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A Complex Allergy: Systemic Nickel Allergy Syndrome and a Low Nickel Diet

The last two years of my life have been a roller coaster ride in which my health deteriorated and I watched my body begin to crumble before my very eyes. Luckily, I was properly diagnosed in December with Systemic Nickel Allergy Syndrome (SNAS), and six months into following a complex and strict protocol, I have returned to an almost medicine-free lifestyle.

Since there aren’t enough resources around on how to maintain this allergy, here’s the breakdown of how I have made a major health comeback. Please note that I am not a doctor. If you are experiencing symptoms, it’s best to troubleshoot under a doctor’s supervision.

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The first piece of advice I got from doctors was to have chewable vitamin C tablets with each meal. Vitamin C helps prevent the stomach from absorbing nickel. I also got a list of low-nickel foods to eat. The foods high in nickel I have to avoid most are nuts, legumes, older leafy greens, beer, wine, oats, pineapple, and raspberries (there are many more high-nickel ones on the list, but these are the ones which I had to cut out because I consume them often).

My doctor’s pile of handouts also had some brief allusions to how iron intake could help reduce nickel absorption too, but this wasn’t explained or as heavily advocated as vitamin C, so I dug deeper. After further exploration I found that consuming iron helps prevent nickel from crossing a barrier at the cellular level. Additionally, people with deficiencies in iron can have higher levels of intestinal mucosa, which can worsen the digestive response to nickel toxicity. Furthermore, consuming vitamin C at the same time as iron helps the body absorb the iron itself. It’s amazing how these micro-nutrients combine to become an anti-nickel superpower.

Here’s the catch: I used to be a vegetarian at home; however, many vegetarian go-to foods are high in iron (nuts, legumes, leafy greens) are also high in nickel. Also, nickel allergy worsens with a deficiency in zinc, because nickel likes to mimic zinc in the body. The same vegetarian predicament arises in this case: many vegetable foods high in zinc are also high in nickel. Therefore, if I want to remain a vegetarian at home, I have to eat a lot of cheese and eggs. While I have been having much of these ingredients, I still eat a little bit of meat at least once a week with a meal, especially if I know the meal has more nickel than usual. Adding iron and zinc have been a major piece of the puzzle that has helped my condition incredibly. As you see in the picture above, I have enjoyed adding meat to my diet and having fun cooking projects like my first whole rack of Memphis-style barbecue ribs. I still, however, try to be conscious of my meat choices by not consuming too much and trying to get it from environmentally friendly, healthy sources.

Alas, there are a few more small things that have helped greatly. This allergy is complex, and looking at it holistically has made all the difference.

Because I was having digestive issues, I experienced benefits from staying away from coffee, during what the SNAS community calls the “detox phase”. This phase is the first three to six months after diagnosis, where you eat extremely low nickel to get it out of your system. During this period, I could only have it about once a week. Upon further research, it turns out that some coffees can have medium amounts of nickel in it, so it’s better to have sparingly. Now that I’m beyond the detox phase, I allow myself to drink a small cup every day so long as I’m good with avoiding nickel elsewhere. The moment I cave and bite into a piece of chocolate or have a sip of wine, however, I’ll cut coffee out for a few days. Part of this allergy is choosing when to pick battles with the ingredients before me.

I also now eat a lot of cilantro, which helps naturally chelate heavy metals from the liver. This might be the funniest part of the whole situation: a year before my allergy broke out, I moved from California to Atlanta. In California, I was eating cilantro regularly, because of all the amazing Mexican food there. In Atlanta, I was only having cilantro on the rare occasion that I found good Mexican food or craved and cooked it myself. I had also added oats to my diet after the move, and it took about a year for my body to realize that the changes were not ideal. Apparently, I need to cook more Mexican food.

Since I need more cilantro in my diet, I decided to marinate carne asda for the first time ever. My body had been craving it for a few days, which tells me that my body actually needed some aspect of this meal.
Since I need more cilantro in my diet, I decided to marinate carne asda for the first time ever. My body had been craving it for a few days, which tells me that my body actually needed some aspect of this meal.

I also got off the birth control pill (which I was on for 10 years without knowing the risks), and reduced my alcohol intake, both of which had likely decreased my zinc levels and jeopardized my liver function (nickel is removed from the body through the liver, so I need it to be at its peak function). It took me a few months to experience these benefits, as I changed these habits last Fall, and it’s been slow, gradual improvement ever since.

My skin also benefits from regular sun exposure (a few hours per week). I go in the sun just enough to get a good quantity of vitamin D but not burn. Living in California, I  grew up with high quantities of sun exposure all the time, and this decreased in my first year of living in Atlanta. It only takes a little extra effort to get it here, and my skin is drastically more happy. Vitamin D is an anti-inflammatory nutrient, and it also helps with phase 1 of liver detox. It’s important to note that my body is already used to high levels, so please consult your dermatologist and practice moderation if your body doesn’t usually get much sunlight.

A small additional detail: I have removed small external forms of nickel too, since I have both an external and internal allergy. In order to do this, I have used a nickel testing kit to test my jewelry and silverware, and I only cook in Teflon or cast-iron pots and pans. I run all of my beauty products through Skin Safe before buying them, to make sure they have no added nickel. The catch about Skin Safe is that they only look through ingredients for added nickel, so I have to purchase ingredients that pass their “test” and don’t contain plant ingredients high in nickel, like nuts (for example, I had to say bye to argan oil, but products like Josie Maran’s argan oil are listed on SkinSafe as allergen free).

Finally, insomnia was one of the hardest symptoms to combat in this allergy, and I still fight it every now and then. A sleep hygiene routine has helped me sleep normally, and has subsequently helped my body heal. I also feel much happier and rested, as one should with normal sleep.

Now, I’m happy to say, I can go a few weeks at a time with no topical steroids or antihistamines. Even when I occasionally use topical steroids, it’s usually only for small spots, and I typically can stop use within a day or two. I haven’t felt this great in almost two years! It feels so good to feel good.

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