Without a doubt, diet is the most confusing aspect of acne for most people. We’ve all read stories of people miraculously getting clear after cutting 1 or 2 foods from their diet. And there’s no doubt that ‘hidden’ food allergies and sensitivities can cause acne. But the real question is how do you know which foods, if any, cause acne for you. Several companies market seemingly scientific (and expensive!) tests that claim to rapidly and accurately uncover the hidden sensitivities that wreck your skin.
In this guest article by Dr. Alexis Shields, we’ll talk why these tests may not do what it says on the can, and she’ll walk you through the only reliable (and free) way to identify your food sensitivities.
The food that you eat has a direct impact on the health of your body and your skin.
We all know that food allergies can create severe reactions to foods, such as having a peanut allergy. However, there are more common negative reactions to foods called food intolerances.
Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not typically involve the immune system. Therefore, the methods used to test food allergies are not effective for determining food intolerances.
Many people go their entire lives without knowing that they had a food intolerance at the source of their poor health.
Food intolerance definition
A food allergy is a reaction to a food that involves the immune system, such as a peanut allergy.
A food intolerance is a reaction to a food that does not involve the immune system, but may be from the bodies insufficient production of a particular enzyme, such as lactase in those who are lactose intolerant. The only exception to this rule is gluten intolerance, which can involve the immune system.
Having an intolerance or sensitivity to a food is much more common than a food allergy.
Food intolerance symptoms
The truth is, any symptom can be the cause of or complicated by a food intolerance.
In my clinical experience, I have found that the following symptoms are related to having a food intolerance or food sensitivity:
- Eczema, skin rashes, acne, chronically itchy skin, and psoriasis
- Gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and acid reflux
- Headaches and migraines
- Unexplained fatigue or excessive sleepiness, and insomnia
- Seasonal allergies and asthma
- Brain fog and difficulty concentrating
- Muscle and/or joint pain
- Difficulty gaining and losing weight
- Anxiety and depression
Why you shouldn’t pay for food intolerance tests
It is a widely held myth that you can test for food intolerances using a blood test.
Studies have shown food intolerance blood test are unreliable and often produce false positive results
Many companies offer blood tests that claim to accurately identify your individual food intolerances and sensitivities. In these tests they take little bit of your blood and test it against several hundred foods. More specifically, they measure how your immune system reacts to the antigens in foods. Based on the immune systems reaction to the food, the test claims that certain reactions mean an intolerance to that food.
While seemingly scientific, these tests are not consistent or accurate and they generate many false results. Also, it’s common for different labs to produce completely different results.
It is unclear what these immune reactions really mean and if they suggest a negative reaction to a food, a tolerance to a food, or simply just an individual’s exposure to that particular food.
A study published in December of 2014 assessed 5 different methods for testing food intolerances in a small sample of subjects who had been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). The study found that the results between the different types of food intolerance tests were not consistent, nor did they correlate to the foods that the subjects self reported as causing an increase in their IBS symptoms.
The study did find that following an elimination diet for 4 weeks, prior to food reintroduction, decreased intestinal permeability (commonly known as leaky gut) and reduced the overall severity of the subjects reported IBS symptoms.
There is currently no consensus on the usefulness of food intolerance testing and what these tests are really telling us. Therefore, the best method for testing if you have a food intolerance or sensitivity is conducting a Food Elimination Challenge (FEC).
How to do a Food Elimination Challenge
If you are suffering from acne, a skin disorder, or any of the symptoms listed above, I highly recommend doing a FEC.
Here are the basics:
- Step 1. Eliminate the foods from your diet that you would like to test for 3 weeks minimum.
- Step 2. Reintroduce only 1 food at a time per 3-day period.
- Step 3. Eat 1 normal serving size of the food you are testing each day for 3 days in a row.
- Step 4. Keep a food diary of the type of food you are testing, serving size, number of days eating the food, energy level, mood, sleep, skin health, and digestive function.
It is important to remember– reactions to foods can happen immediately to 48 hours after eating the food.
If eating the food produces negative effects within the 3 day period, I recommend complete avoidance of that food for an additional 3 months before reintroducing it again. If you are unsure of the effects from the food, give yourself a 3-day break and then reintroduce the food again. If you experience a reaction to a food, wait until symptoms stabilize before introducing another food.
It is important to experiment with food reintroduction when you are feeling healthy, well-rested, and in a low-stress environment.
DO NOT attempt to reintroduce a food that you have a known allergy to.
In my clinical experience, the most common food intolerances or sensitivities are:
- Gluten-containing grains
- All grains
- Sugar & sweeteners
- Nuts & seeds
But do not worry, most people are not intolerant to all of the foods listed above. A FEC can help you to determine which foods may be a problem for you.
Food intolerances that cause acne
It may benefit you to to start with one food or a select list of foods, rather than avoiding the whole list from above. For example, if you struggle with acne or other skin conditions, I commonly observe that the consumption of cow’s milk dairy products can cause or worsen the symptoms.
Food intolerances commonly cause or aggravate skin conditions, including acne, and can lead to chronic health issues. At this time, food intolerance blood tests are not accurate in determining your food sensitivities.
If you are looking for the single best way to improve your health, I highly recommend that you start with food. Completing a Food Elimination Challenge is the best way to determine which foods you should avoid and which foods will help you to thrive.
Determining if you have a food intolerance can be a challenge without the use of some necessary helpful tools. To make it easier for you, I have created a fill-in-the-blank chart that guides you through the step-by-step process.
About the author
Dr. Alexis Shields is a board-certified Naturopathic doctor who specializes in the use of functional medicine to treat health problems such as chronic skin conditions and digestive disorders. She currently offers online consultations to patients world-wide.