Can gluten cause acne? Or is exposure to gluten likely to exacerbate acne? I’ve got the full scoop for you in this article. Please see my disclosures.
If you’re wondering if gluten causes acne, you’re not alone. Researchers surveyed non-celiac individuals about their motivations for following a gluten-free diet, and the top answer was the hope that it would clear up their acne. In fact, clearing acne was a bigger motivation to following a gluten-free diet than losing weight or getting healthy.
I’m often asked if acne is the sign of a gluten disorder, like celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or if accidentally eating gluten despite being on a gluten-free diet can trigger an acne flare up.
Of course, people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance must avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats. For people with celiac disease, gluten is the trigger that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the tissue surrounding the small intestine. The small intestine is essential for properly absorbing and distributing nutrients to every cell and organ in the body.
Of note, celiac disease is the only autoimmune condition in which the trigger (gluten) is known. This is why it’s important to note that gluten has not been linked to triggering the onset of acne, although, as I’ll explain later, gluten might be inextricably linked to acne because gluten is an inflammatory food.
On the other side of the spectrum, going gluten free isn’t always black and white for those without diagnosed celiac disease. However, people with acne, and other forms of skin inflammation, might be interested in knowing that gluten causes inflammation in all who eat it, not just those with celiac disease.
In fact, over time, gluten contributes to the breakdown of the lining of the gut, which inevitably leads to intestinal permeability or leaky gut. When undigested food particles “leak” into the bloodstream, they can wreak havoc anywhere in the body including the joints, brain, digestive system, muscles, reproductive tract, thyroid and, of course, the skin, the largest organ in the body.
Overall, when it comes to the gluten-acne connection, the words of the great Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, may ring loud and true. Hippocrates once famously said, “All disease begins in the gut.”
Does Gluten Cause Acne?
If you suffer from acne, you might be wondering if removing gluten from your diet will help clear up your skin. Again, it’s important to note that there is no medical research specifically connecting gluten to acne. However, do not mistake lack of research for lack of connection.
There is research, however, that suggests acne might start in the gut. One study discusses the gut-skin axis and makes a strong case for the connection between gut health and skin health, concluding, “It was not the contention … [to suggest] that acne is a disease of the gastrointestinal tract. Yet, there appears to be more than enough supportive evidence to suggest that gut microbes, and the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract itself, are contributing factors in the acne process.”
In other words, if you experience chronic acne, or even flare ups from time to time, chances are something isn’t right in your gut. And guess what? Gluten can be the root cause of poor gut health.
How Gluten Adversely Affects the Gut
Gluten has been proven time and time again to wreak havoc on the gut. In fact, an inflammatory reaction that starts in the gut almost always will spread to inflammation in other parts of the body too.
One important study by a team of researchers, including one of the leading celiac disease doctors, Alessio Fasano, found that exposure to gliadin, which is found in gluten, leads to intestinal permeability in all individuals that consume it. You can read more about the gluten-inflammation connection in this article.
On top of that, gluten is hard to digest and isn’t always fully broken down by the digestive system. This means large, not-fully-digested gluten molecules enter the small intestine from the stomach. The small intestine doesn’t know how to handle these undigested food particles, so instead of these particles flowing through the small intestine, they create holes in the lining of the small intestine and eventually enter or “leak” into the bloodstream.
When undigested food particles enter the bloodstream, the immune system reacts by going into attack mode because the immune system thinks these food particles are foreign invaders. As the immune system reacts, inflammation will affect a person’s most genetically vulnerable spot, which could be the thyroid, joints, gut, brain, or the skin, for example.
Once someone removes gluten from their diet, particularly someone with a gluten intolerance, they naturally begin to heal their gut, which in turn, may encourage the skin to heal. Gluten is an irritant that acts like gasoline poured on a fire. Once the irritant is removed and gut inflammation subsides, the body, including the skin, can begin to heal.
Many people use the transition to a gluten-free diet as an excuse to clean up their overall diet. They stop eating fast food, processed food, sugary desserts, and junk food and often find themselves eating more naturally gluten-free safe foods such as fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, eggs, fatty fish, and beans and lentils. Such dietary changes can naturally result in lowered inflammation, weight loss, and potentially clearer skin.
More Gut Healing Tips
In addition to removing gluten (the irritant), healing your body – and skin – includes going the extra mile in caring for your body.
Eat Right. Be sure to eat plenty of anti-inflammatory foods, such as fruits and vegetables. A good way to flood your body with such nutrients is through green juicing. Anti-inflammatory foods will calm inflammation and help you on your journey to heal from the inside-out.
Take Probiotics. Take a high-quality probiotic every day. I suggest a dosage of 50 billion CFUs or greater. Read my article on the benefits of probiotics and talk to your doctor to figure out which probiotic is right for you.
Take Fish Oil. Consider taking a fish oil supplement, which has been proven to reduce inflammation in the body. You can read more about fish oil in my article about supplements for celiac disease.
Limit Stress. Stress can adversely affect your gut health and deter healing. Stress can also mess with your hormones, which in turn can trigger outbreaks and deter acne from healing quickly.
Balance Your Hormones. While hormonal acne is normal for women with regular cycles, women with irregular cycles can experience hormonal fluctuations more often. Removing gluten and cleaning up your diet may help you balance your hormones and thereby help you get your acne in check. I recommend reading Beyond the Pill by Dr. Jolene Brighten for more information on balancing your hormones naturally without taking birth control.
Test for Food Intolerances. Skin issues can be the sign of a food intolerance. To test for gluten sensitivity, I recommend taking the Wheat Zoomer test. You can also test for other food intolerances with this at-home food sensitivity test. Just beware, if the test comes back with a lot of food sensitivities, it’s often the sign of poor gut health. Read more about what food sensitivity tests really reveal in this article.
Assess Underlying Issues. You might have a more serious gut condition like SIBO, candida, or h pylori, which might be holding you back from healing your gut. Your doctor can help diagnose you if you suspect any of these gut-busting disorders.
Talk with Your Doctor. While food and lifestyle changes will give you a good chance of healing your body, you may still need some medical interventions. There may be medications or topical creams that can help in addition to removing gluten and making changes to your diet.
The Connection Between Gluten and Skin Conditions
While the link between gluten and acne is still to be fully determined, gluten is connected to a skin condition known as dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) or celiac rash. People with DH experience a red, itchy rash and have intestinal damage commensurate with those with celiac disease. Once someone with DH goes on a strict gluten-free diet, their skin symptoms disappear.
Gluten consumption has also been linked to the improvement of other skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, and scleroderma.
While no study says gluten causes these condition, somes studies show that the consumption of gluten may exacerbate skin conditions and/or that symptoms related to these skin conditions will improve once the patient implements a gluten-free diet.
The bottom line is that improving your skin may just be an inside job. If you suffer from acne, whether chronic or occasional, look for ways to boost your gut health, balance your hormones, and improve your diet before turning to more risky medical interventions.
- Geographic Tongue (Glossitis) and the Gluten Connection
- Can Gluten Cause Acid Reflux?
- Celiac Disease Rash (Dermatitis Herpetiformis) Explained
- 5 Dangers Associated with the Gluten-Free Diet
- The Benefits of Probiotics for Celiac Disease (and a list of gluten-free probiotic brands)
- Leaky Gut and the Gluten Connection
- Heal Your Gut Challenge for People with Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance
- Does Gluten Cause Inflammation in Everyone?