What The (H)Eczema? Understanding Gluten and Your Skin

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

It’s possible that your eczema symptoms get worse after you eat gluten. Here’s how to figure out if gluten is behind your eczema flare-ups and what to do about it.

Gluten and your skin: A gluten refresher

Gluten is made up of many proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley. It provides structure for bread and baked goods and is added to processed foods for better texture, moisture, and flavor.

While wheat-based products are an obvious source of gluten, it may also be hiding in processed meat and meat substitutes, condiments, seasonings, sweets, and other products.

Oats don’t naturally contain gluten, but they can become contaminated with it during processing, so it’s important to buy oats that are labeled “gluten-free” if you need to avoid it.

The pervasive presence of gluten can be a real problem if you’re allergic or sensitive to it.

There seems to be a relationship between food allergy and skin problems. About one-third of children with atopic dermatitis (another name for eczema) have food allergies too. Allergies to peanuts, eggs, and milk are the most common.

Both atopic dermatitis (AD) and food allergies are associated with skin barrier dysfunction. Researchers have observed that the skin of children with AD and food allergies is different from the skin of children who just have AD.

However, in a 2020 analysis of studies totaling more than 63,000 participants, researchers found no relationship between amount of gluten eaten and risk of AD.

Only small, uncontrolled studies have found a link between gluten consumption and eczema. That doesn’t mean there’s not a connection, just that there’s not enough research to support the theory.

Eczema and gluten: What’s the connection?

Eczema is a chronic condition that makes your skin irritated, inflamed, and itchy. Your skin may also be red, swollen, cracked, weeping, crusty, or scaly.

The condition often begins in childhood. The cause is unknown, but skin care, stress management, medical treatment, and cool temperatures can help reduce your symptoms.

People with eczema will often have other health problems such as other skin conditions, asthma, environmental allergies, food allergies, depression, anxiety, or sleep issues.

Triggers of eczema flares can differ from person to person. Some common triggers are:

  • stress
  • dry skin
  • metals like nickel
  • soaps and cleaners
  • fragrances
  • cigarette smoke
  • irritating fabrics
  • antibacterial ointment
  • formaldehyde
Celiac disease and eczema seem to go together

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. Folks who live with this condition experience intestinal damage when they eat gluten. Symptoms include:

  • anemia
  • fatigue
  • bone or joint pain
  • arthritis
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • seizures
  • migraine
  • infertility
  • itchy skin rash

Some studies have found that celiac disease is more common in people with psoriasis and eczema. There’s also a known association between celiac disease and a skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH).

DH causes itchy bumps or blisters, most often on the elbows, knees, or butt. DH can be misdiagnosed as eczema. A gluten-free diet will improve symptoms. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of people with celiac disease also have DH.

Eczema and gluten sensitivity also appear related

Some people have a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). They have intestinal or other reactions to eating gluten but don’t have celiac disease or a wheat allergy. You can become more or less sensitive to gluten over your lifetime.

You may realize you have NCGS by paying attention to your reaction to eating gluten. Some typical symptoms are:

  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • nausea
  • heartburn
  • brain fog
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • joint and muscle pain
  • numbness
  • eczema or other rash

In one small 2015 study of 17 people with a diagnosis of NCGS, participants had rashes similar to those seen in eczema and psoriasis, and their skin condition improved with a gluten-free diet.

The researchers behind the study advocate for gastroenterologists and dermatologists to work together to examine links between digestion and skin problems. They also recommend following a gluten-free diet for at least 3 months to see if it helps with rashes.

Will ditching gluten clear up eczema?

There’s no solid evidence that giving up gluten will put your eczema flare into remission, but there could be a link, especially if you’re sensitive to gluten.

Here’s how to approach the gluten-free lifestyle:

  • Get professional advice. Talk with the medical professional who treats your eczema (and any digestive problems you have) about whether they recommend going gluten-free.
  • Take a food sensitivity test. Ask your care team about food sensitivity testing to see if you have an undiagnosed issue with gluten or another common food allergen.
  • Track your diet and skin. Start out by logging what you eat and your symptoms for a week or two to see if there are any patterns around gluten and your skin.
  • Stay consistent. If you do choose to cut out gluten as an experiment, keep logging your skin symptoms and stick with it for at least a few weeks to see if there’s improvement.

FYI: There are some risks of a gluten-free lifestyle

Without question, people with celiac disease or wheat allergy should eliminate gluten from their diets. But fewer than 1 percent of people in the United States have celiac disease or wheat allergy.

If you don’t have celiac disease, the decision is more complicated. Going gluten-free does come with some potential risks, such as:

  • nutrient deficiencies
  • insufficient fiber consumption
  • increased fat consumption
  • high blood sugar
  • high cholesterol
  • coronary artery disease
  • higher food costs

The takeaway

Your gut and your skin definitely affect each other in mysterious ways. It’s possible that a sensitivity to gluten could be impacting your eczema.

There’s some evidence that adopting a gluten-free diet could help, but it’s important to talk with a medical professional about it and follow their treatment plan for managing your eczema.

Read more on: eczema


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