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Gluten and Eczema: What’s the Connection?

Medically reviewed by Lisa Booth, RDN
Posted on September 5, 2023

Some members of MyEczemaTeam have described their experiences removing gluten from their diets. Although some members have reported that a gluten-free diet led to an improvement in their eczema symptoms, that hasn’t been the case for others.

One MyEczemaTeam member said, “What helped me was removing gluten, all grains, processed starches and sugar. My skin started to heal in like two weeks. Now I’ve been in remission for almost five weeks.”

There’s no evidence that gluten interferes with eczema treatments, but it may trigger skin symptoms in some cases. Here’s more background on why gluten might play a role in eczema management for certain people but not others.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Although most people don’t have a problem with gluten, a few health conditions make it necessary to remove it from your diet or limit how much of it you eat. Some of these conditions are more common in people with eczema.

People following a gluten-free diet may also avoid eating oats. Oats are naturally gluten free but can get contaminated by gluten-containing grains during processing. Besides the obvious offenders like bread, some unexpected foods and beverages can contain gluten. For example, gravies, processed meat, salad dressings, seasoned rice mixes, and french fries may have gluten depending on where and how they’re made. Food manufacturers may add gluten to change the flavor, texture, or color of processed foods. Learning to read food labels and navigate restaurant menus is essential to successfully follow a gluten-free diet.

Celiac Disease and Dermatitis Herpetiformis

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by eating gluten. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system launches an attack on the lining of the small intestine, leading to inflammation and damage.

Celiac disease affects 1 in 130 people in the United States. Most cases can be diagnosed with a blood test. Your doctor will also evaluate your symptoms and medical history and may perform additional testing to confirm. Getting treatment for celiac disease is crucial to prevent malnutrition and lasting intestinal damage.

Interestingly, 10 percent to 15 percent of people with celiac disease also develop a skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis. This condition is a specific type of rash that is intensely itchy and consists of small, fluid-filled blisters.

Despite the name, dermatitis herpetiformis has nothing to do with the herpesvirus — the condition is directly linked to gluten. In fact, 80 percent of those with dermatitis herpetiformis have celiac disease, according to the National Eczema Association. As a result, symptoms may improve with a gluten-free diet. However, some people with celiac disease and eczema continue to have skin symptoms after cutting out gluten. In that case, additional changes may be necessary to control eczema.

Small studies suggest that compared with the general population, people with eczema are much more likely to have an immune response to gluten. Although more research is needed, eczema is a good reason to think about your body’s reaction to gluten, especially if you don’t have other known triggers.

What Is Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity?

Sometimes even those without celiac disease run into trouble with gluten. A condition called nonceliac gluten sensitivity describes a bad reaction to gluten without intestinal damage. Symptoms may include:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue

Some data suggests that nonceliac gluten sensitivity can cause itchy skin lesions that resolve with a gluten-free diet. Although these symptoms are similar to eczema, the relationship isn’t fully understood. Researchers have suggested that people with nonceliac gluten sensitivity should try a gluten-free diet for three months to see if it helps improve their skin problems and digestive system.

Other Dietary Changes for Eczema

Apart from a gluten-free diet, other dietary approaches may help reduce eczema symptoms. One example is the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. The Mediterranean diet’s anti-inflammatory properties and abundant antioxidants may benefit individuals with eczema by reducing inflammation and promoting overall skin health.

Members of MyEczemaTeam have shared the various ways diet has affected their eczema control. “I am 42 and have lived with atopic eczema my whole life, relying on steroids to control my outbreaks,” shared one member. “Four years ago, I went for a food intolerance test and found out my diet included most of the foods I was intolerant to. After changing my diet, my flare-ups now come down to change of weather, stress, or tiredness. So I have fewer outbreaks and use steroids occasionally instead of every day.”

“I got a slight improvement after following [a low-histamine] diet,” said another member. “The principles are to stick with foods that don’t cause a rise in histamine. It’s hard work, especially in social situations, but it can be done if you plan, plan, plan. The results are worth it, as the itching reduces a lot. In my case, the rashes are still present but calmer.”

Diet isn’t always the only contributor to eczema, however. “We asked for blood tests after the elimination diet didn’t work,” a MyEczemaTeam member said. “My son was allergic to dairy, but mostly it was our cat, so we didn’t see any improvement from eliminating dairy till the cat was gone.”

Precautions of a Gluten-Free Diet

Cutting gluten can make it harder to get the fiber, vitamins, and minerals your body needs. Because gluten-containing whole grains can be an important part of a healthy diet, following a gluten-free diet blindly isn’t necessarily beneficial. When removing major food groups from your diet, you’ll need to be mindful about getting the missing nutrients elsewhere, such as from fruits, vegetables, and beans, as well as potentially from dietary supplements.

Not all “gluten-free” foods are healthy. Many contain more fat and sugar to preserve flavor and texture after removing gluten. In addition, gluten-free processed foods can be more expensive than regular versions. Cooking meals from natural ingredients can help you control what you’re eating.

What To Do if You Suspect a Problem With Gluten

If you have concerns about gluten and your eczema, consult your health care provider or a registered dietitian nutritionist. They can provide personalized medical advice to help you make informed decisions about your diet and eczema treatment plan.

People with severe eczema that resists treatment are most likely to benefit from a gluten-free trial. Following the diet for a month or two under the supervision of a dietitian should be enough to determine if it makes a difference for you. People with dermatitis herpetiformis may see improvements after just a few days.

Avoiding gluten isn’t the answer for everyone, but exploring potential dietary triggers is a smart way to tackle eczema symptoms and improve your quality of life. A bit of testing, along with some trial and error, can give you key insights about what works best for your body.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones. Here, more than 48,000 members from around the world come together to ask questions, offer support and advice, and connect with others who understand life with eczema.

Do you think a food allergy, gluten intolerance, or another food sensitivity contributes to your eczema flare-ups? If you’ve tried a strict gluten-free diet, how did it go? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a discussion on your Activities page.

Posted on September 5, 2023
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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Lisa Booth, RDN studied foods and nutrition at San Diego State University, in California and obtained a registered dietitian nutritionist license in 2008. Learn more about her here
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here

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