Recently, I discovered that nickel FOOD allergies can cause systemic dermatitis (read: rashes, eczema). Just as a side note, nickel is a carcinogen listed by OSHA as a toxic metal.
See, for example, this warning from OSHA: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/metalsheavy/nickel.html.
Nickel is often found in high concentrations in beans, nuts, seeds, soy, legumes, chocolate, and leafy greens like kale and spinach. This can particularly impact you if you are vegetarian or vegan since most of you will drastically up your intake of just those foods since they're terrific vegan sources of fiber and protein (assuming you're not allergic to nickel, that is). At first, a nickel allergy can lead to complete and utter panic especially for those of us for whom, ethically, eating meat is just not an option. It's also easy to be overwhelmed by the new long list of high nickel foods. Also, cutting out dairy (low nickel) was the best thing in the world for my face. It made my skin so much clearer insofar as breakouts so there's no way I'd ever go back to dairy. It took 4 solid months of no dairy before I saw the results so, if you're trying to go dairy free for your skin, have patience and stick with it! But, back to the nickel...
I posted on social media about nickel causing systemic dermatitis but seeming like a near impossible diet for vegans and was shocked by the number of messages I got in response, almost all from people suffering from eczema/dermatitis who wondered if they might have a nickel food allergy. Some of them were self-treating and had found relief by ingesting a lot of Vitamin C, which makes sense because Vitamin C binds to nickel and prevents the body from absorbing it. I mentioned this to a dermatologist friend and, to my horror, she said, "What?! Nickel isn't in food!" I showed her NIH, FDA and American Contact Dermatitis studies (links below) showing nickel consumption can cause systemic dermatitis and she was flabbergasted. This was a common theme among the dermatologists I spoke to. Although they treat patients with eczema and rashes all the time, they're just treating symptoms instead of actual root cause. In other words, they're putting band aids on the wound by dousing their patients with steroid creams which just keep symptoms at bay instead of actually locating and addressing the source of the problem. You can go to an allergist and a dermatologist and, rather than communicating and sharing information, they're so highly specialized, they can't see beyond one thing - the symptom - which is all they treat. They're like the story of the 3 blind men and the elephant. If you haven't read that story, click here. **Update: Since writing this post in 2017, I've had an outpouring of responses. I did find a holistic practitioner in NYC who gave some advice on nickel allergies in 2019. You can check out my interview of her here.**
At any rate, a very kind woman who works with a colleague of my husband's found and gave me what I believe is the only no/low nickel cookbook in the world (love her!). The link to the cookbook is in the Resources section, below. Using that, the American Contact Dermatitis Society research, an Italian study, an FDA publication, and an NIH study, I created a list of no/extremely low nickel foods. I find it easier and less overwhelming to focus on what you CAN eat, rather than what you can't. Since it is really difficult to locate resources for vegans who have nickel food allergies, the general advice I list below is for them. Here is a brief (kind of) synopsis of what I found. I'm not a doctor and this isn't medical advice. Everyone is different and you know yourself and your body best so do your own research and seek professional advice for any health problems.
Before I go any further, please make sure you actually get allergy tested. Also, make sure your condition isn't due to something else, like rosacea—an inflammatory skin condition that causes sensitive, dry skin and, according to True Botanicals, affects 16 million Americans yet 95% of sufferers don't even know their condition is due to rosacea. For more on rosacea, click here. A truly nickel-free diet is very extreme and, honestly, pretty unhealthy. You should not try it long-term unless you're 100% sure that nickel is the culprit for your reactions. My allergy is what is termed low to moderate and I can eat foods that people with severe nickel allergies cannot, such as coconut, without any adverse effects.
I also have no reaction to yellow peas or processed plant-based proteins like "Beyond Meat" burgers which use pea protein. I've found, after a good bit of trial and error, that I can regularly eat foods on the "no" list as long as I ingest a bit of Vitamin C in L-ascorbic acid powder or liquid form right before or after eating them (when in doubt, I will just toss some vitamin C powder into the recipe) and regularly eat foods that help detox my system from heavy metals like nickel. This is really easy and I do it by:
(1) adding spirulina and chlorella to my afternoon smoothie;
(2) adding cilantro to my salads;
(3) the vitamin C trick mentioned above and below; and
(3) making my own applesauce (the pectin in the skins binds to heavy metals and helps remove them from your system). You can do this by boiling 4 apples for about 8 minutes and then blending them into applesauce. I add Ceylon cinnamon to mine. It's delicious. If you hate applesauce or don't have time to make it, you can buy fruit pectin in capsule form.
With all that being said, here are some general tips and tricks - ranging from food to skin care to makeup - that I hope you find helpful:
ACNE? BREAKOUTS? CUT OUT THE DAIRY
I'll be honest. I thought it was a myth that eating dairy caused blemishes. I never had true acne but I would definitely get breakouts and, as anyone who breaks out knows, they're super annoying! Dermatologists I went to gave me drying topical creams and cortisone shots into a blemish as a means of last resort but they didn't really help. Last year, I did a lot of research into how horrible, inhumane and unsafe the dairy industry is and went dairy-free cold turkey. It was NOT easy. I used to eat a lot of cheese and I love lattes. However, I found great substitutes and stuck with it. And, yes, you have to cut out goat milk, too. It's all dairy, not just cow milk. One unintended but very welcome consequence was that my face became much clearer. It took about 4 months for me before I saw the results, so have patience and stick with it. If you want to go low nickel, you're going to want to avoid no-dairy "milks" made from nuts or soy. Your best bets will be (white) rice milk and coconut milk (coconut is a fruit, or, more specifically, a "drupe," not a nut).* My favorite "milk" for taste and consistency is Ripple, which I cannot give up. It tastes, looks and acts just like cow's milk. It is made from pea protein. I have no negative reaction to it but some people with severe nickel allergies might because peas can have a lot nickel in them depending on where they're grown, the soil, etc. So, if you have a nickel allergy or just want to cut out heavy metal foods, cut them out and then test yourself with Ripple and, if there's no reaction, yay! You're good to go! More at http://ripplefoods.com.
*Please note: the co-author of the Nickel Allergy Cookbook, Charity Bratz, contacted me regarding coconut and advised that, "Coconut, which while not being a nut, still has a high level [of nickel]. Check out http://dietgrail.com/nickel-in-food/ , which mentions coconut itself, but the coconut milk may test lower." Ms. Bratz, who has a severe and life threatening nickel allergy, has done a tremendous amount of research into foods safe for nickel allergy sufferers so, if your allergy is severe, take it from her and be cautious with coconut!
NO NICKEL? LOW NICKEL?
1. WHAT DO I EAT?
First, the bad news and then the good news. The bad news is if you want to avoid high nickel foods, you may have to avoid some serious nutritional powerhouses, like beans, granola, leafy greens, nuts, raspberries, oatmeal, seeds, soy, and whole grains (also avoid chocolate, citric acid and maybe even garlic). Nooooo!!!!!!! Although, again, as I mentioned above, if your allergy isn't too severe, you may be able to still eat all these foods as long as you add heavy-metal-detox foods to your diet like:
(1) adding spirulina and chlorella into your daily rotation;
(2) adding cilantro to your salads;
(3) the vitamin C trick mentioned above and below; and
(3) making your own applesauce (the pectin in the apple skins binds to heavy metals and helps remove them from your system). You can do this by boiling 4 apples for about 8 minutes and then blending them into applesauce. I add Ceylon cinnamon to mine. It's delicious. If you hate applesauce or don't have time to make it, you can buy fruit pectin in capsule form.
The good news is going low-nickel is do-able with a few substitutions. Basically, if you're not able to use the detox tricks above, whenever you were eating soy or whole grains, substitute eggplant and/or mushrooms. For example, instead of that processed soy veggie burger from the frozen foods section (not really all that great for you anyway), make a portabella mushroom "burger" with stir-fried onions in olive oil. Instead of beans and brown rice, make a stir fry (or bake) strips of eggplant, summer squash and zucchini in olive oil with fresh raw tomatoes. And so on. Second, take a chewable or powdered vitamin C (500mg) immediately before, during or right after meals with nickel content to prevent absorption of the nickel. Be sure to stay well hydrated.
Quorn vegan burgers are made out of a fungus, like mushrooms, and I've had great experiences with them, as have several of my friends.
Here is a list I created of "good" foods and a sample one day menu. If you guys like it and enough people request them, I'll add more recipes. I also have skin care and makeup recommendations at the very bottom for people with topical nickel intolerance.
One fascinating question I don't yet have a satisfactory answer to is whether plants grown hydroponically could make typically high nickel (but nutrient dense) foods like spinach into acceptable low or no nickel foods. The hypothesis would be if the plants are absorbing nickel from the soil and hydroponics removes soil from the equation, will the plant be free from some or all of the nickel you usually see in it? "The fact that hydroponic vegetables never come into contact with soil also means that we don’t need to worry about them absorbing heavy metals from the soil, or being contaminated by disease-causing bacteria that may exist in manure-based fertilizers. On the other hand, we’d also miss out on the potential benefits of beneficial soil-based organisms." See https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/ask-the-diva/are-hydroponic-vegetables-less-nutritious. I'll update once I find more answers.
THE REALLY, REALLY GOOD FOODS
In addition to these being low in nickel, our (unscientific and non-medical normal people) testers have reported back that these actively help alleviate symptoms:
Cilantro (organic only)
Apple pectin (you get the pectin from the skins - again, organic only)*
Broken Cell Wall Chlorella *
**I've also found it really matters whether foods are organic (way better) than conventional. So, yes: allergic reaction to conventional black beans. NO allergic reaction to organic black beans. Hmmm. Could be because organically grown crops come from better soil; could be something from pesticides; could be both; could be neither. My takeaway is organic whenever possible.**
Anyway, the rest of the "good" foods (and a list of maybe's after this, plus sample menus):
THE "GOOD" FOODS
apples (including apple juice and apple sauce)
bagels (plain only, not whole grain - sorry)
berries EXCEPT raspberries
boiled potatoes (no peels)
cinnamon - ONLY use Ceylon Cinnamon!*
corn tortilla chips
crushed red pepper
eggs *not vegan (but see below and column to the left for "maybe" vegan eggs)
flour (white rice flour)
milk- white rice milk
mirin (Japanese rice wine for cooking)
popcorn (air popped)
rice flour (white rice and sweet white rice)
rice paper wrappers (like for spring rolls; again, white or sweet white rice)
vinegar - apple cider vinegar
vinegar - balsamic
vinegar - rice
vinegar - white
These work for me with no ill effects however I have no data as to their nickel content so proceed with caution:
Beyond Meat burgers, "chicken" tenders and beefy crumbles*
Follow Your Heart Vegan Eggs*
Quorn meat-free, soy-free burgers and "chicken"
Cassava* (flour, grain, tortillas)
Yellow Pea Protein Powder
*Links to details on these products to the left.
SAMPLE ONE DAY MENU
Drink an 8 oz glass of water with a teaspoon of organic rosewater* (hydrating and great for skin) or a cup of rose tea. If you take a daily probiotic, take it now.
* Mixed berry bowl (no raspberries)
* Corn flakes cereal with (white) rice milk and strawberries and/or blueberries
*Smoothie with a scoop of vegan protein powder (links to some I like are in the column to the left - my fav is Naked Pea Protein), 1 banana, 1 T of carao (link to left, helps with iron), 1 T maple syrup, and a handful of "safe" greens (Bok Choy, cilantro, cabbage, lettuce, etc.), and 1 cup rice milk
* Coffee or tea if you want caffeine with (white) rice milk or coconut milk
* Glass of water with 1/8 t water-soluble L-ascorbic Vitamin C powder
According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, you must take the Vitamin C immediately before, during or immediately after eating because it must be in your stomach at the same time as the food to bind to the nickel and prevent its absorption
* Bok Choy salad with apple cider vinegar and chopped up apples or Bok Choy Mushroom stir fry if you have extra time to cook.
* Grilled portabella mushroom "burger" with onions, cabbage and tomatoes if you want them
* Glass of water with 1/8 t water-soluble L-ascorbic Vitamin C powder if you're going to consume foods with a medium or higher nickel content (like, say, if you can tolerate adding some quinoa and lentils as a side dish, etc.)
* Smoothie with 5 organic dates, 1 T maple syrup, 1 T carao (optional; for iron levels), 1 scoop vegan protein powder (link to left of one I like), a pinch each of vanilla powder and Ceylon cinnamon, 1 cup rice milk.
Mid Morning and/or Mid Afternoon Snacks
* Air popped popcorn with truffle salt and olive oil
* Corn tortilla chips with homemade tomato and basil salsa
*Grilled brussels sprouts with olive oil, sea salt and cracked black pepper
*DIY snack bars (you can combine 1 c of low nickel "nuts" like cashews (which actually aren't nuts (read more on that here)), 3/4 cup of pitted medjool dates and 3/4 cup of another fruit or combination of fruits that you like, such as cherries, with a pinch of sea salt. Pulse it all in a blender until you have a sticky mixture, which you press into an 8" square glass dish and freeze or refrigerate for an hour. Cut them into bars and store them in the fridge or freezer. You can make a ton at once because they last for ages. You can even add a sprinkle of vitamin C powder into the mix to just keep any pesky nickel at bay).
*Fruit (for easy fruit on the go, dried apples, strawberries, cherries, and watermelon "jerky" are delicious - links to some of these in the column on the left)
*Smoothie with a cup of aloe juice and an assortment of fresh fruits (link to an aloe juice I like to the left). If you're an athlete and wanting to max your protein intake, add some vegan protein powder to the smoothie.
* Sliced raw tomatoes with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar
*Veggie spring roll appetizer of green onions, cabbage, cucumbers, summer squash, and zucchini in rice paper wrappers
* Grilled vegetable stir fry of sliced eggplant, mixed mushrooms (I love Maitake and Cremini), summer squash, zucchini, onions, and diced peeled potatoes in olive oil. See here for another sample stir fry recipe. A note on protein: Animal bodies are not the sole sources of protein as many marketing campaigns and lobbyists have tried to teach us. Vegetables and fruits are also sources of protein. For example, a single medium sized russet potato provides the average person with 9% of daily protein intake for someone on a 2,000 calorie/day diet (and many of us should be consuming less than 2,000 calories a day). See more on that here. If you compare, for example, steak and broccoli, 100 calories of steak gives you about 5.4 grams of protein whereas 100 calories of broccoli gives you 11.2 grams (!). Read more on that here. Some sources of veggie protein are cauliflower, mushrooms, parsley, cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, and cabbage. The list goes on and on and on. To get your complete amino acid profile, you want to "stack" your veggie proteins (i.e., have at least two different kinds at once). Grains are another source of protein, with quinoa and buckwheat being "complete" proteins (you don't need to stack) however, those with a nickel allergy should test their tolerances for these grains under the supervision of a doctor or nutritionist to make sure that they're all good for them. Definitely see if it makes a difference for you if it's organic or not (I tolerate everything organic just fine). Where the grain is grown will make a tremendous difference since nickel can be absorbed from the soil. You can always (again, under the supervision of your doc) test your tolerance and, if you react a bit, test again while consuming with Vitamin C either right before or right after, which could negate your reaction.
*Quorn meatless burgers with red onions and tomatoes
*Quorn meatless "chicken" strip stir fry with onions, mushrooms and peppers - can make this into tacos or fajitas as well
* Glass of water with 1/8 t water-soluble L-ascorbic Vitamin C powder
*Glass of wine or bottle of beer if you want one
Drink another 8 oz glass of water and mix in a little spirulina* and chlorella* for their detox effects or just have a relaxing cup of chamomile tea.
2. WHAT SKIN CARE DO I USE?
Skintifique is a cruelty-free, ethical French skincare line that is specifically formulated for people sensitive to heavy metals. I purchased and tried (1) Cleanser P; (2) Moisturizing Lotion HP; and (3) Protective Cream HPS. I was a little bummed by how small the size of the cream was, but it's all pretty good. My favorite is the cleanser, which is cool and calming and removes even waterproof eye makeup with ease. The lotion and cream are fine. Like the cleanser, they are calming and cool. I actually find the lotion more pleasant to use than the cream, which for some reason, feels a little powdery to me. The website offers a free full-sized product to try if you've never used their line before and I recommend using the freebie on the cream because it's the most expensive and you'll either love it or not. I am sticking to the Cleanser and Lotion, which I like a lot.
If you want a clean, safe, cheap body moisturizer you can get from your grocery store, a tiny bit of plain old olive oil will always work in a pinch! Just avoid Italian olive oil (which is often mixed with other oils and not actually olive oil). Here's a good link to resources for "real" olive oils: /www.mamanatural.com/virgin-olive-oil-scam-fraud/ My favorite is Trader Joe's Spanish Olive Oil. I also like California Olive Oil. Just keep in mind, olive oil doesn't offer the same protections against nickel content that the Skintifique lotion is formulated to provide.
3. WHAT MAKEUP DO I USE?
Omiana is a cruelty-free, ethical and eco-friendly cosmetics line developed for people who want "clean" makeup as free from chemicals as possible. I purchased the powder foundation, anti-redness concealer, a lipliner, and some eyeshadow. The lipliner was great but avoid over sharpening because it's so creamy, it is easy to break the tip right off. The concealer is good for me (pale/medium skin with neutral undertones) but obviously won't work for a lot of other skin tones. It is too dark for me to use for undereye concealer. I like that it stays put no matter what - I've worn it diving, hiking, boxing, running, and it never budged or made me break out. Pretty good! The powder foundation was terrible. It was way too powdery and didn't stay on or provide good coverage. The eye shadow was medium. It had some of the same issues as the powder foundation but if you apply very carefully and mix in a little rose water toner for staying power, worked well.
4. OTHER SOURCES OF NICKEL
You can test the metal around your home with a quick and easy nickel test (available at https://nonickel.com/collections/solutions-for-nickel-allergy and you can buy them in some Walgreens). I was horrified to discover my bathroom sink faucet and pipes were nickel. That kind of replacement is extremely expensive, however, if you have a serious nickel allergy, well worth it for your health and well being. Additionally, check things like doorknobs, which can be quickly and easily replaced, and jewelry. You can use Nickel Guard (or regular old clear nail polish) to coat, for example, a doorknob that you can't replace but that is nickel and is causing you to suffer an allergic reaction. Just keep in mind, you'll have to re-coat it periodically to keep it safe and it doesn't work on things you get wet, like your sink faucet, for example.
Several folks have emailed me questions after reading this blog post and I want to just add in a few of the most common here with some suggestions. Please keep in mind they are only suggestions and you should always ask your doctor first! I am not a doctor, even if I've played one on TV. :) That being said, here are some common conundrums:
1. I'm trying to get more IRON and have issues with anemia but I want to avoid both meat and nickel...help?
Again, consult your doctor (sorry, I have to say it every time) but a couple ideas:
(1) Try carao. I blogged about this medicinal plant native to Costa Rica here and you can buy it easily enough at health food stores or online.
(2) Apricots are a good source of iron as well. Soak dried apricots in water overnight before you eat them and your body will more easily absorb the nutrients.
(3) White button mushrooms are another good source of iron
(4) Ditto for squash
(5) Ditto for leeks
2. B12 sources that are cruelty-free please?
With, again, the caveat to always consult your doctor first, I would use a good vegan supplement.
Read more on B12 here
3. Any other outside sources for nickel-free food lists you've found useful?
Definitely! Here are just a few:
(1) Allergy Consultants PA List of Nickel Free Foods
(2) NIH List
5. YET MORE RESOURCES
1. Nickel sensitization and dietary nickel are a substantial cause of symptoms provocation in patients with chronic allergic-like dermatitis syndromes, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4388878/
2. No Nickel Cookbook
This cookbook, written by a mother and daughter team, is comprehensive and easy to follow. It is for meat eaters, which I am not, however, I found that if I (1) substituted vegetable broth where their recipes called for meat broth and (2) substituted eggplant and/or mushrooms (especially portabellas because they're so hearty) wherever their recipes called for chicken, beef or other meats, and/or Quorn vegan "meat" (made from a fungus, like mushrooms) and, (3) in baking, substituted applesauce for eggs, it was not too difficult to convert the cookbook into a vegan cookbook and even easier to convert it to a vegetarian one. If you have questions about how to do this, just message me here and I'll do my best to help!
3. Non Dairy Milks
Read my blog post about this here.
4. Skin Care
Skintifique is a cruelty-free, ethical skin care line for people with metal sensitivities. I particularly recommend their cleanser and lotion. Take advantage of the one free full sized product to try offer on their website.
I gave Omiana a go (more details above). Not the best staying power for powder products and not a wide color range for concealer but definitely good for sensitive skin.
6. Nickel Test Kit
You can carry it around to test jewelry, pipes, door handles, whatever. You can also get a nickel "guard" to cover said items (but you'll have to re-apply periodically and it doesn't offer much (any) protection for items that get wet frequently, like a faucet):
7. "Low-Nickel Diet Scoring System for Systemic Nickel Allergy," The American Contact Dermatitis Society Journal, Vol 24, No. 4, July/August 2013 - http://journals.lww.com/dermatitis/Abstract/2013/07000/Low_Nickel_Diet_Scoring_System_for_Systemic_Nickel.9.aspx
8. Italian study of nickel content in common foods: www.torrinomedica.it/studio/alimenti/nichel/en/Nickel_Foods_Cont.asp
NOTE: I have also been researching ethical, cruelty-free, environmentally-friendly household products that are free of heavy metals, such as laundry detergent, hand soaps and the like. Please let me know if you want me to add in this information.
Actor, Author, Attorney