If you’ve ever wondered if something you eat could affect your skin… the answer is yes. Can gluten affect your skin? Absolutely.
Your skin is the largest organ of your body and plays a key role in protecting your body from harm against toxins, bacteria, viruses, UV light and general trauma. It’s also one of the many windows to potential inner turmoil in your body that’s brewing beneath the surface. While there’s an entire industry built around helping you obtain luxurious skin from the outside, no amount of creams and potions can mask dehydration, an unhealthy diet, overuse of alcohol, chronic poor sleep and, of course, the inflammation brought on by gluten, other food sensitivities and allergies and autoimmunity.
What most doctors will tell you is that they don’t fully understand what triggers many of the issues. Diet isn’t often considered to be a main culprit behind the various rashes, blisters, bumps and scaly skin that some of us know all too well. While the medicated creams, ointments and pills might quell the fire for the moment, long-term relief often takes a level of desperate dedication of trial and error until you encounter just the right fix for your body.
The question of why food and diet aren’t considered first in the conversation about skin disorders is rather perplexing when everything in the body is connected. But for those of us living with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders, food is often a big piece of every health puzzle that’s encountered.
Can Gluten Affect Your Skin?
The simple answer is yes. It’s been known for quite some time that reactions to gluten can absolutely manifest as skin issues. Why dermatologists aren’t quite up to speed with this is rather perplexing. A simple search of the American Academy of Dermatology’s website looking for any mention to gluten turns up absolutely nothing. Surprisingly, a more obvious condition such as dermatitis herpetiformis that’s been linked to Celiac Disease and thus the ingestion of gluten, is not listed anywhere on their site.
If you’ve already been to see a dermatologist with an unresolvable rash, have you ever been asked about your diet? Unless the doctor thinks you could be reacting to a food as a potential allergen, what you eat is rarely a subject for conversation. Instead exterior aids are prescribed that may or may not resolve the problem and all have their own set of side effects, some more horrible than others.
Aside from the fact that uncomfortable skin disorders can make everyday life physically irritating, flares of eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis herpetiformis or other autoimmune skin conditions can be emotionally and mentally draining as well. For example, those suffering through cycles of psoriasis outbreaks can feel embarrassed and very self-conscious of rashes, lesions or scabs. The shame can lead them to feel that their only option is to cover up the exposed skin and go to different lengths to conceal the blemishes by wearing long sleeves in the summer, avoiding bathing suits altogether or even avoiding prolonged contact with other people for fear of being teased or stared at (this is especially true for children who might deal with bullying at school).
While other things such as environmental allergies, personal care products, and metals, can certainly cause issues with skin flare up, we should start to consider the potential control we have over our skin through diet. It’s less expensive and involves fewer side effects than some of the drugs on the market used to control some of the more autoimmune skin conditions out there such as Humira.
Psoriasis is the most prevalent autoimmune disease in the United States as well as one of the most readily visible affecting 7.5 million people in the U.S. alone. It’s characterized by a few different symptoms; red patches of skin, sometimes covered with a silvery scaly texture, dry or cracked skin, small or larger scaling areas, scabbing and sometimes even bleeding. This said, why not consider gluten as a culprit when organizations like the National Psoriasis Foundation states that up to 25% of people who have psoriasis also may be sensitive to gluten.
Additionally, the Journal of Clinical Laboratory Analysis found that psoriasis patients with the HLA CW6 gene that’s linked to psoriasis, had an increased sensitivity to the gliadin protein (gluten). Approximately 16% of patients had either IgA and/or IgG antibodies to the protein. Of these patients who tried a gluten-free diet, the majority found a marked improvement in their symptoms. (Oh… and this study was done in 2000 which again underscores the question of why gluten isn’t typically suspected by dermatologists.)
Another form of psoriasis is psoriotic arthritis which is characterized by inflammation, swelling and pain of the joints throughout the body along with classic psoriasis symptoms. It has also be linked to gluten sensitivity. In 2002, a study was published in the Journal of Rheumatology found that 49 of 302 patients with psoriotic arthritis had increased serum IgA antibodies to gliadin (gluten protein). When 30 of these 49 patients followed a gluten‐free diet, their psoriasis improved.
Like psoriasis, millions of people suffer from eczema, an itchy, inflamed, and irritated skin condition. Sometimes it’s known just as general dermatitis that can strike any part of the body. Eczema is not always caused by food sensitivities, but for some, eliminating offending foods such as gluten and dairy can make a real difference. The National Eczema Association (NEA) agrees, and has posted the following statement on their webpage under alternative therapies for eczema:
“There is no doubt, however, that some foods seem to be inflammatory, particularly in some people, and so gluten-free and dairy-free may make a difference in some. Avoiding processed foods is also generally a good idea, even if it does not help the eczema much. Eating natural, organic, and balanced foods is a win-win, so rather than argue against it, it is better to encourage it!”
To be clear, a gluten-free diet or dairy-free diet may work for some, but could fall short for others. However it’s a risk worth taking (in our opinion) if nothing else seems to work.
Alternatively, the University of Maryland Medical Center lists food allergies as a significant factor for some eczema sufferers. They suggest that eating a healthful diet and avoiding common food allergens may reduce inflammation and symptoms. Some of the main food culprits they list are dairy, soy, citrus, peanuts, wheat (sometimes all gluten containing grains), fish, eggs, corn, and tomatoes.
Jennifer, the founder of Gluten Free School, has shared over the past year the issues she’s experienced with the emergence of dyshidrotic eczema that because “quite an embarrassing nightmare”. She always had strange clear bumps on the side of her right middle finger, but suddenly they became red, inflamed, terribly itchy and would burn if exposed to pretty much anything including water. Even washing her hands became near impossible because of how much any soap and water would exacerbate the issue. You can see a picture Jennifer took during the start of one of her flares to your right.
After doing a lot of internet research, Jennifer narrowed down her condition and then went to a dermatologist who didn’t have any answers for her.
“Basically she assumed that I must be using all sorts of harsh, chemically lotions and soap or wearing nickel (as that can sometime cause skin flares), but none of that was true. Aside from the suggestion of this being stress-related (which I will admit to being quite stressed), she said that the reason why people develop this really isn’t known. She wasn’t concerned about my diet and refused to speak about it. Aside from prescribing a steroid creme (which can thin your skin), she suggested that I keep the affected areas, which were spreading and flaring up with increasing intensity, covered with Vasoline,” shares Jennifer.
While she did initially use the steroid minimally, Jennifer became very aware of how frustrating skin ailments are acknowledging, “I still don’t have any answers, but I often wonder why eczema isn’t considered an autoimmune condition or at least related to autoimmunity when a steroid creme is typically prescribed to suppress the reaction happening in the skin. Corticosteroids are used to reduce inflammation and suppress your immune system.”
One great article written by Sarah Ballantyne, PhD (aka. The Paleo Mom) who was a part of the Women’s Gluten-Free Health Summit provides an interesting look at eczema, giving it the label “leaky skin”.
Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH)
Dermatitis herpetiformis, simply abbreviated as DH, is a painful rash usually seen in 15-25% of people with Celiac Disease. Contrary to the name, DH is not caused by the herpes virus, but is considered to be a skin manifestation of Celiac. It should be noted that this skin condition is exclusively seen in patients with diagnosed or undiagnosed Celiac Disease. That’s not to say that those who experience DH can’t experience psoriasis, eczema, or other skin conditions, because they certainly can. Simply put by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, a positive diagnosis of DH always indicates a positive test of Celiac.
Interestingly though, those with DH and Celiac may not experience any gastrointestinal discomfort or symptoms. In many cases of DH, an intestinal biopsy for Celiac can come back negative, since the skin is in fact manifesting the symptoms. Left unchecked however, it can still lead to the development of other diseases and even cancer. Going gluten-free typically clears up DH symptoms and reduces antibodies to gluten in the body.
Other Notable Skin Disorders
Acne, alopecia areata (patchy baldness), Prurigo nodularis, hyperpigmentation (vitiligo), and several atopic rashes (allergy related). Here’s a great further listing of associated skin conditions for Celiac (evidence shows some of these can be present in non-celiac gluten sensitivity as well).
What can be done?
Remember that it’s always best to get tested for food sensitivities and autoimmune diseases first before going off of offending food culprits (cutting out some foods before testing creates a false negative result). Jennifer speaks of this often since she was advised to go gluten-free after her symptoms dramatically improved after removing gluten and was never advised to get further testing (for Celiac Disease, as an example). In speaking with Dr. Alessio Fasano about the many who are in the same boat, he advised her and others out there who failed to get tested for Celiac to assume and act as if you have Celiac moving forward if you’re not willing to eat gluten again in order to get tested.
Working with a doctor or qualified health professional who takes a functional approach to skin issues and seeks out the underlying causes.
Chart your flares and begin a food diary to see if there could be overlap. If you think certain foods could be problematic, do an elimination diet and then carefully bringing back one food at a time so you can identify what’s problematic. If you’ve yet to give up gluten or get to a place of 100% compliance, know that a pretty significant amount of people with these conditions do improve by going gluten-free. A little bit will hurt, so cheating isn’t a good idea. Do your best to stay on track and if you struggle making it a reality, seek help. Don’t suffer for a long time because you had trouble eating in a way that would best support your health.
And lastly, don’t give up hope. We totally understand what it’s like to go through life with skin issues. While we wish there was a magic bullet, there’s not and typically your plan to righting your skin is going to be unique. Many are quick to give advice and tell you what to do because it helped them, however you’ll soon find that there are many different solutions out there. Ultimately you’ve got to methodically go through the process, give each approach time to work, and trust your gut if you feel that the answers you get from practitioners just aren’t working or right for you.
Comment below with your experience (and questions) dealing with your skin ailments?
NEED MORE HELP?
If you feel like you’re at your wits’ end and fed up knowing what to eat… Or you feel like food is your enemy now that you’ve gone gluten-free and you’re feeling deeply overwhelmed with the process of ridding your life of gluten… I have a really neat opportunity for you so keep on reading!
I decided that I want to talk to you!!! So I’m hosting a special webinar (that’s totally free) where I’m going to talk about the process and myths of going gluten-free as well as how I (and my clients) have gotten to a place of feeling like the lifestyle and diet are a piece of gluten-free cake. If you’ve been GF for less than 2 years, are still struggling to “stay on the wagon,” or haven’t even started going GF yet… this is for you.
To register for the Kick Gluten for Good Q&A –> CLICK HERE to register for Wednesday 4/13 at 8pm ET
Think of it like you and I sit down for a cup or tea (or coffee)… you can pick my brain, ask me your burning questions and I’m going to dish on what’s worked for me and my clients. Plus I’ll have a special surprise for you at the end! BUT please be aware that I will not record this event so if you miss it, then you’ve missed out.
I’ve never done this before and I don’t know if I’ll offer something like this again due to time constraints (school starts again soon)… so pick the time you can commit to and make sure to register for this FREE event. See you there!