If someone told me 4 years ago that avoiding whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and dark leafy greens would heal my eczema, I would have told you you’re 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 7 years of my childhood. My mom preached things like ‘food is medicine’ and ‘squash tastes like candy.’ Our breakfast was homemade miso soup with barley and once in a while, if we were lucky, we would get a sweet treat - homemade mochi with brown rice syrup.
Fast forward to 2014. After the birth of my daughter, I developed a rash on my left hand from my wedding ring. I stopped wearing my rings and saw a dermatologist. He told me I had contact dermatitis and sent me on my way with prescription topical steroids. After 3 years, even though I avoided all jewelry, my hand eczema worsened. In 2017 I started a vegan protein supplement and it spread to my eyes.
I suspected I was reacting to something in my environment, so I went to see an allergist. He told me my hand eczema was probably caused by the metal nickel. He explained that nickel is the most 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 I start an elimination diet to see if I could be reacting to something I was eating. He said if that didn’t work, he would prescribe oral steroids.
As a registered nurse, I have seen the detrimental effects long term use of oral steroids can do to the body. I knew I wanted to avoid them at all costs. I went home determined to find out what was triggering my eczema. I started an elimination diet that day. I went all in and removed the top food allergens from my diet - 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 I 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 it wasn’t clear before I started an elimination diet that my eczema was related to food, it became crystal clear now. My rashes had never been worse. They were spreading, splitting, oozing and bleeding. I developed 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 food absorbs 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), & 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 I was a mess. All of the nutrient-dense foods I thought were so healthy for me were making me sick!?
I found a Facebook group called Low Nickel Diet & Lifestyle – Living Well with a Nickel Allergy/SNAS. This Facebook group had a wealth of information and a community of people with systemic contact dermatitis to nickel or systemic nickel allergy syndrome.
What!? There is even a name for what I have!? Mind 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 is a subset 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 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 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.