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Sense and Sensitivity: Is food to blame for your reactive skin?
May 13th 2014 / 2 comments
Your skin is sensitive to not only what you put on it, but to what you feed it - so could intolerance testing help?
Most dermatologists would agree that the saying 'you are what you eat' is never truer than in the case of your skin; your diet is undeniably one of the most crucial factors in skin quality. This goes beyond the age-old warnings that chocolate will give you spots and to drink lots of water; both true in their own ways, but it could also be a sensitivity, or intolerance to certain foods that's affecting your skin's appearance. From wheat intolerance to reactions to dairy, food has a lot to answer for. So as a seasoned fussy eater with a fragile stomach, could it be that my skin irritations are a reaction to my nutritional choices, rather than simply the beauty products lining my bathroom shelf?
Skincare specialist Caroline Hirons is a big believer in the connection between diet and the skin. "‘Food intolerances or sensitivities can absolutely have an effect on your skin," she tells me. "An inflamed system is shown on the skin in all manner of ways but sometimes through angry, red spots and an underlying pink/red undertone or occasionally inflamed cheeks. Food allergies in particular can trigger rashes, breakouts and inflammation – in some cases leading to sore, irritated skin."
Nutritional therapist Eve Kalanik agrees: "When we take in a food that maybe doesn’t agree with us due to genetic reasons or overexposure, this can cause an immunologic reaction triggering various skin conditions. Typically foods that can cause this include eggs, soy, wheat, gluten, peanuts and dairy. Beautiful skin really does start from the gut."
The food intolerance test
It was with this in mind that I headed to The Organic Pharmacy in Kensington to be tested for food intolerances, not simply because my skin is sensitive and temperamental but because I had suspected for some time my body wasn't agreeing with certain foods; I just had no idea where to start.
So start I did with qualified doctor and homeopath Vidhi, who took down a detailed description of a day in the life of me (which was really rather underwhelming when written down on paper; I am a creature of habit). From what I did when I woke in the morning to my working hours, my attitude, my snack choices, my sleep patterns and when I drink water and that oh-so important afternoon cuppa, Vidhi scribbled it all down to get a good sense of my lifestyle and my relationship to food.
Then came the test. Now I know it shouldn't have been stressful - there was no revision involved and no right answer after all - but I can't say I enjoyed it. With jewellery removed, hooked up to a machine via some straps and feeling a lot like Dorothy at the start of (horror film) Return to Oz, I was instructed to sit straight against the wall with my hands on my lap, where I was to be left for seven minutes plugged into the Quantum QXCI machine, which was essentially going to send electric currents around my body to scan it. For an anxious person like me, this was not my comfort zone.
It was the longest seven minutes of my life, and just as I began to panic slightly, in walked Vidhi to switch it off and free me. Of course, you don't feel a thing - the currents are so small there's nothing to be felt other than the crease that's being created on your forehead by the rather tight strap around it (I got some odd looks on the tube later). But aside from the lack of comfort, it was undeniably quick because suddenly, the results were in.
Despite the evidence of the previous seven minutes, my ability to deal with stress came out as reasonable; my serotonin was high despite me feeling rather exhausted, and my hydration levels were good. However, my immune function was marked as low, as were my oxygenation levels; my toxicity was high and I was getting close to the acidic mark on the pH scale which Vidhi explained means I need to eat a more alkaline diet.
Then came the list of foods; I'm borderline for lactose intolerance; I should avoid blackcurrant (apparently I was having too much of late), and red meat, carrots, strawberries and mackerel all had black marks. The test picked up on my elaborate intolerance to all types of pollen, and most impressively (if you can put cynicism aside) it showed I cannot tolerate synthetic chemicals. This, I knew; but could the food issues be affecting my skin too?
According to Vidhi, they could well be the cause of bumpy skin and rashes; she advised me to cut out all dairy immediately for at least two weeks and expected a visible change in my skin, something she has experienced herself with her own diet. She also suggested some supplements to aid my digestion and immunity, both of which would affect the health of my gut and in turn, skin. But is it that simple? Can changing what we eat really make a difference to our skin's behaviour?
The skin/food connection
"The relationship that food has with our skin is complex," says cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting. "There is certainly a link between eczema and food intolerances, and we see this situation most frequently in context of childhood atopic eczema. In adults, things are less clear cut – I don’t tend to perform allergy tests unless we’re dealing with a medical condition, like eczema or urticaria, and a link with food is strongly suggested from the history."
When it comes to sensitivity, breakouts or irritations, it's much harder to diagnose the cause than some better-understood skin problems. For instance, says Dr Bunting, "There is growing evidence for a dietary role in acne – a belief that has long been held by many acne sufferers to play a significant role in their disease. It’s likely that dairy products and high glycaemic carbohydrates create a greater drive to breakout through mechanisms that increase the skin’s likelihood to clog up and make skin more oily."
Before even considering intolerances, it's a good idea to examine your general diet and whether it's doing your skin any good at a basic level. "It's worth considering if there is a high amount of sugar and processed foods in the diet as these can cause an overgrowth of yeasts in the gut, which can in turn result in allergenic responses and a host of skin symptoms," explains Eve. "Diets that eliminate these more allergenic foods can often improve symptoms and it's definitely worth trying this before investing in expensive testing, which can sometimes throw up false positives or negatives."
Food intolerance testing is regarded with a fair amount of scepticism thanks to the often inconclusive findings and lack of evidence that they work; while allergies are far easier to discern a cause and and effect, intolerances and sensitivities don't lend themselves to concrete answers. "Results [of food intolerance tests] may change over time once you start to address what may be driving the issue, so a clear elimination diet with a gut healing protocol alongside is really the best way to go," advises Eve. "A happy tummy really does make for a happy face!"
That's certainly been my experience, but Vidhi's test and advice has at least set me off in the right direction in terms of potential triggers. Only time will tell whether the help of supplements, alkaline-rich and cow's milk-free diet will make a difference to my skin, but I do believe they could at least improve my health - intolerant or not, it's a good diet to follow. And the skin is our biggest organ after all; surely, then, good health means better skin will follow?