What foods trigger eczema flare-ups?
The relationship between eczema and the foods you eat is highly complex; we know, for example, that eczema sufferers tend to be more vulnerable to food intolerances and, while the explanation behind this susceptibility is still being explored, there undeniably appears to be a link, with certain foods inflaming or encouraging eczema symptoms. The types of foods which appear to encourage eczema symptoms include:
- Refined sugar
Read on to find out why these foods have the potential to upset eczema symptoms and what that could mean for your diet going forward.
When it comes to skin problems like acne or oily skin, dairy is a familiar culprit, but could the same be said for eczema? Perhaps, although it's important to recognise the difference between how dairy will affect those who already have an intolerance or sensitivity, compared to those who do not. If you are lactose intolerant, in addition to suffering from eczema (and believe me, you are not alone if this is the case!), then naturally any dairy products you consume will have an adverse impact on your eczema symptoms.
But what if you're not intolerant to lactose or especially sensitive to dairy? Well, certain types of dairy products can still present problems. Skimmed milk actually tops the list here as it often contains additional sugars and hormones, such as whey protein, which could still potentially cause your blood glucose levels to spike, thus encouraging inflammation. However, milk is also a valuable source of nutrients such as calcium, potassium and vitamin D, so is it really advisable to cut it from your diet completely?
My advice: If you are intolerant to dairy then this is definitely a food group that you will need to avoid; however, if you're not intolerant, rather than cutting dairy out completely, you might want to consider reducing your intake. The real problem with dairy is that most of us are consuming far too much – it's in our cereal, our tea, our snacks, almost everything! That's why it may be beneficial to introduce a dairy-free alternative such as almond milk or oat milk into your routine as a tasty, nutritious substitute. Just see our Nutritionist Emma's blog, 'Our guide to dairy-free milk' for more ideas!
Gluten is a protein that is often found in grains such as barley, rye and wheat and it requires the presence of very specific digestive enzymes in order to be broken down efficiently. Those who are gluten intolerant often seem to be more affected by skin conditions like eczema.
Since the immune system plays a role in both issues, this could be the common denominator. It's possible that, as your body struggles to breakdown gluten, it could trigger a low-grade immune response that encourages further inflammation – hello eczema flare-up! As with dairy, though, can gluten present a problem to those who are not intolerant?
Again, it all depends on your intake and what you're actually eating; gluten is a common component in plenty of carb-heavy, processed foods. So, if you're binging frequently on these, then your digestive system is going to have a reaction eventually and, since poor digestion can exacerbate eczema flare-ups, this is another potential hazard to watch out for.
My advice: Just like dairy, it's all about how sensitive you are and how much you are consuming. If you're not sensitive to gluten, then you might not feel the need to cut it out of your diet completely. Reducing your intake could still be beneficial, especially if you're exchanging gluten-heavy foods for healthier options such as fresh vegetables, lentils, beans or other pulses. However, just watch out if you're looking at gluten-free options – they might not contain gluten anymore, but the odds are they still contain a hefty amount of sugar and other additives!
3. Refined sugar
Ah, sugar! If you've read any of my other skin blogs, you'll know that this particular food product can be the bane of healthy skin, and eczema is certainly no exception! It would be difficult to discuss all of the ways that refined sugar can impact your skin, but below I've attempted to explain just a few of the negative reactions that can occur.
• Fluctuating blood glucose levels: The most obvious impact of sugar is on your blood glucose (sugar) levels. When you initially eat sugar, it will raise your blood glucose levels and insulin will be released to store any excess glucose for later use. Over time though, if you're continuously bombarding your body with sugar, it will become less and less receptive to insulin. This can be problematic for your skin as, when your blood glucose levels are high, your body will attempt to remove excess sugar through urination. This can deprive your body of fluid and, over time, can lead to dry, itchy skin
• Poor sleep patterns: Beauty sleep, as it turns out, is real. If you're munching on sugary foods before bedtime, though, then you're going to find yourself suffering from sleep deprivation. This can create a vicious cycle as poor sleep often exacerbates cravings. Sleep deprivation can also have an adverse effect on your cortisol levels which, in addition to making you more vulnerable to stress, can suppress the youth hormone DHEA and make your skin more prone to dryness, itchiness and inflammation!
• Gut dysbiosis: Your digestive system is your body's primary vehicle for getting rid of waste products so, if something goes wrong here, it's definitely going to affect your eczema symptoms. Unfortunately, sugar can alter your gut flora, increasing your levels of unfriendly bacteria. Since 70% of your immune cells are located in your gut, this is not good news for your skin and can make you susceptible to gut dysbiosis, promoting inflammation as well as a range of unpleasant digestive issues such as bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
These are just three of the ways that sugar can impact your skin! If you want more details about the effects of sugar, then please check out my blog, 'The bitter truth about sugar and your skin'.
My advice: The problem with sugar is that it's sneaky. You might think that by simply cutting down on cake and chocolate you're doing a good job, but sugar can linger in unexpected places – your breakfast cereal, bottled smoothies, low-fat ready meals and yoghurts. Even products that claim to be 'low sugar' often contain a plethora of sweeteners instead, which can be just as detrimental. That's why you really have to be label savvy and prepared to put your detective hat on. Fresh is always best, so if you have any doubts, try to opt for something with as few ingredients as possible! It might also be worth reading Emma's blog, 'What stops sugar cravings?'.
Soy, unlike sugar or gluten, isn't a food product you'd immediately recognise as being unhealthy or bad for you. In fact, soybeans are bursting with all sorts of nutritional benefits and they're actually a key ingredient in our Menopause Support remedy. However, if you suffer from eczema, there is some evidence that soy, and soy-based products like soya milk and tofu, could have the potential to upset your eczema symptoms.
This evidence primarily comes from a study published in the Journal of Dermatology. The study itself, which was conducted in Japan, found that avoiding soy-based products for three months helped to reduce eczema symptoms in participating volunteers.1 But why could soy potentially trigger a flare-up? Well, even if you don't have a specific allergy to soy, soybeans can be problematic.
This is because they often contain a substance called nickel. Nickel is a chemical element often found in soil; thus, it can be easily transferred to the plants that grow there. The main problem with nickel is that it can be quite irritating for sufferers of pompholyx eczema (or dyshidrotic eczema as it is sometimes known), who tend to be more sensitive to this compound. It also doesn't help that products derived from soy, such as soy sauce, also tend to be rich in artificial MSGs.
MSG is a building block of proteins often used to enhance the flavour of certain foods but, unfortunately, too much MSG can actually reduce your levels of certain antioxidants, thus affecting how your liver detoxifies certain chemicals. It's actually estimated that 35% of eczema sufferers could experience more intense symptoms after consuming MSG containing foods.2
My advice: When it comes to soy and soy-based products like soy sauce, quality really matters. Ideally, you want to invest in products that contain as few artificial ingredients as possible so, again, a certain amount of detective work might be needed. Try to opt for variants that are MSG-free or alternatives such as our own Kelpamare. This sauce is completely free from artificial flavours, preservatives and MSG in addition to being vegan-friendly.
Originally written 27 March 2019 (updated 16 December 2019)