Acne Cured By Self-Experimentation

In November, at Quantified Self Europe, Martha Rotter, who lives in Ireland, gave a talk about how she cured her acne by self-experimentation. She summarizes her talk like this (slides here):

When I moved to Ire­land [from Seattle] in 2007, I began to have skin prob­lems. It began gradu­ally and I attrib­uted it to the move, to stress, to late nights drink­ing with developers and cli­ents, to travel, to whatever excuses I could think of. The stress was mul­ti­plied by the anxi­ety of being embar­rassed about how my face looked, but also because my new job in Ire­land involved me being on stage in front of large audi­ences con­stantly, often sev­eral times a week. A year later my skin was per­petu­ally inflamed, red, full of sores and very pain­ful. When one spot would go away, two more would spring up in its place. It was a tough time. I cried a lot.

Frus­trated, I went to see my homet­own der­ma­to­lo­gist while I was home for hol­i­days. He told me that a) this was com­pletely nor­mal and b) there was noth­ing I could do but go on anti­bi­ot­ics for a year (in addi­tion to spend­ing a for­tune on creams and pills). I didn’t believe either of those things.

I was not inter­ested in being on an anti­bi­otic for a year, nor was I inter­ested in Accu­tane (my best friend has had it mul­tiple times and it hasn’t had long term res­ults, plus it can be risky). What I was inter­ested in was fig­ur­ing out why this was hap­pen­ing and chan­ging my life to make it stop. I refused to accept my dermatologist’s insist­ence that what you put in your body has no effect on how you look and feel.

I began sys­tem­at­ic­ally cut­ting things out of my diet to see how I reacted. First chicken and soy, based on a recom­mend­a­tion from a food aller­gist. Over the course of a year I cut out sugar, glu­ten, carbs, starches, caf­feine, meat, fish until finally the magical month of Decem­ber 2010 when I cut out dairy. My skin was my own again by New Year’s day this year.

It took a year to fig­ure it out. It was com­pletely worth it. There’s noth­ing wrong with Irish dairy, it just doesn’t work for me. I drink Amer­icanos instead of lattes now, I don’t eat cer­eal; none of that is a huge deal. For what it’s worth, I can drink goat’s milk.

A great example of the power of self-experimentation compared to trusting doctors. One quibble: I’ll be more sure “there’s nothing wrong with Irish dairy” if she finds that American dairy also causes skin problems. The evidence so far (she didn’t have skin problems until she moved to Ireland) suggests that at least for her American dairy (i.e., dairy where she lived in America) is better than Irish dairy. I have heard Irish dairy praised. They sell Irish butter at Beijing stores near me. I won’t be buying it.

At the end of her post she makes a very important point:

Quan­ti­fied Self isn’t for every­one, but every­one should feel they have the power to change things in their body and their life for the better.

I agree. By learning about examples of people who have done just that — such as Martha — we will come closer to having that power. Right now, as far as I can tell, most people feel helpless. They do what doctors or other experts tell them to do, even if it doesn’t work very well.

Long ago, hardly anyone could read. This left them in the grip of those who could. But eventually came mass literacy, when the benefits of reading finally exceeded the costs (e.g., because more books were available at lower prices). Reading is primitive science: if you read about things that happened, it is information gathering. It resembles doing a survey. Nowadays, almost everyone (in rich countries) reads, but almost no one does experimental science. This leaves them in the grip of those who can do experimental science (e.g., drug companies). I think my work and Martha’s work suggest we are close to another turning point, where, for nonscientists, the benefits of doing experiments exceed the costs.

Thanks to Gary Wolf.

13 Responses to “Acne Cured By Self-Experimentation”

  1. gwern Says:

    > The evidence so far (she didn’t have skin problems until she moved to Ireland) suggests that at least for her American dairy (i.e., dairy where she lived in America) is better than Irish dairy. I have heard Irish dairy praised. They sell Irish butter at Beijing stores near me. I won’t be buying it.

    Or it could be an equilibrium effect – she tolerated whatever it was in dairy until a shock to her system weakened her. Could retrospect for similar massive shocks (going to college? a parent dying?) and try to recall if there were any acne outbreaks.

    You’ve probably seen https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/magazine/tara-parker-pope-fat-trap.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all which discusses an equilibrium shift for obesity.

    (I think something similar happened to my sister which lead to her gluten allergy becoming a huge problem and then discovered.)

    In any case, if you like the taste of Irish-style butter and don’t have acne problems, this doesn’t seem like a good reason to shun it.

  2. Jay Says:

    I’ll never stop buying my delicious Kerrygold Irish butter!

  3. Glen Raphael Says:

    Another quibble: she’d need to resume dairy for a bit (and see the acne return) to conclude it was the dairy and not something more like regression to the mean. Her treatment course as described sounds a lot like what convinced doctors to over-trust depression meds. To wit:

    I have condition X, so I try treatment A. That doesn’t help so I try treatment B. Then C. Then D. At the end of a year, condition X resolves and I credit the last thing I tried right before the improvement – which was treatment H.

    If you try one thing and get better right away, that’s evidence that the thing you tried worked. But if you try 10 things over the course of a year it’s a foregone conclusion that you were trying something when you get better, but the evidence is weak that the getting better had to do with the specific last thing you tried.

    (The things she mentions trying are the removal of: chicken, soy, sugar, glu­ten, carbs, starches, caf­feine, meat, fish, dairy). Ten things. Heck, for all we know it could be one of the earlier ones (with some delay in effectiveness). Or none of them.

  4. Sarah Madden Says:

    For what it’s worth I live in Ireland and used to have acne, cutting out dairy didn’t do a thing, increasing it helped though. What was the ultimate cure for me was increasing intake of vitamin E. Anytime people cut out a food they replace it with something else. For all we know that’s what made the difference.

    I would eat Irish dairy which is grass-fed and natural as they come before chinese dairy that has god knows what contaminants in it..

  5. Martha Rotter Says:

    Hi Glen, good points! What I may not have done a great job explaining in my blog post that I covered in great detail in my talk is that each of those things I cut out for a month. So no caffeine for a month – no result? Okay, caffeine back in. When I cut dairy out it was dairy only. Everything else in my diet was the same. As you mention, it would be impossible to attribute it to one thing otherwise!

    Now I have introduced goats milk back in to my diet and occasionally cows milk cheeses. But at this point, when I do have cream or milk with coffee or something dairy like a dessert I feel like indulging in, it’s often just a matter of hours before I can feel my face heating up somewhere and I know I’ll have a spot the following day. But the difference is that now I can weigh the cost and I know what I’m getting in to.

    Hope that clarifies a little, sorry for any confusion.

  6. Seth Roberts Says:

    But at this point, when I do have cream or milk with coffee or something dairy like a dessert I feel like indulging in, it’s often just a matter of hours before I can feel my face heating up somewhere and I know I’ll have a spot the following day.

    This does not fit the grass-fed/non-grass-fed emphasis we usually hear when discussing the quality of dairy products (grass-fed = good, non-grass-fed = bad). Grass-fed is supposedly better because grass has more omega-3 than the alternative to grass (e.g., corn). The presence/absence of omega-3 in cream or dessert is unlikely to make such a big difference so quickly. Nor is it clear how omega-3 can cause skin problems. It sounds like something else about Irish dairy is causing the problem.

  7. Seth Roberts Says:

    I would eat Irish dairy which is grass-fed and natural as they come before chinese dairy that has god knows what contaminants in it.

    I agree. There has just been another scandal about contaminated milk in China. In Beijing, I eat American butter (Land O’Lakes). The cream I use is from Nestle but thanks to your comment I see it is made in China — I won’t buy it again. No wonder it was much cheaper than other cream. I cannot avoid buying Chinese milk but I buy the most expensive brand.

  8. threepipeproblem Says:

    I also think you should question eschewing Irish butter from this one tale. Kerrygold is one of the few grass-fed butters that is widely available. It tastes awesome, has a higher omega-3 content, and vitamins such as choline and K which are almost nonexistent in traditional butters.

  9. Darrin Thompson Says:

    We give Kerrygold to our autism kids because we’ve found it contriutes to peace around the house.

    Because we get it at Costco and it’s priced well, I wonder how it’s being processed, etc. There’s got to be something wrong with it, right? I’d like it if there was a third pary who could verify what exactly grass-fed means to Kerrygold and how the product is handled before it makes it to the store shelf.

    However, the results are pretty good. So, yay Kerrygold.

    To your point about grass-fed not neccessairly meaning good, what is grass? As consumers we want to imagine cows in a patoral scene grazing lazily in a field of deep green beside a crystal stream of mountain snow melt. I imagine the commercial or regulatory definition (if there even is one) of grass-fed is much broader.

    It could be that Kerrygold is racing to the bottom by being cheap. Or it could be they’re the second coming of Warren Edward Deming in the dairy industry, an application of scientific method to the process of creating butter with a long term focus on the integrity of the product and the business. Who knows?

    In the end, I’m happy with the results in our family and we eat a lot of it.

    What I don’t see after a quick perusal, where did she move to Ireland _from_? What about _that_ dairy? What’s the difference?

    :-)

  10. Seth Roberts Says:

    What I don’t see after a quick perusal, where did she move to Ireland _from_? What about _that_ dairy? What’s the difference?

    She moved to Ireland from Seattle. My guess is that Irish dairy is less processed (e.g., less heated) than Seattle dairy. Milk contains dozens of different molecules. Seattle processing destroyed something that the Irish processing left intact. Another possibility is that Irish cows are better nourished and certain allergens were at higher concentrations in Irish dairy than in Seattle dairy.

  11. Peter Andrews Says:

    My guess is that she may have a dairy sensitivity that only occurs when vitamin D levels are low. I don’t know where she is from but Ireland has a very cloudy climate. Dr. Cannell at the Vitamin D council has also written of a vitamin D and acne link.

  12. Seth Roberts Says:

    My guess is that she may have a dairy sensitivity that only occurs when vitamin D levels are low. I don’t know where she is from but Ireland has a very cloudy climate.

    Seattle — where she lived before Ireland — is also very cloudy. On the other hand it is possible she spent more time outdoors in Seattle.

  13. jbug Says:

    does she have a leaky gut and the milk casien is leaking into her system causing and autoimmune/inflammatory response?