If you didn’t read Part 1 of this post, I suggest you go back and do that first.
Summer of 2010. That was the summer I went off birth control and it is where Part 2 of this story will begin.
That summer, I’d been on a hormonal birth control pill for about 5-6 years. The birth control I was on was called Estrostep Fe, one small pill that I took every day. It was a lesser known birth control and not one that any of my girlfriends were on, but it was what my gynecologist recommended. To be honest, I didn’t do a lick of research about birth control when I started the pill. Why would I? I was a 16 year old with a new boyfriend and I didn’t want to worry about getting pregnant. Sure, my mom mentioned once or twice that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with it because she’d heard that it might mean I’d have a higher risk of breast cancer, but her warnings were nowhere near enough to stop me. No one really explained what birth control did to a woman’s body. All they told me was that I had to take this tiny pill every day, my periods would be regulated and I would likely not get pregnant. As a bonus, they told me it was also effective in preventing acne and PMS symptoms, neither of which I had when I first went on the pill, so that barely mattered to me. Really, it was all about preventing pregnancy, which I believe is the motivation for many 16 year old girls.
I never experienced any side effects while I was on the pill. I literally cannot recall one. All in all, aside from the annoyance of remembering to take a pill every day, I had no complaints.
After I graduated college I discovered the paleo diet and became more and more aware about what I was putting in my body. After months of prioritizing healthy food choices, I realized that being on birth control no longer fit into what I considered a “healthy” lifestyle. I was still clueless as to what birth control was actually doing to my body, but I could just sense it was unnatural and something I didn’t want to do anymore. So, without consulting my doctor, I went off the pill. Cold turkey. No one told me to do anything differently, so I did what I assumed everyone else would do. I just stopped taking the pills.
At first, nothing changed. Months and months went by to the point where birth control had become pretty old news. As far as I knew, I was done with that period of my life and I would never have to think about taking the pill again if I didn’t want to. It was a choice I had made, it served me well while I was on it, but it was no longer something I wanted in my life. When I stopped taking the pill, I expected that to be the very last page of that book.
March 2011. About 6-8 months after I had stopped the pill. I had a new job, a new boyfriend (now my husband) and a new apartment. I was pretty ecstatic about where my life was headed during that period of time. I was still following a paleo diet and in almost every way, I felt better than ever. Digestive issues that I’d struggled with since I was a baby (which I talk about in Part 1 of this post) had virtually disappeared and I felt more energetic, less hungry… pretty much everything was working out.
Then one night, something odd happened. I started feeling a weird pain on my eyelid. I thought maybe my eye makeup or a contact lens was irritating me so I figured I would go home, take my makeup off, take my contacts out and everything would be resolved in the morning. Not only was it not resolved in the morning, but I woke up with what I soon learned was a stye.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, having a stye is basically like having a really painful, cystic pimple on your eyelid. Sounds fun right? Not. It hurts, it stings, it makes your eye water and it takes days to heal. Not only that, but it’s pretty impossible to wear makeup or contacts as a result, both of which I did regularly. What I thought was just one random stye that I’d never had before and would never get again… that one stye turned into about 12-15 over the next month or two. When one stye healed, I would get another and then another and another. Sometimes I would have two on one eye, sometimes they would be on my top eyelid, sometimes on the bottom, sometimes one on both eyes simultaneously.
The point is, the styes were absolutely miserable. I did a ton of research at the time and really couldn’t figure out why they kept occurring. They’re normally caused by a bacterial infection and most people only get one as a fluke. It’s often some sort of reaction to a topical product or makeup. After I got my first stye, I completely stopped wearing makeup. I also stopped wearing contacts, yet the styes persisted. I could not for the life of me figure out why they kept coming back if nothing out of the ordinary was bothering my eyes.
By the time I’d had about 10 styes, I got pretty adept at fighting them. I knew exactly what one felt like at the beginning stage and using a combination of things like raw garlic, tea tree oil and warm compresses, I began being able to stop them in their tracks. At some point, I also got a very small sample of an antibacterial eye drop from a dermatologist. I used that for a few days. I am not sure if it was those drops or if they just happened to stop, but eventually they did stop. I was thrilled.
A couple of months passed until something else started to occur… I started getting mild but pretty irritating acne on my forehead. I had bangs at the time so it wasn’t hard to cover it. The acne was annoying and persisted solely on my forehead for about a year or so. I went to a couple of dermatologists who prescribed some topical creams, but nothing really helped. At the time, it was irritating, but I didn’t think much of it. It was a manageable annoyance.
Having said that, I think it was during this period of time that I first thought that perhaps there was a connection between going off birth control, my styes and now this acne. I knew I’d heard acne could be hormonal, but was that my issue? How would I even know? I’d been off the pill for almost a full year before starting to notice my acne, so it seemed hard to believe. Additionally, I read that hormonal acne is most often visible on your chin and jawline, neither of which I had at the time. I definitely thought about it in passing, but that was it. I figured that if the acne was caused by going off birth control, then it would eventually just heal itself as my hormones leveled out. I couldn’t really find much about hormonal issues connected to styes, but I figured all of this had to be related somehow. The styes and acne seemed really similar in how they manifested themselves. (Painful bumps on my face).
Over the next 2-4 years, my acne persisted. After being exclusively on my forehead, it soon traveled to my chin. But it didn’t stop there. I eventually started noticing it on my cheeks. To be honest, it should have been a red flag when it appeared on my chin and jawline, reminding me about a possible hormonal cause, but so many years had passed making it unfathomable to me that birth control played a role in this chronic problem. Why would I think differently? Every single doctor I went to prescribed topical treatments and told me “it wasn’t that bad”. No doctor had ever told me that going off the pill could severely affect my hormones and certainly no one mentioned that among other things, going off birth control will cause you to break out in acne for many, many years.
During this period of time over the past 5 or so years, I existed somewhere between trying to ignore my acne to assuming it was caused by really anything other than hormones. I blamed my diet, my skincare products, my skincare routine (or lack thereof), I even got into a really bad fight with my now husband and blamed him at some point.
The truth is, I was utterly and completely lost and baffled. I was also determined to find the “one” thing that was causing this to happen.
My diet during this time looked a little something like this: I was pretty strict paleo when it came to food… I did include dairy in my diet, but other than that, my diet was pretty clean. Having said that, when I cheated, I cheated hard. Well, my version of hard. Going paleo for me had never been about weight loss. It was just something I did that made me feel a lot healthier and helped to eliminate my digestive issues. However, at that time, I didn’t feel I had any severe food allergies or sensitivities, so occasionally eating gluten or having a beer was never something I worried about. I kept clean most of the time, but I felt healthy and comfortable enough to have pizza and beer on the occasional weekend or holiday. I never experienced an immediate reaction and even when I cut those things out entirely, my acne pretty much stayed the same. So I continued to indulge when I wanted to because why not? It didn’t seem to be the cause of my acne and I certainly wasn’t comfortable making my life even more difficult when it came to the foods I ate, especially if it wasn’t going to cure my acne.
About two years ago, I was talking to one of my closest friends who also, oddly enough, been struggling with acne for a number of years. We would often compare acne stories, our favorite spot treatment tricks and commiserate about how much we missed the clear, smooth skin we used to have when we were teenagers. (Ironic, right?)
My friend also had no idea what had caused her acne and we both went through years of mostly blaming our food choices for our problems, yet getting frustrated that all of our elimination diets never really made much of a difference. Here we were, thinking we were the healthiest in our lives (she is a vegetarian but also followed a generally paleo diet), but we were both struggling with debilitating acne. It was maddening, to say the least.
Then my friend started working with Chris Kresser. After a series of intricate tests, it became clear that at least one big part of my friend’s issues was hormonal. He put her on some orally administered hormones, had her take a high dose of Vitamin C (good for increasing progesterone) and within about a year, her acne had greatly improved. She was a self-proclaimed “crazy person” that year as she called it from all of the hormonal changes that occurred, but regardless, it had helped her acne tremendously. If I remember correctly, it was just when her acne was getting better than mine was getting worse.
It was also around this time that I started to re-consider hormones as the cause of my acne too. I didn’t really know anything about it and I knew I’d have to get tested, so I decided to go to a naturopath in my area. It was expensive, but I figured it would be worth it if it meant no more acne.
I sat with the naturopath for an hour basically telling her this very story. I told her about my diet, when my acne started and I told her that I suspected it was hormone related. We set up some blood tests and she sent me home with a kit for both saliva and stool samples. I sent everything in, paid an arm and a leg and scheduled my follow-up with her.
To my complete and utter surprise, she told me she didn’t see any hormonal imbalances in my tests. What she did see were A LOT of nutrient deficiencies, that I wasn’t producing many digestive enzymes and that I had a sensitivity to both gluten and dairy. At that time, dairy was still a regular part of my diet, so I decided to cut it out. In addition to out cutting dairy, I was also prescribed a long list of supplements. I was told I would be able to notice a difference from taking the supplements in about 3-4 months.
We scheduled a followup appointment in 3 months and I was sent home with my giant bag of expensive pills and tinctures.
I am going to cut to the chase here. I took every single one of those supplements for 3 months and nothing had changed. Truly, I noticed zero improvement in my acne. I was horrified.
Not only did I not notice any difference, but my acne seemed to be the worst it had ever been. At the same time that this was going on, I had just quit my very stable job, started my own business and was overtraining, doing the Kayla Itsines Bikini Body Guide at home. (I wasn’t aware I was overtraining at the time but you can read more about that here).
In addition to my acne not improving, I also felt as if I had been taken advantage of by the naturopath. I had described my entire story in great detail and yet I she only gave me a hormone test that tested my hormonal levels on one day. Basically, the day I tested, my hormones were normal, so she assumed my hormones were normal all the time. Remember that friend I told you about who also had acne? Well, Chris Kresser had eventually given her a test where she had to test her saliva every single day for a month. That was the only test that finally showed her hormonal imbalances. I wondered why, after telling my doctor the entire story of my acne and the birth control, that she hadn’t given me this test to begin with? And now I was going to have to go back and pay more money for her mistake? I was both angry at her and angry at myself for not speaking up when I knew there might be a better hormonal test for me to take in the first place.
Needless to say, I was a mess. Instead of spending another $500 to have a follow-up appointment with this naturopath, where she would have likely recommended a more intensive hormone test, I decided to quit all of the supplements and not go back. It clearly hadn’t worked and I was done. I didn’t trust the doctor and that was enough for me to quit.
This is really when things started going from bad to worse. Last summer, the acne had become so bad that no amount of makeup could cover it up, not to mention that makeup wasn’t great for the acne to begin with. My solution was to avoid makeup completely on most days and hide in my house. There were countless times last summer when my husband wanted to go out and do something fun and instead I chose to stay home and cry about how helpless I felt. I was embarrassed, I was in pain and I was unbelievably fed up.
To give you an idea about how bad it was emotionally, I don’t think there was any time where I didn’t leave the house and instantly look at every single person’s face. I was so jealous of people with clear skin (especially when I was watching them eat junk food and binge drink) and I was desperately trying to locate other people with acne to try and figure out if it was making them as miserable as it was making me. I wasn’t a self-centered person or someone who cared about appearances, but this experience was completely emotionally draining for me. No amount of “it’s not that bad” or “no one even notices” or “you’re beautiful anyway” made me feel better. I knew there were people who had it a lot worse than I did and I also knew there were many people who were going through much more difficult issues in their lives than acne, but knowing all of that didn’t make the experience any less painful for me day in and day out.
I never had an issue with self confidence. Yet somehow, after years and years of struggling with this, it really ate away at me.
Looking back, it’s interesting to me that it only slowly overtime affected me to the extent that it did. When I look back at pictures from 3-4 years ago, my acne wasn’t all that great either. Sure, maybe it hadn’t traveled to my jawline and cheeks yet, but my skin was by no means in great shape. I am not sure if it was the acne itself or simply the never-ending struggle and stress of trying to solve the problem that left me feeling so horrible about myself. The one thing I know is that as time went on, the emotional toll got much, much worse.
It was almost exactly a year ago when I hit rock bottom. I had gone to see my husband play hockey during one of his playoff games. My acne was so bad that I didn’t want to put makeup on, but I also didn’t want to be seen. I hid under a hoodie in the corner to watch him play. His team won the game and they were all going to go out to have a celebratory beer. I got in the car with the very best intentions of coming with him, but when we arrived at the bar, I just broke down.
I decided there was no way I could go inside. I was so embarrassed by how I looked and while I knew most of my fear was irrational, I could not get myself out of that car. I insisted that my husband go inside and celebrate and that I would wait in the car while he had one beer with his teammates.
While he was inside, I sobbed in the car. I felt so pathetic for letting this affect me so much, yet I couldn’t rationalize that these huge painful and cystic pimples were “okay” and “not that big of a deal.” It was a huge deal to me and I couldn’t accept that this was how life was going to be.
That night in the car I started googling “hormonal acne” on my phone. I’d gotten to a point where I knew that if I couldn’t find a solution imminently, I was going to resort to doing something drastic like going on Accutane. I’m not going to go into the details of what Accutane is for those of you who don’t know, but it is an extremely powerful and dangerous drug that eliminates severe acne for most people. I know people who have gone this route and who had relatively good experiences, but given my natural and holistic approach to health and wellness, taking Accutane would be an absolute last ditch resort for me.
Thankfully, what I began to learn that night about hormones, hormonal acne and hormonal imbalances lead me toward what eventually became the solution to my 5 year battle with hormonal acne.
I’m going to explain what I learned in layman’s terms. Why? Because first of all, I don’t think it needs to be explained in scientific lingo that nearly no one has the patience to read and second of all, the entire reason I am sharing all of this is that I hope I can help other women like me who are experiencing the same thing. This stuff actually isn’t complicated or difficult to understand. I have always been a pretty well educated and well informed person, especially about health and wellness, yet understanding hormones, the very fundamentals of what makes my body that of a woman, was something I was completely unaware of. Not only did I not understand what hormones were, but no doctor ever lead me to believe they were something to worry about unless I was trying to get pregnant.
Let me also just note that it’s more than just slightly uncomfortable that the only time a woman’s hormones are “important” enough to discuss in a medical environment is when we are discussing child birth. Only when it comes to propagating the species are our hormones considered worth considering. For the amount of women who I’ve learned are struggling from debilitating issues (acne being only one of them) as a result of hormonal imbalances, this is a shameful fact about our medical system.
Now that you have a full picture of what my experience was during the 5 years I suffered with hormonal acne, I am going to go back and tell you what I believe was actually happening to me.
When I first went on birth control, I was told it would help to prevent pregnancy. This is how most drugs are described to us. When you are prescribed any pill or medication, you are told of its result, not of its process. When a doctor prescribes you a sleeping pill for example, they don’t go into the ways that it works, they just tell you what it’s going to do. At the time, this seems like the only important information you need to know. That’s how I felt when I was given my birth control pills.
The truth is, birth control prevents pregnancy because it is administering hormones into your body that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Instead of allowing your hormones to operate as they should (producing a baby if you have intercourse with a viable male), birth control prevents this process by snatching the steering wheel, driving the car and changing the course. The specific type of hormonal birth control that I took works by preventing the release of an egg during menstruation, (sorry this gets graphic), makes vaginal fluid thicker to help prevent sperm from reaching an egg and changes the lining of the uterus to prevent attachment of a fertilized egg. Obviously none of that is “natural,” so hormonal birth control comes in and forces your hormones into operating much differently than they naturally would. After a while, your body adapts to this.
The same way that changing your hormones can prevent pregnancy, this can also be done to address things like severe PMS, irregular cycles and hormonal acne. But taking something to “regulate” your hormones instead of actually rebalancing them won’t solve anything. It will just act as a bandaid. Once you stop taking what’s regulating your hormones, your body will have a hard time readjusting on its own. In other words, it’s a temporary fix that addresses the symptoms instead of the cause.
After I stopped taking the pill, my body was struggling to re-adjust. I just didn’t realize it at the time. Not only did the birth control I took for so long affect my hormonal health, but as a result my body was nutrient deficient and mineral deficient. Even though I’d noticed some improvements from a paleo diet, my gut was also still in pretty bad shape.
Instead of addressing these issues immediately after coming off the pill, I let them be for 5 whole years. Thankfully, I have a pretty healthy life when it comes to diet and exercise, but eventually the problems caught up with me. What I also learned much later was that certain things I thought were healthy could have actually been making the problem worse over time.
Before too long I was convinced, without a doubt in my mind, that my issues were hormonal. I learned that it’s very rare for women in their 20s or 30s to have acne that isn’t caused by a hormonal imbalance. I also learned that super low carb diets, like the one I started right after going off the pill (hello paleo), are not great for people with hormonal imbalances. I also learned that overtraining and pushing yourself too hard can aggravate the issue. Lastly, I learned that while I may not have had any immediate reactions from consuming things like gluten and dairy, my gut might have been so weak and damaged that it simply couldn’t digest things like that, i.e., perhaps it wasn’t the food’s fault but just my digestive system not being strong enough to break those things down properly.
That night while I was sobbing in the car, I decided to give myself 6 months to try and figure this out on my own, before resorting to something like Accutane. Using the information that I had from the tests I’d done with the naturopath and learning what I could online, I put together a protocol that’s slowly but surely worked to heal my skin over the past year.
The basis of what I’ve done is threefold.
- I’ve addressed the root cause of my issues, hormonal imbalance, and worked to re-train my bodiy’s hormones to function normally.
- I’ve prioritized my gut health and supported my detox pathways to eliminate toxins like zenoestrogens and phytoestrogens. These are chemicals present in our environment and in our food that mimic natural estrogens and cause an imbalance in normal hormonal activity.
- I’ve completely deconstructed my skincare routine, simplified the process and decreased the amount of products I use overall.
I didn’t get everything 100% right immediately, but about 4 months into the process, I started to make headway. While at first I leaned on supplements to excuse bad lifestyle habits, it wasn’t until I found a balance between my various remedies and improving my lifestyle that I began to see lasting progress.
In order to fully explain everything I’ve done, I will be releasing a series of videos, starting with the one you will find at the bottom of this post, outlining everything from the topical products and supplements I’ve used, to my dietary and lifestyle changes. As opposed to writing one long blog post after another, I decided that videos would be the best way to get as much info out there as possible and it would give me an opportunity to show you all of the products that I’ve used.
Plus, after 5 full years of suffering from painful and unsightly acne, being able to put makeup on, feel pretty and get in front of a camera is something I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do. As introverted and uncomfortable as I might be in front of a camera, my desire to help other women struggling with the same issues is powerful enough for me to take the leap. I vividly remember what it felt like refusing to leave the house because I was so ashamed and embarrassed, so these videos are partially a celebration of healing for me. I hope they will help remind other women struggling with these issues that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Before I jump into the first video, I want to add one more thing.
Even though the progress has been generally consistent over the past year, this whole process has been without a doubt, two steps forward, one step back. To this day I have to remind myself that I suffered with something pretty severe for 5 whole years. It would be unrealistic to expect something like that to heal overnight. Even after 12 months, the journey hasn’t ended for me. As you can see in the photos below, my skin isn’t “perfect.” I still have scars and I still get the occasional breakout. They are much less severe than they used to be, not to mention a lot more infrequent, but the journey hasn’t ended for me.
There are many different ways to address hormonal acne. This is just one of them. For many of the women I know struggling with this issue, many of them are looking for a quick fix. I was too. Unfortunately, those don’t exist. Having said that, there are things like Accutane, going back on birth control (cringe), using unnatural topical products with benzoyl peroxide (this never worked for me but I know it works for some people temporarily), etc. that might feel slightly easier than the protocol I’m going to share. I’m not going to lie, going on Accutane is probably “easier” than what I did. Of course it comes with a whole host of other side effects, but I can understand why people see something like that as being an easier solution. Being super careful not to consume things that affected my hormones negatively (gluten, dairy, alcohol), remembering to take all of my supplements and spending a little extra money supporting my liver and gut with things like green juice and probiotics… I would be lying if I said any of it was simple or easy.
My choice was to find a solution that was natural and that would have long lasting effects. While some of the other remedies I mentioned might involve less or fix the problem slightly quicker (even if its just temporarily), to me, it wasn’t worth it and there was the risk of causing even more damage to my body long-term.
I’ve been through so many cycles with my health and was at a low enough point a year ago that giving up pizza or cocktails seemed easy if it meant my acne would be healed. Not only did my skin improve drastically, but I learned so much about my body and what works for me. As painful as the journey was, I am incredibly thankful for it. If you’re not at the point where you feel that you can make these changes in order to heal your acne, no one is going to pressure you. All I know is that I wish I addressed these things before they got as bad as they did. My hope is that I can help other women realize their health and happiness is worth it. The journey is important and while undoubtedly challenging, you have an enormous opportunity to learn about yourself and your health.
Without further ado, here are the first two videos from me. The first covers my topical skincare routine and the second covers everything I did internally within the last year to address my acne.
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