Photo of herb medicine jars on shelves

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I’ve run into a unique challenge in the last year after starting naturopathic medical school: skin issues.

Although I’ve had my fair share of breakouts from time to time, stress and less-than-ideal diet decisions seem to have gotten the better of my skin. The culprit (in my case) is seemingly very little time. My partner even jokes that my go-to response for everything people say to me is “I don’t have time.”

The irony lies in the fact that the majority of my hours are spent learning the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle, which in turn limits my time and energy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, the consequences of this are manifesting on my skin.

Herbal medicines have been a life-saver for me in this regard. Regardless of whether I tincture them myself or purchase them already made, I’ve found that they can offer quick “bio-hacks” that optimize health— specifically for the skin.

Photo of female face with acne

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Optimize Detoxification with Herbs

The beauty of using herbal medicines is that, although they’re not addressing my diet insufficiencies, they can target the underlying mechanism of my breakouts.

Herbs do not simply play whack-a-mole to temporarily combat my breakouts like many prescription topical gels do. Instead, specific herbs can help support the underlying physiologic systems in charge of maintaining healthy skin.

Skin is your body’s largest organ. That means that it’s also a major outlet for your body to get rid of waste products, either from normal metabolism or foreign toxins. Thus, many herbal skin remedies work to optimize detoxification.

An overwhelmed detoxification system can manifest on the skin, causing skin issues ranging from acne to other chronic inflammatory skin disorders like eczema and psoriasis.

Photo of Burdock plant in nature

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Herbs I’ve Been Using to Support Skin Health

The following herbs have traditionally been used to treat a wide range of skin disorders. I’ve included a brief (and by no means all-inclusive) description of how these herbs can be used for skin health.

Arctium lappa, “Burdock Root”

This root can actually be eaten and is a staple in most Japanese markets (referred to as gobo). It’s one of the most potent skin-enhancing “alteratives” in herbal medicine.

An alterative in herbal medicine is what used to be called a “blood cleanser.” In modern terms, think of alteratives as medicines that promote the proper function of your metabolic and detoxification systems.

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Berberis aquifolium, “Oregon Grape”

Despite its name, it’s actually the root of the Oregon grape shrub that’s used as medicine. This herb is uniquely suited to address toxic skin issues like acne.

It’s a bitter herb that stimulates digestion, liver function, and bile secretion. Like burdock, it has been used for ages to treat chronic skin conditions in conjunction with a poorly functioning liver and is actually protective of the liver.

Oregon grape also contains a plant chemical called berberine, which has antimicrobial effects— helpful if your acne or skin disorder is the result of an imbalance in normal flora in your gut and skin.

Photo close up of Iris Versicolor flower (Northern Blue Flag)

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Iris versicolor “Blue Flag”

Blue flag falls into the same category as burdock and Oregon grape— an alterative with the ability to promote liver function and optimize detoxification specifically for the skin.

Galium aparine, “Cleavers”

Cleavers is slightly different than the other herbs I’ve mentioned. Although it can be used to treat skin eruptions, its effect also comes from its lymphatic properties.

The lymphatic system is another way the body detoxes itself. It’s probably a good idea to support lymph drainage if you’re up-regulating detoxification to help draw detoxification products away from the skin.

Photo of Marigold plant in garden

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Calendula officinalis “Marigold”

More commonly referred to as calendula, this flower is a potent vulnerary, meaning it has the ability to heal tissues. I’ve used this herb as a topical oil, as tea, and as a liniment (a strong alcohol extraction applied topically).

Calendula also has anti-inflammatory flavonoids that may help reduce redness and pain associated with outbreaks.

Photo of milled herb on scales with jar behind

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Herbs Don’t Cure Your Lifestyle

Although herbal medicines can address the underlying cause of your skin problems, they cannot completely compensate for major shortcomings in areas like diet, exercise, and stress management.

The herbal medicines listed above are powerful, but they’re only meant to temporarily support a return to homeostasis by supporting the natural detoxification system of your body. The endurance of your skin is critically dependent on things like a nutrient-dense diet and adequate sleep, even if you’re pressed for time.

In later posts, I’ll describe some of the habits I’ve put into place to make prioritizing healthy foods, sleep, and stress management a little bit easier. But in those desperate times when you can’t seem to find a spare moment for much of anything, a little herbal loving can go a long way for increasing your resiliency in less-than-optimal conditions.