Can Gluten Intolerance Cause Skin Problems?

Your sensitivity to gluten can manifest itself through different skin conditions.

As if abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea aren’t enough, various skin problems are another symptom of gluten sensitivity, which is the more appropriate term of this type of food intolerance.

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and observe your skin is getting drier, itchier or developing rashes, here’s one possible reason: your gluten sensitivity could be behind it.

Gluten is a possible culprit

Gluten refers to a family of proteins made up of gliadin (found in wheat), hordein (found in barley), and secalin (found in rye). Responsible for the stretchy quality of dough, these proteins act as the glue that keeps the dough in shape, hence the name.

An increasing number of medical evidence shows there is a direct link between gluten sensitivity, or its most severe form called coeliac disease, and various skin problems ranging from dermatitis herpetiformis, dry skin, chronic urticaria (also called hives), eczema, and psoriasis.

Coeliac disease shows through your skin

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects an estimated 1 in 70 Australians. Approximately 80% of this number are undiagnosed, which means most Australians who have this disease don’t even know they have it.

When individuals with coeliac disease consume gluten, their immune system responds by attacking their villi, the finger-like lining of their small bowel. This leads to the inflammation and flattening of their villi, which results in malabsorption of nutrients and other gastrointestinal conditions.

Dermatitis herpetiformis is an extremely itchy, burning rash that appears on both sides of your body, usually at the back of your neck and head, buttocks, elbows, knees and lower back. This condition is the skin-related manifestation of coeliac disease, with 15% to 25% of coeliac patients suffering from it. You are automatically considered to have coeliac disease upon receiving a diagnosis of dermatitis herpetiformis if your coeliac blood tests turn out positive.

A host of skin problems

Aside from dermatitis herpetiformis, individuals who have been diagnosed with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity are also more susceptible to other skin problems.

Dry skin is a condition shared by many individuals diagnosed with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. While more studies are required to prove whether the disease is the underlying cause of dry skin, some doctors have proposed that the poor absorption of nutrients owing to the damaged villi is the reason why the skin is deprived of nutrients needed for hydration and nourishment.

There is also evidence that shows a connection between eczema and coeliac disease. This is why individuals suffering from both conditions who follow a gluten-free diet have a better chance of managing their conditions than those who don’t.

The same can be said about chronic urticaria or hives.

A 2005 study revealed that 5% of children diagnosed with chronic urticaria also had coeliac disease. When these children followed the gluten-free diet, it only took five to 10 weeks for their skin condition to disappear.

Likewise, studies have found that patients who suffer from psoriasis usually have a high amount of antibodies to gluten flowing in their bloodstreams. Even if these patients haven’t been officially diagnosed with coeliac disease, these studies were able to indicate a link between their skin condition and gluten consumption.

Further research is still needed to clarify whether it is the gluten that results in psoriasis or if individuals suffering from psoriasis have a higher risk for coeliac disease. But anecdotal evidence shows that psoriasis patients saw a major improvement in their skin condition after following a gluten-free diet.

A 2015 study showed the positive effect of a gluten-free diet for 17 individuals diagnosed with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and these skin problems as well. These individuals who were having rashes that looked similar to dermatitis herpetiformis, eczema and psoriasis saw substantial improvements in their skin condition in a period of one month after following the gluten-free diet.

With or without coeliac

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is a relatively new medical condition. More studies still need to be conducted to determine the extent of the impact of gluten consumption on various skin conditions. There is, however, a growing number of evidence that individuals who are sensitive to gluten – whether diagnosed with coeliac disease or not – have a higher risk for different skin problems than those who are not sensitive to it.

The good news is that, while there is no cure for coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, their symptoms can be managed better with the help of a gluten-free diet.

Stop the itch

Medications and topical creams available in the market are formulated to stop the itch and spread of rashes caused by these different skin problems. In the case of dermatitis herpetiformis, Dapsone is the most commonly prescribed medication. For eczema, corticosteroid creams are usually applied. Take note that these medications should only be taken upon the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.

Following a gluten-free diet has also been observed to be an effective form of treatment for these skin problems. Many studies have shown that individuals suffering from these skin conditions experienced relief from their symptoms within weeks of adopting the gluten-free diet. But before you commit to avoiding gluten for life, we recommend that you first consult with a qualified dietitian or nutritionist for proper advice.

Proper diagnosis for proper treatment

Starting the gluten-free diet – or any other type of diet, for that matter – should be a well-thought-out decision grounded on facts, not emotion. Going gluten-free without any professional advice may put your body at risk for malnutrition. And if you are not even sensitive to gluten, following this diet will add unnecessary pressure on you to look for food alternatives.

You need to work with the experts to receive a proper diagnosis of your condition, whether it concerns your skin or digestion. Going through coeliac disease blood tests, skin biopsy for dermatitis herpetiformis, blood test for psoriasis and physical examination to rule out dry skin and eczema are worthwhile investments for your health and well-being.

Regardless of how well you think you know your body, self-diagnosing is never a wise option. Qualified healthcare professionals are in a better position to give you an accurate diagnosis of your condition, which is critical to receiving the proper treatment.

Need Our Help?

Book an appointment with an accredited dietitian or nutritionist by phone on (07) 3071-7405 between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday or send us an enquiry. Alternatively, you can read up on our gluten sensitivity services.