When my son Tristan was first diagnosed with eczema at three months old , I had absolutely zero idea that food could trigger eczema. The doctors never mentioned it. We just went right along with the steroid creams and pharmaceutical moisturizers that they prescribed.
After Tristan’s (and mine) first ever visit with a natural practitioner we were advised that it was quite possible that Tristan was sensitive to a few foods, which could be aggravating his body, causing inflammation and leading to eczema. I was told dairy, specifically cow’s milk, was very hard for the body to digest and to try removing it from Tristan’s diet to see if there was any improvement in his skin.
Read More: How to Identify Your Reaction: Food Allergy vs Food Sensitivity Vs. Food Intolerance Defined
In my head I was wondering how my little one year old could live without cheese or yogurt?! Not only does he love it, but isn’t it full of necessary protein and fat and other goodness? Turns out children don’t necessarily need dairy like we’ve been lead to believe. (Read more about that here.)
Ready to embrace a dairy-free life, I went to purchase some soy yogurt and vegan cheese. But what did I find? Casein, a milk protein, was listed as an ingredient in one brand of vegan cheese! That was my first shocking discovery in the horribly misleading world of food labels. In the years that have passed I have continued to lose faith, almost daily, in the quality of ingredients and the misrepresentation of food labels in general. But I digress.
I removed cow’s milk and all other dairy products from the diet completely.
Eliminating dairy didn’t change a thing at the time. So, we kept on with the steroids and creams.
I then heard about wheat triggering eczema, so I tried removing that too, but no change. My mistake at the time was that I only removed wheat, not gluten as a whole, but more on that in this MUST READ post: Our Eczema Elimination Diet Success: How You Can Do It Too!
I asked our pediatrician about the food allergy and eczema connection and she did say food is possibly a trigger, although she never mentioned the idea on her own. She suggested we test him for true food allergies (not a sensitivity or intolerance) via blood draw and allergy skin test. In the skin prick test he reacted to some seasonal allergies, cats, dogs, and walnuts. We live in a pet free home, so dog and cat dander wasn’t a problem for us luckily. Seasonal allergies were a bit harder to control, but at least it was seasonal and easy to predict. And walnuts could be avoided rather easily, so we were encouraged by the results. In the blood test he reacted to walnuts again, but that was all. He was diagnosed with a food allergy to walnuts. From then on we were careful around walnuts, but we were never informed about the dangers of tree nuts. The doctor never suggested an epinephrine auto injector!!
Fast forward two years, with only walnuts and dairy eliminated, Tristan’s skin was getting worse. We went to a party and Tristan was enjoying the food. Suddenly he got a red rash around his mouth, along with hives and his breathing was a little strained. My husband and I panicked. Walnuts? Did anything contain walnuts? We hadn’t seen any, but sure enough, one of the salads contained finely chopped walnuts. No doctor had ever told us he could react this way, we didn’t have an epinephrine auto injector or even antihistamine on hand. My husband ran to the store, one block away, and by the time he was back with Benadryl in hand, Tristan was already recovering. Luckily the reaction wasn’t severe, but we gave him the Benadryl anyway to be sure. We learned what kind of reaction Tristan could truly have to walnuts and we insisted on an epinephrine auto injector prescription at the next doctor’s appointment. And thank goodness we did! Read about our first life threatening allergic reaction here: It’s Just NOT Worth the Risk: Our Anaphylactic Experience.
Discovering Food Triggers
After that frightening encounter with Tristan’s first obvious allergic reaction, I started doing a lot of research and came across many foods that can trigger eczema such as: milk, gluten, soy, eggs, shell-fish, peas, sesame seeds, tomatoes, and corn. I found a GREAT book: Dealing with Food Allergies in Babies and Children by Janice Vickerstaff Joneja PhD RD and read it cover to cover. This book had very clear steps to follow in order to conduct a food elimination challenge for children with eczema. I was hooked and I was determined to find eczema relief through dietary changes – food challenge, bring it on! For some reason I did everything recommended except eliminating gluten. Tristan loved bread and pasta at the time and I just couldn’t face a gluten-free future. After one month of the diet, Tristan’s skin was still terrible. It was obvious that we didn’t find all his food triggers through the diet, but we decided to reintroduce some of the food again and see if anything caused his eczema to flare more than it already was. Soy, corn, red bell peppers, strawberries, cantaloupe, and tomatoes were obvious triggers, causing him to go into an instant itch trance. It was hard to say if these items caused his eczema, but they certainly made him scratch, which in turn certainly irritated his skin. So, they were eliminated long term.
We started getting used to eating without the known triggers, plus we were still avoiding dairy and walnuts. Tristan’s skin was still getting worse. When I asked for the advice of a local naturopath, she seemed surprised when I told her that we hadn’t eliminated gluten yet. She basically insisted we remove gluten as she was sure it would make a difference. Well, why not? We honestly were at rock bottom in terms of Tristan’s skin. Something had to change. We removed gluten, adding it to the other omitted foods listed above. And low and behold within a couple of days, Tristan’s skin was clearing up, and fast. It was unbelievable to see. However, we had started giving him some natural supplements – omega oils, probiotics, and homeopathy around the same time, so I wasn’t entirely sure removing gluten was improving his skin so drastically. BUT we were about to know for sure. Three weeks later he got a hold of two small pieces of breakfast cereal containing gluten and within two hours his skin was horribly red and inflamed. So, he was officially gluten-free from that point on.
His skin was improving, but he’d still have horrible itch attacks from time to time. Thank goodness for ScratchMeNot flip mitten sleeves and pjs like Cotton Comfort. We had already eliminated so much food from Tristan’s diet, what else could be bothering him?
We had switched to soap nuts for laundry as anything else, natural or chemical, caused a gradual flair-up. We also moved to dishwashing detergent free of sodium lauryl sulfphate. He didn’t seem to have any traditional household allergies, like mold. So, what could be causing the itch?
My mom reminded me that almonds drive her mad with itchiness. Almonds? No, couldn’t be. After all, removing almonds would be severely challenging since Tristan was consuming almonds in various formats throughout all day long – almond milk, almond butter, raw and roasted almonds. They were a great source of calcium and protein, but not knowing what else to do we stopped almonds for one week. And, wouldn’t you know it – the itching stopped completely.
At that point I was feeling bold and brave and wanting to better understand Tristan’s food issues. So, after years of withholding milk, we gave Tristan some cow’s milk cheese to test for a casein reaction. But he failed and failed miserably. He got red around the mouth after I gave him one small piece. He also got a little congested in his lungs and throat, but not bad. About 30 minutes later he started coughing intensely, said his stomach hurt, and developed hives on his body. His eczema flared-up after a few hours. No more cow’s milk products for him.
In November 2011, we went to the allergist and Tristan underwent skin prick testing and a blood test yet again, a few years after his last tests. The doctor wanted to determine the severity of Tristan’s nut allergies. The skin prick test didn’t show walnuts this time, but hazelnuts instead and now dairy too! And we know Tristan still reacts to walnuts, so this just goes to show that allergy tests are not the be all end all. A food challenge under a physicians care and a history of food reactions are still the gold standard in determine food reactions.
Every once in a while Tristan gets a little itchy, mostly during spring and fall allergy season, but we are thrilled about how far we’ve come so far. I’m sure there is another 1-2 food items that are triggering the little bit of eczema he has on occasion, but I’ve yet to determine it.
Here’s a recap of Tristan’s triggers:
- Tomato (except low acid varieties)
- Red Peppers – bell, spicy, etc.
Read about Our Family’s Battle With Eczema.
And learn about Natural Remedies for Eczema: What Worked for My Son
What triggers your child’s eczema or asthma? Has eliminating certain foods helped your skin?