the GI-skin axis. It is rich in inulin, which is a prebiotic fiber that feeds the good microbes in the gut. It supports liver detoxification in a sustainable way, helps to clear swollen lymph nodes associated with breakouts, and supports optimal motility and the evacuation of toxic metabolites that have been broken down by the liver.

Yellow dock is also alterative, but it is a bit more stimulating. It contains a small amount of anthroquinoine glycosides, which have a mild laxative effect. Unlike other herbs containing these compounds, yellow dock doesn’t cause dependency. Making it a great ally for those who tend toward constipation as well as skin issues. It helps stimulate secretion of bile from the liver to emulsify fats, and support the liver detoxification process.

Yellow dock and Burdock are in our Skin Clear formula along with some herbs that help support lymphatic drainage, liver clearance and overall detoxification. We recommend 2-3 dropperfuls, 2-3x daily for this formula.


Cultivating Confidence from Within

Skin conditions are outward expressions of inner disruption. This inner disruption is usually a physical phenomenon that is accompanied by layers of emotional lessons. Everyone has unique lessons based on their purpose and path in this world. As it relates to skin, the lessons I see most often are feelings of unworthiness, fear of being seen, and an inability to set boundaries.

When we break out, there is a tendency to want to hide. Having spent many a time crying over the state of my skin, I completely understand the ways in which our sense of worth can be tied to this outward expression of how others see us. But here is the thing, skin conditions give us an opportunity to get painstakingly clear about who we are based on our inner authenticity- not on how we look.

Your worth is not based on how others perceive you. Your worth is based on how you perceive yourself.

If we can see ourselves for who we are at our core, based on our own personal gifts, attributes, and passions, we are set free to show up and be seen for who we really are in this world.

A flower essence that I like to work with for this purpose is Crab Apple. Crab Apple helps us develop self acceptance for things that would otherwise be seen as flaws or shameful. This essence promotes love and care for our internal and external self expression.

To engage with this essence, simply take 4 drops of Crab Apple flower essence on your tongue 4x daily. You may also consider making a mantra associated with your purpose in healing moving forward, state the mantra every time you take the essence. You can also add the flower essence to drinks, bath water, room sprays or face mists. The more you incorporate the essence around you, the more powerfully it will work with you.

A dear friend of mine once said, “Skin conditions make strong people.” Let this be the case for you, with trust that you can come out on the other side- confident in your inner glow radiating like honey in the sun.


A summary of therapeutics:

-Eliminate gluten or dairy (or both) to start for 6 weeks

-Avoid highly processed seed oils like the plague

-Supplement 4g daily with meals, Omega 3 supplement or Algae Omega supplement

-5,000 IUs Vitamin D daily

-Skin Clear Tincture, 2-3 mL, 2-3x daily

-Tummy Tea, 2-4 cups daily

-Crab Apple flower essence, 4 drops, 4x daily


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