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By Karen Fischer (see bio below)
When my daughter Ayva was ten months old, a nurse from the local Early Childhood Centre who had seen her a few months earlier exclaimed, ‘Has your child still got eczema?’ I thought: what a rude comment, eczema is a genetic condition and what could I do about it? As soon as the nurse mentioned “Ayva’s eczema might be triggered by salicylate sensitivity”, a light bulb moment happened. I thought: I know how to fix that, with an eczema diet of sorts.
Salicylate sensitivity runs in our family. My teenage years were a series of stressful and embarrassing events thanks to having severe hand dermatitis and psoriasis. I once gargled aspirin (a salicylate medicine) and ended up in hospital with a severely swollen throat. I was diagnosed with salicylate sensitivity, which has now resolved since treating it.
My nine year old son does not have eczema, but a couple of years ago he had mysterious stomach pains which meant he missed about 30 days of school one year, plus he suffered with headaches, constipation, bad moods and the inability to sit still in class. He was a wriggler!
I noticed he acted like a hyperactive ‘silly cat’ after eating apples so I suspected salicylate sensitivity but I still wanted to rule out other factors. So after about a month of seeing gastrointestinal specialists and having allergy tests, X-rays and ultrasounds (and nothing showing up, thank goodness), he was finally diagnosed with salicylate sensitivity.
Two weeks after changing his diet, he was a different child: no more constipation, headaches, foul moods or stomach pains. My little angel became happy and chatty. He was always smart but we noticed his grades dramatically improved when he adheres to the diet. On the contrary, when he eats high salicylate foods, such as blueberries or sushi, he becomes moody and the stomach pains return.
Salicylate sensitivity was first discovered back in the 1960s, when Professor Eric Bywaters reported a patient attacked him with a knife after consuming salicylates. In the 1970s Dr Ben Feingold discovered that salicylates could make children hyperactive and his research confirmed that some children perform poorly at school after ingesting salicylates. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the link between salicylate sensitivity and eczema was confirmed.
Australian researchers from RPA Hospital Allergy Unit in Sydney, tested 936 people with eczema and found the following:
- Salicylates trigger eczema in 52% of people with eczema.1
- Salicylates trigger hives in 62-75% of people prone to hives.1,2
- Salicylates trigger or worsen irritable bowel in 69% of people prone to IBS.1
While some cases of eczema are relatively easy to treat with a healthy diet and skin creams, I have seen hundreds of eczema patients with eczema, who have tried everything, and their eczema persisted until they discovered they were sensitive to salicylates and other chemicals including amines, MSG and food additives. For this group of people, temporarily avoiding salicylate-rich foods changed their lives – they could wear short sleeves again, swim in pools and socialize without embarrassment. And most of them were able to gradually expand their eczema diet to include a wider range of foods.
What are Salicylates?
Salicylates (pronounced suh-lis-a-lates) are a natural pesticide chemical produced by plants for self-protection.
Salicylate Sensitivity Symptoms include:
Topical reactions via the skin:
- sudden eczema/dermatitis/hives/rashes
- worsening of existing eczema
- facial flushing/red skin
- runny nose (nasal drip)
- nasal obstruction
- flu-like symptoms
- perfume intolerance
*anaphylactic reactions – a true salicylate allergy can cause immediate reactions and anaphylaxis. In these cases it’s best to seek emergency medical treatment.
- brain fog
- panic attacks
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- stomach ache
- leaky gut
- aggressive behaviour
- poor attention span
In severe cases, salicylate sensitivity can trigger strong feelings of anger, aggression, suicidal thoughts and physical pain (these symptoms can be caused by other factors as well so speak to your doctor if you are concerned).
Foods with salicylates in large amounts
A normal healthy diet usually contains 100mg of salicylates and up to 200 mg if you are vegan. That’s a lot! People with eczema often don’t realize they are sensitive to salicylates, so they continue eating foods high in salicylates and they can suffer for years as a result.
It’s best to reduce your intake of foods with salicylates in large amounts. Please speak with a physician or nutritionist before modifying your or your child’s diet.
Here is a list of foods high in salicylates:
- Most nuts
- Most fruits
List of low salicylate foods
Here are a few surprising foods that are good for an eczema diet because they are low in salicylates – eat them in abundance for their healing properties as noted below.
Papaya (and pawpaw)
Papaya is low in salicylates and contains the digestive enzyme papain, which is used in some digestive supplements to aid protein digestion. Papain kills parasites in the gut and after antibiotic use or a bout of illness you can eat a serving of papaya daily to promote recolonization of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.
Saffron is a low salicylate spice which has been used for centuries as a natural antiseptic, digestive aid and antidepressant. For people with digestive issues, adding saffron to your dishes may reduce your symptoms.
Spring onions (scallions)
Spring onions, also referred to as scallions and shallots, are part of the onion family and, like the onion, spring onions contain histamine-lowering, anti-inflammatory quercetin. But don’t get them confused with their onion cousins: the low salicylate varieties have the straight green stem, with no bulb.
Flax seeds, also known as linseeds, are small brown seeds best known for their rich content of anti-inflammatory omega-3 oils. The seeds are a source of phytochemicals, plus silica, mucilage, oleic acid, protein, vitamin E and dietary fibre for gastrointestinal and liver health.
After changing my daughter’s diet and giving her supplements for salicylate sensitivity (when she was aged two), Ayva’s eczema cleared up. Friends and family suggested Ayva had simply grown out of her eczema. As I am a skeptic, I thought they might be right so I stopped the regime and Ayva’s eczema returned. I put her back on the program and once again her eczema cleared up. After ten years of prescribing a diet low in salicylates to my patients, and after positive feedback, I finally had the confidence to write and publish The Eczema Diet book, which addresses eczema healing via a low salicylate diet and natural skin care.
It has been a long journey developing and refining this diet, but I am so grateful for the lessons that having chemical sensitivities has taught me. Ayva is now 16 years old and has beautiful skin. She does not need to follow the diet anymore but we often eat the recipes from the book just because we really, really like them.
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Bio: Karen Fischer is an Australian nutritionist and the author of five health books including The Eczema Diet and The Healthy Skin Diet, which was awarded ‘Best Health, Nutrition or Specific Diet Book’ at the Australian Food Media Awards in 2008. She also has a Bachelor of Health Science Degree and special skills in nutritional biochemistry. Karen’s passion is helping people with eczema. After more than a decade treating thousands of patients at her eczema clinic in Sydney, Karen now devotes her time into developing eczema products, including Skin Friend AM, the supplement that helped her daughter’s eczema. Visit her store at Eczema Life.
Loblay, R.H. and Swain, A.R., 2006, ‘Food Intolerance’, Recent Advances in Clinical Nutrition, retrieved from:
Warin and Smith XXX Swain, A.R., Dutton, S.P. and Truswell, A.S., 1985. Salicylates in foods. J Am Diet Assoc, 85(8), pp.950-60.
Bywaters, E., 1968, ‘Comment on salicylate toxicity’, in Lamont-Havers RW, Wagner BM (eds) ‘Proceedings of the Conference on Effects of Chronic Salicylate Administration, New York City 1966. US Dept of Health, Education and Welfare, National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Disease.