If someone told me four years ago that avoiding whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and dark leafy greens would heal my eczema, I would have thought they were crazy! You see, I grew up in a very health-conscious home. My family and I were on a macrobiotic diet (mostly vegan/seasonal diet) for seven years during my childhood. Mom was all about 'food is medicine' and 'squash tastes like candy.' Our breakfast was homemade miso soup with barley, and if we were lucky, we would get a sweet treat – homemade mochi with brown rice syrup.
Fast forward to 2014. After my daughter's birth, I developed a rash on my left hand from my wedding ring. I stopped wearing the rings and saw a dermatologist. He told me it was contact dermatitis and sent me on my way with prescription topical steroids. After three years, even though I had avoided all jewelry, my hand eczema got worse. In 2017, I started a vegan protein supplement, and it spread to my eyes.
I suspected that something in my environment triggered this, so I went to see an allergist. He suspected my hand eczema might be nickel-related, as nickel is a common contact allergen. He told me he didn't know what was causing my eye eczema. After a prick test that didn't reveal much, he recommended that I start an elimination diet to see if I could be reacting to something I was eating. He said that if that didn't work, he would prescribe oral steroids.
Being a registered nurse, I had seen the detrimental effects of long-term use of oral steroids on the body. I knew I wanted to avoid them at all costs. I went home determined to find out what was causing my eczema. I started an elimination diet that day. I went all in, saying goodbye to the top food allergens – eggs, dairy, shellfish, nuts, wheat, and soy. I also decided to clean up my diet by avoiding processed foods and increasing plant-based foods. I took up juicing greens and focused on eating healthy foods like lentil soup, bone broth, whole grains, vegetables, oatmeal, and dark leafy greens. I was determined to heal from the inside out!
If there was ever any doubt before I started an elimination diet that my eczema was related to food, that doubt vanished quickly. My rashes had never been worse. They were spreading, splitting, oozing, and bleeding. I had deep fissures in my skin, headaches, dark circles under my eyes, fatigue, stomach issues, palpitations, and hives. I was a mess!
I was desperate to figure out what was going on with my body and why my reactions were becoming more severe. I was working closely with my primary care physician. He was running blood tests, referring me to specialists, and helping me identify possible triggers. After a few months of hell, I finally found a connection between foods high in histamine and my symptoms, and shortly after that, I discovered a low nickel diet.
When I first looked into the low nickel diet, I was confused. First of all, I didn’t know nickel in food was a thing, and all the nickel food lists were different. I dug deeper and learned that nickel is found in food for a few reasons. Certain foods are naturally rich in nickel; some foods absorb nickel from the soil, and other foods can be contaminated with nickel through processing or cooking methods.
The foods that are naturally rich in nickel or absorb nickel from the soil are nuts, seeds, beans, peas, soy, chocolate, whole grains (especially oats), and dark leafy greens. The amount of nickel in food can vary based on the growing region. Canned food and acidic foods cooked in stainless steel are high in nickel because they are contaminated with nickel due to exposure to metal.
No wonder why I was a mess. All of the nutrient-dense foods I thought were so healthy for me were making me sick!?
After some more digging on the internet, I found some resources on Facebook and YouTube that talk about Systemic Nickel Allergy Syndrome. What!? There is even a name for what I have!? My mind was blown.
Shortly after starting a low nickel diet, it became clear to me that the diet was helping. My rashes started calming down. After 4 months on a low nickel and low histamine diet, my rashes healed completely, along with my other symptoms. I was AMAZED!
How did none of my doctors know about this condition?!
One year after I adopted a low nickel diet, I realized I wanted to raise awareness and help others who may be suffering from this allergy. I began learning about how to properly diagnose a systemic nickel allergy. Even though I already cleared my eczema, I wanted to confirm I had allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). I knew that was the first step to being properly diagnosed with systemic contact dermatitis (SCD) or systemic nickel allergy syndrome (SNAS).
SCD and SNAS are subsets of ACD. That means everyone who has a systemic nickel allergy will have allergic contact dermatitis to nickel. I learned that not everyone who has an allergy to nickel will have a systemic nickel allergy. Only about 10 - 20% of the people allergic to nickel are sensitive to dietary forms of nickel. I went to a new dermatologist, told her about my experience, and requested a patch test.
Patch testing is the gold standard to diagnose allergic contact dermatitis (ACD). My dermatologist applied substances that contain common allergens on my back. She secured the patches on my body for 48 hours. After an additional 48 hours, the results were read. I had my patches placed on a Monday, removed the following Wednesday, and the final results were read on Friday.
To my surprise, I was only allergic to cobalt. What!? I was so confused. I ran home that day and reached out to my nickel allergy friends. How did I clear my rash completely with a low nickel diet? I had so many questions.
After a little research, it didn't take long for me to understand why. I learned that nickel and cobalt are known as sister metals. They are found together in the environment and share most of the top offending foods.
Cobalt is a metal and also an essential trace element for humans. Cobalt is found in B12 and other co-enzymes called cobalamins. In addition to nuts, seeds, beans, soy, certain whole grains, and chocolate, cobalt is also found in foods rich in B12, such as liver, and supplements that contain concentrated forms of B12.
Unfortunately, there is much less data and research on cobalt in food. There is a lot more research dedicated to systemic nickel allergy. This is because nickel is the most common contact allergen; it is estimated that around 10-15% of the global population is allergic to nickel. Cobalt, on the other hand, is found in only 1-3% of the general population.
Systemic contact dermatitis to nickel and cobalt are newly defined conditions. Italy has conducted the most research on this subject. It is not uncommon for doctors in North America and other parts of the world to disregard this condition. Most don't know that there is a growing body of literature dedicated specifically to systemic nickel allergy and plenty of evidence that dietary nickel does play a role in some people with a nickel allergy.
Long story kind of short, if you suffer from rashes, request patch testing with your dermatologist or allergist. If you are a vegan or vegetarian and find yourself feeling worse after changing your diet to more plant-based foods, you may want to investigate if you have a systemic metal allergy.
If you are diagnosed with a nickel allergy and need help, click >>here<< for information on the Nickel Allergy Course. If you are unsure whether you have a metal allergy and need guidance, book a free consult with me.