Research & Education

Gluten Skin Is There Really Such a Thing?

Chocolate potato chips pizza and “greasy foods” in general have been blamed for skin conditions for decades. Acne in particular is often chalked up to fatty foods or to people touching their faces with unwashed hands. Other skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis are sometimes considered idiopathic even though a strong body of evidence suggests they are autoimmune in nature. And if they are primarily autoimmune in nature then an elimination diet that removes the most common dietary allergens may be beneficial. Even for skin conditions that are not the result of self-reactivity however certain foods may trigger flare-ups. Individuals with sensitivity to particular foods might not consider themselves to be “allergic” in the sense of sneezing or going into anaphylaxis. Rather their sensitivity might manifest primarily via the skin. For some people acne breakouts redness or dry flaky skin may be the only indicator that they are sensitive to certain foods. There’s runner’s knee tennis elbow and now…gluten face?

A significant amount of research points to a connection between what goes on in the gut and what is displayed on the face. Foods that result in inflammation may have their primary manifestation as inflammation playing out through the skin visible as redness and puffiness of the face. With the plethora of research being conducted on the gut microbiome it seems there is no body system that is unaffected by increased small intestinal permeability a.k.a. “leaky gut.” There’s a gut-brain axis which may influence anxiety depression and other conditions involving disturbed moods. There’s also a gut-joint axis which likely underlies rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory and degenerative joint diseases. And there is indeed a gut-skin axis as well.

This does not give teenagers (or anyone else) free license to gorge on deep-fried fast food at the mall or movie theater but chocolate chips and french fries may have been falsely implicated in the embarrassing acne that is the bane of many an adolescent existence. Of course the vegetable oils typically employed in restaurant fryers are high in inflammation-promoting omega-6 fatty acids and this can certainly contribute to unsightly manifestations through the skin. (If concerns about heart disease and diabetes—which probably seem like far distant possibilities—aren’t enough to encourage young people to avoid foods cooked in these oils perhaps the prospect of smooth clear skin is.) In fact Dr. Loren Cordain Boyd Eaton and other leading researchers into Paleolithic nutrition have long asserted that acne is a “disease of civilization” every bit as much as cardiometabolic issues. And it may not be just the glut of omega-6-heavy oils contributing to it but also the modern epidemic of hyperinsulinemia. Lipid peroxidation which may be strongly influenced by diet has also been noted as an underlying cause of acne

Nevertheless the presumed connection between oily food and oily skin may not be as strong as some are led to believe. Additional contributing factors appear to be gluten sensitivity and/or disrupted gut flora. These may play a large role in what someone sees in the bathroom mirror every morning. Supplementation with probiotics in mice has been shown to reduce skin inflammation as well as hair loss.

The role of gluten in particular may be underestimated in unpleasant skin conditions. Individuals with non-celiac gluten sensitivity have manifestations of this food intolerance outside the gut. They may not exhibit the small intestinal villous atrophy illustrative of celiac disease but the sensitivity shows itself elsewhere in the body or brain: as anxiety ataxia dyspraxia and of course skin conditions. For some individuals removing gluten from the diet has so many positive effects it almost seems only a few steps removed from magic. Because of this it’s easy to see why skeptics see the gluten-free movement as an unscientific fad. But the truth is there really does seem to be a connection between “idiopathic” skin issues and gluten intolerance.