“Another rash? Ugh.” I said out loud peering at the back of my arm.
I was beginning to feel like a walking billboard loaded with these red, scaly patches of skin.
People would stare. Some asked if I had ringworm (which can be contagious).
I stopped wearing clothing that would allow anyone to see them. They made me feel like I had cooties.
The skin rashes seem to just show up quietly in the middle of the night one by one.
Despite cleaning out my entire collection of body care products — nothing I tried seemed to work.
Not going organic or using less toxic cleaning supplies.
Not even the “clean” body care products.
After discovering that gluten was behind my myriad of digestive complaints (gas, diarrhea, bloating) and constant fatigue, something interesting happened.
The rashes went away.
Gluten was totally out of my diet and finally, my skin clears.
Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?
It was 2008 and for the first time in years, I didn’t have rashes everywhere.
The Missing Piece To Treating Chronic Skin Problems
That’s how I stumbled accidentally on the gluten skin problem connection (or gluten skin, as I sometimes call it with clients).
A lot of conventional dermatologists are behind the ball on this which is why you’ve probably never been told about the gluten skin problems connection.
Instead, you’re sent home with a litany of pills, creams, and ointments with the hope of managing your symptoms.
Only unless you get lucky or take pretty extreme measures (like using immunosuppressant drugs) could you likely see some progress.
Or maybe some sort of anti-inflammatory/antibiotic combo like Dapsone that treats the symptoms until you can nail the diet (otherwise, the trigger is still there).
The bottom line is that these steps only cause more issues that keep the cycle of flares alive. At no point do any of these measures address the underlying reasons your skin can’t return to being smooth and clear.
Ultimately, if you’re not dealing with WHY your skin won’t heal (and is getting worse), then you’ll be fighting this battle for the rest of your days.
Gluten Skin Problems – Symptom List
The most common symptoms of gluten skin problems that my clients complain about include…
- Very dry skin
- Bullous skin lesions
- Skin burning sensation
- Constant itchiness
- Cracked skin
- Pimple outbreaks
- Peeling skin
- Little bubbles or blisters on or under the skin layer that eventually burst
Gluten Skin Problems – Connected Skin Disorders
One point that’s worth mentioning before diving into this list is that new research is still being done.
What we know right now is that there is a relationship between autoimmune disorders and skin symptoms. For example, atopic dermatitis (aka. eczema) and autoimmune diseases have an interesting connection since there’s a link “between skin and intestinal mucosa.”
That’s why there is likely an increase in gluten skin problems since we are more aware of relationships between food, your gut, and health as a whole.
1. Eczema (all forms)
A non-contagious skin rash, eczema (or also sometimes referred to as atopic dermatitis) can appear almost anywhere on the body and be subject to flares.
Unfortunately, eczema is difficult to fully resolve and is more often “managed” with different creams, ointments, and oral medications.
However, if you have eczema, you can be fairly certain that there is gut involvement due to food sensitivities, food allergies, and gut infections preventing you from healing.
A truly frustrating chronic skin issue, over 7.5 million people have been diagnosed with some form of psoriasis. Patches of dead skin form due to excessive multiplication of skin cells typically on knees, elbows and even the scalp (though it is possible to develop it elsewhere such as your finger and toenails and even the inside of your mouth).
3. Dermatitis Herpetiformis
It’s also known as Duhring disease which involves blisters that can develop on your “elbows, knees, buttocks, and back.” In more severe cases, the affected area can at times be more extensive.
There can be genetic involvement of major histocompatibility complex genes that are the same as for Celiac Disease such as HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8.
Characterized by some as the skin manifestation of Celiac Disease, the only treatment is a strict gluten free diet. Typically the prescriptive agent Dapsone is prescribed to deal with the incessant itching until the diet’s effect kicks in.
Commonly known as hives, urticaria has links to both celiac disease and gluten.
The itchy, raised reddish patches can be caused by both IgE and IgG antibodies and have been isolated in those diagnosed with celiac. Since there can be IgG antibody involvement, it’s best to look beyond allergy testing and include IgG sensitivity testing too.
That said, I don’t personally believe that hives are something to just sit on. They can be part of a larger allergic reaction that, with time, can trigger life-threatening anaphylaxis.
If a true wheat allergy exists, it is critical to check all gluten free products allergen warnings for wheat. The FDA allows wheat starch to be used in gluten free products so long as the product tests below 20ppm of gluten.
5. Keratosis Pilaris (Chicken Skin)
Also known as Chicken Skin, Keratosis Pilaris shows up as small, raised bumps on the back of the “upper arms, thighs, cheeks or buttocks”. It is not painful or itchy as other common gluten skin problems can be.
But it can be indicative of underlying issues that should be addressed.
Keratosis Pilaris is a sign of Vitamin A deficiency which I look for when evaluating the client’s nutritional status. A deficiency can result when digestion is compromised and thus reducing your GI tract’s ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
This can occur due to Leaky Gut Syndrome, the removal of your gallbladder, or chronic inflammation that’s disrupted the mucosal membrane lining the gut.
6. Alopecia Areata
Hair loss is the result of this autoimmune disorder that can be permanent. Certain forms of alopecia such as “alopecia totalis or alopecia universalis” incur a greater risk that you’ll develop Atopic Dermatitis as well.
Current research demonstrates ties to celiac disease with potential regrowth of hair when you adhere to a strict gluten free diet.
Though websites dedicated to Alopecia advocacy claim that maintaining a gluten free diet is difficult, it’s really isn’t when you know the right steps and rules to follow.
Personal stories triumphing over embarrassing acne by removing gluten are more common now.
Take Annette’s experience finally healing her chronic cystic acne. Despite trying years of antibiotics and even Accutane, a gluten and dairy free diet finally cleared up her skin.
While there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of research connecting gluten to acne outbreaks, you can certainly find plenty anecdotal accounts connecting the two.
And anyone who has discovered that gluten triggers acne will tell you that they now avoid gluten like the plague.
8. Prurigo nodularis
Prurigo nodularis is named for thickened, intensely itchy, crusted skin that has no current known cause.
While you won’t find as much research on prurigo nodularis as eczema, there are case reports that connect prurigo nodularis to gut malabsorption. This is pretty common is those with Leaky Gut syndrome and other GI issues that often involve a sensitivity to gluten.
When a gluten free diet is used as part of a patient’s treatment, their symptoms resolve. The involvement of gluten can be traced back to a case report in 1977 and how a gluten free diet cleared up the skin after a year!
Described as milky white skin devoid of cells that produce pigment, vitiligo can be passed down from generation to generation. However, there is an increasing body of evidence that a link between vitiligo and gluten exists. One case study demonstrates the improvement of depigmented skin when a patient was treated with a strict gluten free diet after other therapies had failed.
As an interesting addition, here is a testimonial of how going paleo helped to repigment the skin of a child who began to develop vitiligo.
There is also emerging links between early on-set vitiligo with the emergence of atopic dermatitis.
Scleroderma is described by an autoimmune progressive hardening of the skin that ranges in severity that can, in some cases, be life-threatening.
About 300,000 people in the US have been diagnosed with scleroderma, though getting that clear diagnosis can be a real challenge. The reason is that the symptoms mirror other autoimmune diseases which is why persistence with your doctors is paramount.
As with any autoimmune disease, gut involvement should be considered as a potential trigger. The advocacy group Scleroderma Foundation supports this notion in its literature where its members discuss the use of a gluten free diet and low FODMAP diet as well as the involvement of SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), malnutrition, and other GI concerns.
Dermatomyositis is considered to be a rare autoimmune disease that is identified by a “distinctive skin rash, muscle weakness, and inflammatory myopathy, or inflamed muscles.”
Affecting more women at any age (from childhood to adulthood), it starts with a bluish-purple colored rash. This is followed by a weakening of muscular strength that progresses over the subsequent weeks (at varying rates) that can lead to difficulty swallowing, fatigue and other scary symptoms.
While there isn’t a ton of research available, some recognize that there is a link between Celiac disease and dermatomyositis. The connection appears to be more prevalent in children, however, there has been a call by the research community for those diagnosed with dermatomyositis to be tested for Celiac.
13. Epidermolysis bullosa acquisita (EBA)
There are different forms of this illness with most being genetic. However, the only form to be considered autoimmune is Epidermolysis bullosa acquisita which typically appears after the age of 50.
Symptoms include incredibly delicate skin such that even a gentle rub or scrape can cause blistering and tears in the skin. As a result, those with EBA must take measures to protect their skin from any sort of minor traumas.
Cases have appeared wherein the person also has been diagnosed with other autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s, Lupus, or amyloidosis. EBA can also affect your eyes and oral cavity so it important to follow up with the appropriate specialists.
Interesting research published in 2013 points toward an increased prevalence of those with EBA having the HLA-DQ2.2 gene. Researchers believe this finding is important because it indicates a genetic pre-disposition “of chronic intestinal inflammation… [that] may predispose to sensitivity to gluten ultimately leading to immune mediated-organ damage.”
14. Seborrheic dermatitis
If you’ve got a rash on your body where natural oils tend to be produced (by sebaceous glands), then you likely have seborrheic dermatitis. The commonly affected areas include your scalp, upper back, and nose and is more frequently seen in men. Triggers include hormones, colder dry weather, stress, environmental irritants, and even skin microbiome dysbiosis.
Having dandruff would be a clear sign of having seborrheic dermatitis!
As with other skin issues, it’s important to look at the health of your gut as well as to find out if you’ve got any food sensitivities or other gut triggers. By identifying them, you can start to heal from the inside out.
15. Atopic Dermatitis
Affecting 17.8 million Americans, Atopic Dermatitis is the most common form of eczema causing red, itchy patches on the body that begins in childhood. If you have asthma or issues with hay fever, you’re more likely to develop Atopic Dermatitis (AD).
There are certain risk factors that may cause you to be more prone to develop AD such as a genetic SNP of filaggrin (which I discuss at length HERE) as well as gut infections and food sensitivities (most definitely including gluten).
Atopic dermatitis has connections to other autoimmune skin issues such as vitiligo and alopecia as well.
Rosacea is characterized as a redness (or flushed look) that affects different areas of the face. There are four types of rosacea — Erythematotelangiectatic, Papulopustular, Phymatous, and Ocular — all which have distinct signs associated with them.
Because of the frustrating nature of treating rosacea, conventional medicine is starting to look outside of the box. They recognize that the gut microbiome (gut flora) plays a role in the appearance of the skin. As a result, some dermatologists are using probiotics applied directly to the skin in addition to those taken orally.
In functional medicine and nutrition, rosacea can be a sign of candida yeast overgrowth and gut dysbiosis. Since candida overgrowth can be a trigger for leaky gut, it is important to properly identify what is inflaming your GI tract.
And there are personal accounts of gluten and wheat specifically on their own being triggers for rosacea, so clearly food and gut health should be considered as part of your solution.
17. Canker sores
One of the lesser known symptoms of Celiac Disease (and gluten sensitivity), canker sores are a sign that something is typically wrong. Several GI diseases are linked to this symptom (like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis) along with autoimmune diseases too.
Either way, canker sores aren’t something to ignore. But instead, they warrant careful consideration because food and even hormonal changes can be triggers.
18. Hidradenitis Suppurativa
Hidradenitis Suppurativa is characterized as a chronic sweat gland infection that commonly affects the armpits and groin regions. It can be incredibly painful, unsightly, as well as require surgery in more advanced stages.
There’s a potential role of gut involvement in Hidradenitis Suppurativa looking at food sensitivities, leaky gut syndrome, and autoimmune characteristics.
While gluten is always included in anything involved with leaky gut, it does not end there. Some have mentioned the potential trigger of nightshade vegetables (ie. tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant) that contain a glycoalkaloid called solanine.
More research certainly needs to be done, but I can tell you from personal experience as someone who has chronically dealt with HS, it’s no fun.