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.
As you know, there’s an entire industry built around helping you obtain luxurious skin from the outside. But what you might not realize is that no amount of creams and potions that can mask issues like long-term dehydration, an unhealthy diet, excessive alcohol consumption, or chronic poor sleep. Nor can they hide inflammation brought on by gluten, other food sensitivities and allergies and autoimmunity.
Most doctors will tell you that they don’t fully understand what triggers chronic (and often embarrassing) skin issues.
Diet isn’t often on their radar as a hidden root cause underlying various rashes, blisters, bumps and scaly skin that some of us know all too well.
And so the go-to options most dermatologists recommend include medicated creams, ointments and pills might help in the short-term. But long-term relief often takes a level of desperate dedication of trial and error on your part (or with the help of a practitioner who looks at your condition from holistic perspective).
To be honest, it’s utterly perplexing that food and diet aren’t considered first in the conversation about skin disorders. Often people suffer for years without getting straight answers that can result in expensive and ineffective treatments that don’t ultimately work. They’ve got to tick off all the boxes first that frankly are more extreme before going back to the drawing board to wonder if it was diet related the entire time.
It’s worth asking the question… why not opt to examine the low-hanging fruit with diet rather than take something that can long-term negatively impact your health?
For those of us currently living with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease and other autoimmune disorders, food is often a big piece of every health puzzle that’s encountered. And that’s why those of us that struggled for years without clear diagnoses know all too well the pain and frustration involved with finding the root cause of ongoing skin issues.
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 unfortunate for the patients in their care.
On one hand, it might not be their fault — a simple search of the American Academy of Dermatology’s website looking for any mention to gluten turns up absolutely nothing. Surprisingly, dermatitis herpetiformis that’s clearly been linked to Celiac Disease and thus the ingestion of gluten, is not listed anywhere on their site.
(This is still true as of 2/20/2017 — it is not listed their Diseases and Treatments section. Kind of a big omission, right?)
Think about when you saw a dermatologist with an unresolvable rash. Were you ever asked about your diet?
Unless the doctor thinks that a food is a potential allergen, what you eat is rarely a subject for conversation. Instead exterior salves are prescribed that may or may not resolve the problem. Every single one of them has their own set of side effects, some more horrible than others. Make sure you know the long-term issues before starting on them.
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, if you suffer with cycles of psoriasis outbreaks, you may feel embarrassed and very self-conscious of rashes, lesions or scabs.
The shame can make you feel that your only option is to cover up the exposed skin.
This means going 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. For children with skin issues, this can who might deal with bullying at school).
While other things such as environmental allergies, personal care products, and metals (such as nickel) can certainly cause issues with skin flare ups, you should consider the potential control you have over your skin through diet. Gluten skin problems are more common than you might think which makes diet a better (more effective option).
And diet changes are less expensive and involve fewer side effects than drugs on the market used to manage autoimmune skin conditions such as Humira.
Gluten Skin Problem #1 — Psoriasis
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 that include:
– red patches of skin (sometimes covered with a silvery scaly texture)
– dry or cracked skin
– small or larger scaling areas
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.
And that’s taking into account the people with psoriasis who have a gluten skin problem that they know about.
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).
Of those patients, approximately 16% of patients had either IgA and/or IgG antibodies to the protein. When these patients 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 too 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.
Gluten Skin Problem #2 — Eczema
Like psoriasis, millions of people suffer from eczema, an itchy, inflamed, and irritated skin condition. Sometimes it’s called a general dermatitis that can strike any part of the body.
To be fair, eczema is not always caused by food sensitivities. But many sufferers have found that 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 not work for everyone. However it’s a risk worth taking (in my 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 include:
- dairy (HERE’S how I swap dairy out of client’s diets)
- wheat (sometimes all gluten containing grains — HERE’S a comprehensive list)
One study even suggests an emphasis on gluten and dairy specifically as culprits of eczema. The researchers found that antigen absorption (of gluten and dairy) from the gut can play a role in the beginning stages of atopic eczema.
A great, real life example of food sensitivity and food allergy elimination to help treat eczema can be found at the phenomenal blog, Itchy Little World, written by a mother of two detailing her family’s ups, downs, and ultimately successes controlling her son’s severe allergies and eczema.
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 went from being a painful chore to near impossible. Soap and water would only exacerbate the issue.
You can see a picture here of one of Jennifer’s flares.
After doing a lot of internet research, she narrowed down her condition and then went to a dermatologist who didn’t have any answers for her.
“Basically the dermatologist assumed that I must be using all sorts of harsh, chemically lotions and soap or wearing nickel (as that can sometime cause skin flares). None of that was true.
“Aside from her suggestion that it was stress related, the doctor said that the reason people develop dyshidrotic eczema really isn’t clear. She wasn’t concerned about my diet and refused to speak about it.”
Aside from prescribing a steroid creme (which can permanently 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.
Really? Why is a petroleum-based product a legit recommendation for skin issues?
Through this, Jennifer became very aware of how frustrating skin ailments are.
She acknowledges that, “I still don’t have concrete answers, but I often wonder why eczema isn’t considered an autoimmune condition or at least related to autoimmunity. If you gain some relief using steroid creams, then we’re missing something because 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”.
Gluten Skin Problem #3 — 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 also experience psoriasis, eczema, or other skin conditions. 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
Here’s a few other gluten skin problems to be aware of:
- Alopecia areata (patchy baldness)
- Prurigo nodularis
- Hyperpigmentation (Vitiligo)
- 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.
Prematurely cutting out some foods before testing may cause 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. Dr. Alessio Fasano sat down to speak with Jennifer and advised her and others out there who failed to get tested for Celiac to assume and act as if you have Celiac moving forward. And that this is especially true if you’re not willing to eat gluten again in order to get tested.
Working with a doctor or practitioner who takes a functional approach to skin issues and seeks out the underlying causes.
NEED MORE HELP? Here’s what to do next…
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. And yes… a little bit will hurt, so cheating isn’t a good idea.
If you’re fed up spinning your wheel with creams and ointments that just don’t work and want customized help to identify the root causes hiding underneath your poor skin, I invite you to learn more about how I work with woman just like you.
And one more thing… don’t give up hope.
I totally understand what it’s like to go through life with skin issues. While it would be great if some magic bullet existed to remove the rash, know that it is possible to create a plan to get your skin back on track so you can feel normal again.