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Can a gluten-free diet help your psoriasis?

With gluten-free diets getting more and more attention these days, you may wonder if going gluten-free would help reduce your psoriasis symptoms.

Photo of barley grains The jury is still out on this topic, but, in some cases, eliminating gluten—a complex protein found in wheat, barley and rye—does seem to help reduce psoriasis. In a smaller number of cases, eliminating gluten can lead to dramatic improvements. However, following a gluten-free diet, which is very restrictive, is a major commitment. It's not a step you should take unnecessarily.

Is gluten-free right for you?

To understand why—and if—eliminating gluten might be right for you, it's important to understand why and how gluten can cause problems for some people.

  • Gluten allergy: Experts estimate that up to 2 million people in the U.S. may suffer from an allergy to gluten, which is found in bread, pasta, crackers and other baked goods made from wheat, barley, or rye. Less obvious are processed foods, from lunch meats to salad dressings, that can also contain this potentially problematic protein.

    A gluten allergy means that the body forms antigens in response to the protein, activating an immune system response and possibly also spurring on any autoimmune disorder, such as psoriasis, in the process.

    Common symptoms of a gluten allergy include diarrhea, bloating, headaches, canker sores, fatigue, irregular menstrual cycles in women, joint pain and sleep problems.
  • Celiac disease: A gluten-free diet is the only known treatment for this autoimmune disease, a digestive disorder that can damage the small intestine. It is diagnosed through a simple blood test.

    Some experts suspect that psoriasis, also an autoimmune disorder, may share a connection to celiac disease. Other experts believe that the two conditions are not necessarily directly connected, but rather that a subset of people with psoriasis also happen to have celiac disease or gluten intolerance as well.

In either case, for these people, eliminating gluten from their diet would be recommended and could help reduce symptoms of both conditions.

When gluten-free isn't a good idea

For someone with psoriasis who does not also have celiac disease or who is not allergic to gluten, it is not advised to follow a gluten-free diet. If gluten isn't the culprit, there is no need to give it up. It can be difficult to maintain a balanced diet when eliminating the many foods that contain gluten.

If you suspect you may have celiac disease or cannot tolerate gluten, you may be tempted to eliminate gluten from your diet on your own. But experts advise that you first call your doctor and schedule a blood test to check for the allergy. Talk to your doctor and/or seek advice from a registered dietitian on how to start a gluten-free regimen in a systematic way. If you eliminate more than one food at a time, for example, it can be hard to know which food or foods were actually the problem. It could take up to 90 days to see a true result. A dietitian can help you make a list of gluten-free foods to make sure you get the nutrients your body needs.

It is also possible that gluten isn't contributing to your symptoms, but that another food such as dairy, sugar, corn or soy might be.

Bottom line: Eliminating gluten from your diet may help reduce your psoriasis symptoms as well as eliminate digestive woes, but it's only likely to help if gluten is a problem food for you in the first place.

Learn e-news Febraury 2012