Healthy Skin Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
If you have psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, acne rosacea or pimples, then your skin is having an inflammatory reaction, and the source of that inflammation may be coming from the foods that you eat. Systemic inflammation and many common skin issues can be the result of, or at the very least be made worse by, the foods we eat and our lifestyle habits.
In 28 years of clinical practice and treating various skin conditions, I found that the biggest culprits leading to skin disorders are food allergies or intolerances mainly from gluten, dairy and sugar. For some people, there has been a microbial imbalance in their gut, liver toxicity, a pH imbalance (too acidic), or sometimes hormone issues can be involved.
Even when there have been issues with the gut, liver, or hormones, changing the diet has nearly always made a huge improvement to the skin.
Adopting a diet that is low sugar and grain free is often a positive first step towards reversing systemic inflammation. Uncovering food allergies and intolerances with diagnostic testing can be challenging, expensive and often difficult to interpret.
If you would like to find out more about the difference between an intolerance and an allergy and a cheaper and effective way to determine what foods are a problem, go to the Allergies & Intolerances Diet article.
Other symptoms apart from skin conditions can tip you off to the possibility that you’re dealing with a food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity. These may include headaches, asthma, diarrhoea or constipation (or a bit of each), joint pains, sinus congestion, insomnia, ear infections, cognitive dysfunction, foggy head, fatigue and even depression and anxiety.
In fact, there are over 300 symptoms that are associated with gluten intolerance alone, and then there are the reactions to dairy substances such as lactose and casein, or bacterial overgrowth due to sugar and processed grains in the diet.
Eczema and Dermatitis
The terms ‘eczema’ and ‘dermatitis’ are both general interchangeable terms for skin inflammation. I will use ‘eczema’ in this article.
Eczema is a term for a set of chronic skin conditions caused by inflammation. Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the most common type of eczema which can vary from mild forms, when patches of skin are slightly dry, itchy and rashie, to severe forms, when patches of skin can be extremely irritated, often leading to cracked, oozing areas and insanely itchy to the point that the person who has it just wants to rip their skin apart by scratching. Often children and babies with eczema must have their hands in mittens or gloves to stop them from doing this.
Eczema and food allergy
Many people with eczema are also allergic to certain foods. This does not mean that food allergy is the cause or one of the causes of the eczema. But removing inflammatory foods will certainly help to reduce allergic reactions such as hives, swelling, and breathing difficulties. Even if there is no allergy, there may be a sensitivity to specific foods which will be helped by reducing inflammation in the body.
Some say that if there is no improvement within two weeks on an Elimination Diet, it means that food is unlikely to be a problem. However, I have found in clinic that clients with eczema often have leaky gut, immune dysregulation, and food sensitivities, so just removing certain foods for a couple of weeks may not be enough. Sometimes it can take the removal of certain foods and the addition of healing agents (a gut repair program and probiotics for example) for three months to make a difference.
What can trigger eczema?
The protective barrier of the skin for those that suffer from eczema seems to be more fragile and prone to loss of moisture genetically. Thus any damage to the skin can trigger more moisture loss and the subsequent release of inflammatory chemicals into the skin, presumably as a protection from the elements it is exposed to. These inflammatory chemicals make the skin feel itchy, but scratching the itch releases more chemicals and you then get a ‘scratch-itch-scratch cycle’ which is quite distressing to anyone who suffers from this condition.
Known aggravating factors for eczema include:
- Dry skin, which often goes hand in hand genetically with eczema. Moisturising is important but only with a product that isn’t going to aggravate the skin. There are special eczema creams and barrier creams that can be useful.
- Scratching – night gloves and clipped fingernails may be needed, especially for children and babies.
- Viral or bacterial infections, or pretty much any other inflammatory process that adds to the inflammatory load on the sensitive body
- Swimming in chlorinated swimming pools or baths with no chlorine filter
- Playing in sand, particularly sandpits
- Sitting directly on carpets or synthetic rugs
- Inhalant allergens – make eczema worse in spring and summer and may also be due to pollen sensitivity
- Food intolerances – particularly artificial colours and preservatives, gluten, dairy, and tomatoes.
- Sugar – which is normally more related to inflammation than an intolerance
- Irritants such as perfumes, soap, woollen, or synthetic fabrics
- Chemicals – include domestic, industrial, environmental
- Histamine release into the bloodstream
- Temperature – especially long hot days and over-heated rooms
- Stress can make eczema worse, but is not a psychological condition
- Close contact with animals can cause itching or hives, as can sitting and playing on the grass
- Contact with house dust mite on the skin can increase inflammation
- Constant exposure to water, soap, grease, food, or chemicals can damage the protective barrier function of the skin.
Apart from diet, other eczema treatments include:
- Cortisone cream is often prescribed for a short duration to reduce inflammation in the skin, but cortisone has the side effect of thinning the skin, so it is definitely not a good option unless absolutely necessary. Discuss with your doctor if you feel that cortisone is needed short-term to break a cycle. Cortisone tablets are rarely used.
- Immune suppressant drugs are used when nothing else seems to work, but they need to be used carefully and under close medical supervision.
- Ultraviolet light (PUVA) can reduce inflammation and is administered by some dermatologists.
- Evening Primrose Oil is very popular to moisten the skin
- Fish oil capsules are often used to help skin with eczema but are not for those with a seafood allergy.
- If allergic to dairy, goat, and soy milk, it is not recommended to use for washing, moisturising or in formulas. Most of the proteins in goat’s and cow’s milk are the same, and those who are allergic to cow’s milk are often allergic to soy.
- In general, it is better to avoid skin products that contain food oils and food derived proteins.
- Probiotics alone have not been demonstrated to be effective, but in conjunction with a gut healing program and the removal of inflammatory foods and reducing histamines, they can make a big difference. There are now specific strains of ‘good bacteria’ which research shows are effective for skin allergies and eczema. For more clarification, speak to your natural health practitioner.
Psoriasis is believed to be an auto-immune disease which the body mistakenly detects its own tissue as foreign and attacks itself, creating a chronic skin disease that causes inflammation and scaling of the skin. With normal healthy skin, the cells turnover about once a month; with psoriasis, the skin cells turn over faster and pile up on top of each other, creating scaly, crusty skin.
Psoriasis is most often found on the scalp, elbows, legs, face, palms, and soles of the feet as well as the lower back. However, it can also occur in other locations, such as the fingernails, toenails, genitals and inside the mouth.
Most doctors are unsure about what causes psoriasis, but many natural therapists have found contributing factors such as – poor diet, small intestine permeability, increased number of T cells (immune regulatory cells), problems with protein digestion, stress, hormone changes, genetics, vitamin D deficiency, poor liver function, allergies, and intolerances.
Studies have shown that intestinal permeability, or leaky gut syndrome, is very common for people with psoriasis, so healing the gut and having the right foods can make all the difference when it comes to healing psoriasis.
Acne, medically known as Acne Vulgaris (which some teenagers might consider an appropriate name) is a skin disease that involves the oil glands at the base of hair follicles. It commonly occurs during puberty when the sebaceous (oil) glands become more active triggered by hormonal changes.
Human skin has follicles which are tiny canals that connect to oil glands located under the skin. These glands produce sebum, an oily liquid. The role of sebum is to lubricate the small hair that grows through the follicle out of the skin. Sebum also carries dead skin cells through the follicles to the surface of the skin. Pimples appear when the hair follicles get blocked and accumulate oil under the skin which then often gets infected.
Types of acne
- Whiteheads: remain under the skin and are very small and white
- Blackheads: clearly visible, they are black and appear on the surface of the skin. A blackhead is not caused by dirt, so scrubbing your face when you see blackheads will not help.
- Papules: visible on the surface of the skin. They are small bumps, usually pink
- Pustules: clearly visible on the surface of the skin. They are red at their base and have pus at the top
- Nodules: clearly visible on the surface of the skin. They are large, solid pimples. They are painful and are embedded deep in the skin
- Cysts: clearly visible on the surface of the skin. They are painful and are filled with pus. Cysts can easily cause scars.
One thing that can really affect your skin is diet.
Certain foods raise blood sugar more quickly than others. When blood sugar rises quickly, it causes the body to release a hormone called insulin. Having excess insulin in the blood can cause oil glands to produce more oil, increasing your risks of acne.
Some foods that trigger spikes in insulin include:
- Pasta, white rice, white bread, and processed grains in general
- Sugar, dairy, chocolate and any foods with sugar or low GI.
Foods containing the following ingredients are considered beneficial for the skin because they reduce inflammation:
- Zinc: found in pepitas (pumpkin seeds), quinoa, lentils, seafood
- Vitamins A and E: found in coloured vegetables
- Antioxidants: found in berries
- Yellow/orange fruits & veg like carrots, apricots, and sweet potatoes
- Spinach and other dark green and leafy vegetables
- Tomatoes contain an anti-oxidant called lycopene to help the skin
- Beans, peas, and lentils for their cleansing fibre content
- Salmon, mackerel, and other kinds of fatty fish as well as nuts & seeds for their good oil content and anti-inflammatory nature.
These foods will give your skin and the rest of your body a good foundation to work from. However, you may need extra support from your practitioner to investigate any hormonal imbalances, bacterial/gut imbalances, or liver/lymphatic support. Also consider potential food intolerances, sensitivities or allergies (and you can try the Elimination Diet to test yourself).
In some cases, skin problems are related to a histamine intolerance, so if a Healthy Skin Diet doesn’t improve your skin, then please look at the Low Histamine Diet.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
When Henry came to me, most of his body was covered in psoriasis. He said it was easier to tell me where he didn’t have psoriasis rather than where he did. Strangely he had no psoriasis where his underpants were or on his feet, but pretty much everywhere else was covered with thick scaly red patches.
Henry is a cane truck driver. Day in and day out, he picked up sugar cane from the fields, drove to the cane mill and tipped the cane into the collection areas. He came home covered in cane dust every day and was used to this as part of his daily life. Because the covered areas were free of psoriasis, I realised that the dust must have been getting to all other parts of his body which caused the irritation.
I asked Henry if he needed to be outside of the truck when he was loading and unloading; he said he didn’t need to but usually did so for a break. I recommended that instead, to wind down his window, say a quick hello to his fellow workers, then wind the window up and stay in his air-conditioned cabin and then drive to a nearby rest area to get out of the truck for a quick break before proceeding to the cane mill.
As an early starter, Henry didn’t usually eat breakfast before he left home and chose to stop at the ‘truckies’ restaurant at the petrol station when he fuelled up the truck and ate a bacon and egg roll for breakfast and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. He would often unwind with a few beers at the end of the day and ate dinner at home with his wife, which was usually some meat and vegetables.
Henry’s diet was pro-inflammatory and not helping him. I’ve found that many people with psoriasis cannot digest grains very well and they also have issues with dairy products and sugar.
I recommended a detox diet for a while by cutting out all grains, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and additives/chemicals (including chemicals in personal care products). He possibly had ‘leaky gut’ but couldn’t afford to be tested, so we just went with the diet to see how he would respond.
To make these changes happen, he asked his wife to cook extra meat with dinner so there were leftovers he could have with salad for lunch, and he also took a thermos of soup (bone broth with veggies) to drink. For breakfast, he had a blended vegetable, coconut water and chai seed smoothie. It all meant a little more preparation, but he was willing to do what it took to make his skin clear again.
I must admit that Henry was a ‘star pupil’ with compliance.
His skin responded to these changes far quicker than I had ever seen in someone whose condition was so bad. What we did was obviously right for him, as his skin was completely clear and rash free after only two months on the diet. The only supplement he took was probiotics due to his restricted budget.
When I first met Rod (my darling husband) he had a brown discolouration under his armpits, like a rash but more subdued as it wasn’t very red. I asked him what it was as I thought it might have been scarring of some sort. He said that it was some sort of rash that he had for so long he couldn’t remember when it first started.
I thought it might have been a type of dermatitis called herpetiform dermatitis which is associated with gluten sensitivity.
So armed with this information (and maybe to impress me by doing as he was told) Rod stopped eating gluten foods and within a week the rash was completely gone. He said it had never disappeared like that before and it has never returned, but then again, we have stopped eating foods containing gluten.
Client names and identifying information changed
Simon was brought to me by his mum Angela. Simon was nine and his brother Aaron was eight.
Simon had eczema which covered most of his body, but it was worse around the backs of his knees, elbows and chest. Aaron’s skin was clear, but he had some behavioural issues (that Angela didn’t initially mention) which I observed while he was in the background as we focused on Simon’s problem.
Both the boys ate a typical young boy’s diet of cereal or toast for breakfast, snack bars for morning tea break, sandwiches for lunch, and dinner of pasta, pizza or meat and veg for dinner. They also loved their soft-drinks/soda.
Simon was an emergency C–section birth. Aaron was also a C-section birth, which is a common practice because the first child was C-section (but it is sometimes unnecessary). Each was breast fed for only a few days as Angela had trouble producing milk. So both boys had a similar start to life, yet only Simon had the skin issues. No one else in the family had skin problems but dad was coeliac and mum had lactose intolerance, so I knew that allergies were ‘in the family’.
Angela had taken Simon to see so many doctors and skin specialist that he was totally fed up with it all. He just wanted more cortisone which was the only thing that settled things, but it was short-term and when he was off cortisone his problems resurfaced.
Angela showed me pictures of what he looked like without the eczema (from the cortisone treatment) and you would think you were looking at another boy – smiling, confident and happy with clear skin.
When I saw him he was a writhing itchy and scaly mess. I had to mop the floor after each visit to collect all the dead skin that was across the floor like confetti. He had a peculiar smell that was rather unpleasant which I knew wasn’t right.
Simon was very shy and didn’t talk to me during the first three sessions and cried or became angry every-time we talked about taking certain foods out of his diet. From the beginning I knew this was going to be difficult.
Angel was determined to give diet changes a go as she knew how difficult Simon’s circumstances were for the whole family. I suggested that the whole family needed to go on the diet together so that Simon didn’t feel isolated, and Simon’s brother Aaron was very supportive of that idea. Dad not so much, but I quietly told him that if he really needed to have something else in his diet, then to do so outside of the home, such as at work (he liked that idea).
We started with a gluten, dairy, additive, and sugar free diet to reduce the inflammation and support Simon’s immune system. We also added in some probiotics and fish oil capsules that he was happy to chew on.
After a few weeks on this diet, the family revisited and there was an obvious change in Simon’s skin which had improved considerably. Although he still wouldn’t talk to me I could see that he was less agitated.
They were encouraged to continue the diet for another few weeks to keep the good work going and we added some bone broth (as soup with veggies) and some gelatine with dark cherry juice made into chewy gummy jellies that he loved. This was to help with gut repair and increase collagen to further repair Simon’s skin.
Two more monthly visits later and Simon was speaking to me saying, “Thank you for helping me with my skin.” I think he genuinely meant it and was not prompted by his parents. His skin looked so good with hardly a blemish.
He asked if he could go back to eating all his favourite foods and I said that maybe not just yet and with that he had an angry teary moment, but soon calmed down as we talked about how bad his skin was before and how he can be healthier and have more fun without his skin being so itchy.
The next time I saw Simon was three months later and his skin looked really bad. I was puzzled until I had found out that Simon had been to a birthday party and ate everything he shouldn’t. Lollies with artificial substances, sugar, breads, pizza and all sorts of party snacks. He was warned and given other foods to choose, but kids will be kids. He felt ashamed, but the good thing was that he got to see first-hand the effect that food had on his skin.
Unfortunately, that one day of poor eating made his skin bad for another three months of suffering. After that he was very chatty and told me he wasn’t going to touch ’that stuff’ ever again.
I told him that with careful monitoring he could bring back some foods to expand his diet. He discovered that provided he didn’t have gluten, dairy or sugar his skin was good. His itch became a tool to help him feel when a food didn’t suit him; he would only eat a small amount of something new and see if there was an itch.
Because of the family’s diet changes, Aaron’s behaviour (the younger brother) improved tremendously and his grades went up at school. Dad, who I thought was going to eat other foods, ended up just eating what everyone else did and felt better with more energy and was more productive at work. Mum Angela was delighted and really happy that her family was healthy.