While other foods, like dairy, chocolate, and sugar, are commonly cited for their acne-causing potential, gluten is a lesser-known culprit of breakouts.
And although an often overlooked piece of the acne puzzle, foods containing gluten can trigger acne for many people.
However, not all acne cases can solely be attributed to gluten consumption, and, as you might’ve already guessed, many other components found in foods we consume daily can work together to exacerbate breakouts.
Therefore, in this article, we will talk about what gluten is, how this protein can cause acne, what other components work along gluten to give us those pesky breakouts and answer some of the top questions people have about gluten and acne.
What Is Gluten & What Foods Contain It?
Gluten is a name for a group of proteins known as gliadin and glutenin, which are found in wheat, barley, rye, and many other foods that make it to our table daily, including rice, pasta, pizza, cereal, crackers, wafers, cakes, candy, etc.
Additionally, gluten is also found in many other products you may not expect, such as sauces and dressings, processed meats, beer, and even some medications where it acts as a binder to hold ingredients together.
Derived from the word ‘glue,’ gluten is a protein that keeps other components together while providing the chewy, elastic texture in certain products like dough. For example, when making pizza, the dough needs to be able to stretch and hold its shape without crumbling apart, and gluten helps make this happen.
However, gluten has been under a heated debate between nutritionists and scientists for its implications on health.
While some view it as a perfectly fine part of a balanced diet and a source of essential nutrients, others argue that gluten should be avoided altogether due to the potential of being behind a myriad of health issues in our modern society.
Benefits of Gluten
While gluten may be getting negative attention due to its potential side effects, there are some benefits to consuming it.
In a 2017 study of over 100,000 healthy participants that didn’t have gluten sensitivities, researchers found no association between long-term dietary gluten consumption and heart disease risk.
In fact, the findings also suggested that healthy individuals who avoid gluten may increase their risk of heart disease due to reducing consumption of whole grains, which contain essential nutrients and are a valuable part of any balanced diet.
For example, groups with the highest intakes of whole grains, including wheat, compared with groups eating the lowest amounts, were found to have significantly lower rates of heart diseases, strokes, and the development of type two diabetes.
Additionally, gluten, which is a major component of wheat, may act as a prebiotic, feeding the good bacteria in our gut, thus reducing inflammation and improving overall health.
Furthermore, gluten-containing wheat and barley also contain both oligofructose and inulin, which are prebiotic fibers necessary for the nourishment of good bacteria, and helpful in improving multiple health markers, including increased calcium absorption, stronger bones, enhanced immunity, a lower blood triglyceride level, lower cancer factors in the gut, etc.
Therefore, as long as you don’t suffer from gluten sensitivities, it may be beneficial to keep wheat-based products in your diet.
Side Effects of Gluten
The human body relies on digestive enzymes to break down food while extracting the essential nutrients needed to survive.
Some of these digestive enzymes are proteases, a group of enzymes that break the peptide bonds of protein and help our body process proteins found in food easier. They are divided into acid, neutral, and alkaline proteases, meaning that the body relies on stomach acid, neutral pH, and a slightly more alkaline environment of the small intestine to process proteins.
However, sometimes, due to the robust structure of gluten and its unique amino acid composition, which makes it highly resistant to degradation, these proteases cannot break down the protein, leading to its accumulation in our digestive system.
This undigested gluten then makes its way to the small intestine, and while most people can handle the particles with no problems, for others, this can lead to an increased inflammatory response over time as the body perceives the protein as a foreign invader.
Therefore, for some people, gluten can be linked to various health issues, such as chronic fatigue, joint pain, bloating, alternating constipation, and diarrhea, as well as severe issues such as weight loss, malnutrition, and intestinal damage, which is often seen in the autoimmune disorder celiac disease.
Does Gluten Cause Acne?
Gluten can be a significant acne trigger in those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease due to the high volume of inflammation it can cause in the digestive system.
When people with gluten intolerance consume this protein, they develop internal inflammation, which damages the intestinal tract. Repeated gluten exposure — and the subsequent inflammatory response — can create small, microscopic holes in the intestinal lining.
Typically, the gut lining, which is only one cell layer thick, has tiny gaps between each cell that allow nutrients to pass through. However, gluten exposure in a sensitive person can widen these gaps, causing intestinal permeability — also known as a ‘leaky gut.’
As the gaps get bigger and bigger, unwanted things like bacteria, toxins, and food components, like the relatively large gluten protein, can migrate from the gut into the bloodstream.
And as we already mentioned above, when these components enter the bloodstream, our immune system treats them as foreign invaders and begins an inflammatory response in an attempt to get rid of them.
One of the areas where this inflammation manifests is in our largest organ — the skin, where inflammation can lead to normal skin functions like cellular turnover and oil production going haywire, leading to the development of acne.
Additionally, perpetual inflammation can cause an increase in the hormones known as androgens, leading to increased sebum production, clogged pores, and acne breakouts.
However, although we don’t have any published research looking at the connection between eliminating gluten consumption and a decrease in acne, many people anecdotally report that taking gluten out of their diets has led to noticeable skin improvement.
Therefore, if you have struggled with acne and cannot find a solution, it may be worth trying out an elimination diet to see if removing gluten from your daily menu for a short time period will positively affect your skin.
The Connection Between Carbs and Acne
While gluten consumption can certainly cause acne in people who are sensitive, intolerant, or allergic to it, it’s also possible that the link between gluten and acne has more to do with the carbohydrate content in these foods rather than the gluten itself.
As gluten-containing foods are typically higher in carbohydrates, someone who is breaking out from eating glutenous foods may also want to consider the glycemic index and glycemic load of the foods they are eating.
The glycemic index is a scorecard that analyzes how quickly certain foods will impact your blood sugar. Ranging from 0 to 100, anything closer to the upper end (like white bread) will cause a rapid and intense blood sugar spike than that closer to the lower end, like kale or broccoli.
Similarly, the glycemic load is a ranking system that considers both the glycemic index and the typical serving size for each food. This is important because some foods can have a high glycemic index but a low glycemic load.
For example, watermelon has a glycemic index of 72, which is on the higher side. But, when we consider the typical serving size of a watermelon — about one cup — the glycemic load is much lower, at about 8.
The reason why a high glycemic load can lead to acne comes down to a hormone called insulin. Insulin is made in the pancreas, with the primary job of taking glucose (sugar) from the foods we eat and shuttling it from the bloodstream into various cells for energy or storage.
When we constantly consume foods with a high glycemic load, the pancreas has to pump out more and more insulin to keep glucose out of the bloodstream. Higher amounts of circulating insulin can stimulate sebum production in the skin and boost androgen hormone secretion.
Excessive amounts of androgen hormones, like dihydrotestosterone, a byproduct of testosterone, can promote acne, especially in women.
Hyperinsulinemia (high amounts of insulin in the blood) can also increase insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), another hormone that can significantly progress acne development. High levels of IGF-1 have been shown to further stimulate androgen hormone and sebum production, creating a vicious cycle that worsens acne.
Overall, even if you aren’t sensitive to gluten, a high glycemic diet can, without a doubt, advance acne development.
Other Skin Conditions Caused by Gluten Intolerance
Gluten intolerance can cause more than just acne for those sensitive to this protein.
Other common skin conditions associated with gluten sensitivity are hives, alopecia (hair loss), and dermatitis herpetiformis, a condition that manifests on the skin as itchy, blistery lesions that can form anywhere on the body and is more prevalent in those who have celiac disease as a result of gluten sensitivity.
Similarly, based on the same studies, it has been concluded that those with celiac disease have a hazard ratio of 1.72 for the development of future psoriasis, meaning that those with the autoimmune condition have an increased chance of developing the skin disorder.
Finally, inflammatory conditions like eczema and rosacea have previously been linked to food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies, which is why they may improve in those with a gluten intolerance once the potential culprit is eliminated.
Common Questions About Gluten & Acne
These are a few common questions people have about gluten and acne — feel free to ask questions in the comments if yours isn’t answered here!
Which Gluten-Containing Foods Are Problematic for Acne?
The short answer is any, and all foods that contain gluten may be problematic for someone prone to acne, especially if they are gluten-sensitive.
Foods that may aggravate acne the most are ones that contain gluten and also have a high glycemic load, like high-carbohydrate bread, pasta, noodles, pizza, and baked goods.
These foods could increase inflammation, promote intestinal permeability, and boost unhealthy insulin, IGF-1, and androgen hormone production.
What Can I Replace Gluten-Containing Foods With?
As gluten intolerance or allergy prevalence has risen in recent years, so has the availability of gluten-free alternatives.
When shopping, look for “Certified Gluten-Free” labels and check the ingredients to see what type of gluten alternative is used.
However, many gluten-free foods utilize other high glycemic ingredients, like rice flour or potato starch, which would still be problematic for acne.
There are some healthy grain-free and gluten-free flour alternatives, like almond, cassava, or coconut flour.
Some grains or legumes are gluten-free and relatively low glycemic due to their high fiber content, like quinoa, lentils, beans, chickpeas, and buckwheat, which, despite the ‘wheat’ in its name, is a naturally gluten-free grain. However, these grains and legumes should be consumed in moderation, as larger amounts could lead to hyperinsulinemia.
Surprisingly, many acne patients do well with small quantities of white rice as a carbohydrate source.
Overall, it may take trial and error to determine what level of carbohydrates works best for you and your individual concerns.
What is “Gluten Skin”?
Due to the uptick in inflammation and immune response that consuming gluten can cause, many people find themselves with “gluten skin.”
While this can entail acne and breakouts, it may also manifest as rashes, puffiness, or bloating in the face.
Gluten consumption in those who are intolerant to it can also cause keratosis pilaris, or “chicken skin,” showing up as tiny bumps and rough patches that most commonly appear on the backs of arms, legs, and buttocks.
If you have these skin conditions and gluten is the culprit, they should resolve relatively quickly after eliminating gluten, as well as introducing topical skincare products like exfoliating cleansers into your skincare routine to help dissolve the plugs of keratin buildup.
What Are Sneaky Foods That Have Gluten?
While we know that bread- and dough-based foods made with wheat will contain gluten, dozens of unexpected foods and drinks can sneakily have gluten in them, including:
- Soy sauce — a gluten-free alternative is called tamari.
- Candy, ice cream, and frozen desserts.
- Broth or bouillon cubes.
- Some types of vodka or other liquor.
- Alcohol with malt extract.
- Premade soups or pasta dishes.
- Medications and nutritional supplements.
- Processed meats, like deli lunchmeat or hot dogs.
- Veggie burgers and other meat alternatives.
- Granola or energy bars.
- Sauces and gravies.
Verdict: Can Gluten Cause Acne?
Gluten can cause acne in people who are allergic, intolerant, or sensitive to this protein.
Gluten consumption can increase inflammation in the gut, leading to increased intestinal permeability that can mount an immune response and show up as acne.
Gluten-containing foods also tend to be high in carbohydrates, which increases blood sugar and insulin. High levels of insulin in the blood can increase the production of sebum in the skin, boost levels of androgens, and stimulate the synthesis of IGF-1, a growth hormone that aggravates acne by causing more sebum production.
To best support skin health, try eliminating gluten from your diet for two to three weeks while consuming only low-glycemic, gluten-free alternatives in their place.
Additionally, keeping a diary where you will track skin progress after cutting gluten out of your diet might help catch early signs of improvement and help you figure out whether this component is affecting your skin.
Any improvement can motivate you to keep going, while also giving you a clear insight into what your body doesn’t tolerate, thus preventing potentially more severe complications in the future.