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Meet the Expert

When Eating Healthy Can Come Back To Bite You

Doctors see a rise in people allergic to nickel, often found in healthy foods

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Sara Plumby says she was doing everything right.  She was exercising several times a week, going to bed early and was committed to eating only nutritious foods.  “I was basically eating a vegetarian diet,” said Plumby, “with nuts, beans, soy and lots of fruits and vegetables.  It was a very healthy diet.”

But instead of enjoying the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle, Plumby was simply miserable.  

“My tongue would burn and my muscles would twitch so badly that I had sleep disruptions and would wake up in the morning feeling like I wasn’t rested,” she said.  Then there were the constant and painful rashes that would blister the inside of her legs, the outside of her upper thighs and her feet.  “I just kept feeling worse as the years went on, and didn’t know what was wrong with me,” she said.

Finally, on the advice of her doctor, Sara went to see Dr. Matthew Zirwas, a nationally renowned dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Within a few weeks Dr. Zirwas figured it out.  The foods Sara was eating in an effort to stay healthy were actually making her sick.  It turns out Sara is allergic to nickel, a mineral often found in healthy foods.

“These allergies can be life-altering,” said Dr. Zirwas.  “I mean, these people are absolutely miserable as a result of this.”

And Sara is not alone.  Dr. Zirwas says about fifteen percent of the U.S. population is allergic to nickel, but most of them only show symptoms when they come into contact with it, by wearing items that contain nickel, like watches, jewelry or belt buckles.

A growing number, however, are showing up at doctors’ offices not because they are wearing nickel, but eating it.

“We’ve seen more nickel dermatitis in the last five years,” said Dr. Zirwas.  “And the reason, we think, is that there’s been a shift in dietary habits.  As people are trying to eat healthier, they’re actually eating more nickel.”

Foods generally considered to be healthy often contain the most nickel.  Oatmeal, whole grains, whole wheat, soy, nuts and beans contain nickel.  It’s also found in dark chocolate and even in stainless steel pots and pans.  “So, if you are cooking foods that are very acidic, like tomatoes, lemons or vinegar,” said Dr. Zirwas, “the nickel can be released from those pots and pans into the food and boost your nickel intake.”

But diagnosing a nickel allergy isn’t as easy as you might think.  It takes a long time for excessive nickel to build up in your system, so it could be months or even years before symptoms are obvious.

“It’s not like a normal allergy to, say, peanuts,” said Dr. Zirwas.  “If someone is allergic to peanuts, you know within seconds there is a problem, because they immediately begin to swell and have a severe reaction.”

“With a nickel allergy, it’s much more the cumulative amount of nickel that you eat,” he said.  “So, if you start eating more nickel, it slowly builds up in your body until your immune system get stimulated enough that you start to break out in this rash.”

Plus, as Sara can attest, not all doctors are familiar with nickel allergies, so patients often suffer symptoms with no answers. “I had been to different doctors for allergy testing about twelve years ago, and maybe 10 years ago,” she said.  “Their tests showed nothing.  I’d also been to a dermatologist who did a biopsy of my rash, and it showed nothing,” she said.

But after seeing Dr. Zirwas, Sara got answers. “I was shocked,” she said, “because I was eating a healthy diet, but the healthy diet was making me worse.”

Today, Sara is on a low-nickel diet and is taking medication to help draw the nickel out of her body.  In less serious cases, doctors may also suggest patients eat a chewable vitamin C tablet before each meal, which binds to the nickel and prevents it from being absorbed in the body.

“I’m still on the road to recovery,” said Sara, “but I’m just so happy we found this allergy.  Just knowing it’s there has made a huge difference in my life.”




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Arm covered in a skin allergy,hives