holiday table filled with food

5 Holiday Foods Most Likely to Trigger a Psoriasis Flare-Up

By Corinne O’Keefe Osborn
Reviewed by Allison Truong, M.D.
December 22, 2020

The holidays are a time to eat, drink, and be merry. But if you have psoriasis, you may be watching what you eat and drink closely. Not all foods affect people with psoriasis the same way, but there are a few that are notorious for their tendency to trigger psoriasis flares. To prevent inflammation and reactions to foods you’re sensitive to, consider limiting or avoiding any foods that have triggered your psoriasis in the past. This may include any of the following seven common offenders.

1. Red and Processed Meat

Research into the relationship between red and processed meats and psoriasis remains inconclusive, but studies do suggest that these meats can raise inflammation levels in the bloodstream. Because psoriasis flare-ups can result from an increase inflammation, you might want to skip the bacon-wrapped scallops and limit the holiday ham.

“Psoriasis is a condition where your immune system gets angry at your skin and attacks it, leading to inflammation,” says Joshua Ziechner, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Anything that promotes inflammation, theoretically, can be an aggravating factor.”

2. Traditional Desserts

Refined sugar is the main ingredient in many traditional holiday desserts. Unfortunately, they may be even worse for you than you thought. Studies conducted in the general population suggest that lowering your refined-sugar intake decreases inflammation levels over time.

And while scientific evidence is limited, anecdotal reports suggest that many people with psoriasis do benefit from limiting sugar. A survey of more than 1,200 people with psoriasis found that nearly 14 percent believe that sugar triggers their symptoms.

“Refined sugars are pro-inflammatory and could make psoriasis worse, but studies are limited,” confirms Hadley King, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “We really don't yet have the data to tell us exactly how much of a pro-inflammatory food would be required to quickly worsen symptoms, and this likely will vary from person to person.”

If you’re worried about a flare-up, try reducing your sugar consumption at this year’s celebration to see if it helps. But if you’ve never noticed sugar triggering your psoriasis before, then it’s probably safe to indulge.

3. Alcohol

If you’re planning on ringing in the New Year with a glass of champagne, you may want to think twice. Although research is limited, studies have suggested that alcohol can trigger psoriasis symptoms or worsen an existing flare in some people. In one survey, about 14 percent of people said they believed alcohol played a role in triggering their psoriasis symptoms. The study also found that, among people who had tried eliminating alcohol from their diet in the past, about 54 percent reported improved skin.

“Keep alcohol consumption to moderate, at most,” advises King. “Studies have shown that men who drink heavily may not respond to psoriasis treatments as well. And some studies suggest that people who have psoriasis and drink heavily may find that their skin gets better when they stop.”

“If you take medications like methotrexate or acitretin, you may need to stay away from alcohol completely,” she added. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any medication you’re on is contraindicated with alcohol.

4. Bread, Pastry, and Pasta

The evidence on gluten—a complex protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—is inconclusive, so the jury’s still out. But avoiding it has helped a small number of people with psoriasis find relief, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF).

At this time, the NPF only recommends a gluten-free diet for those who have tested positive for celiac disease or those with a gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, is about three times more common in people with psoriasis than in people without psoriasis.

If you’ve noticed that your psoriasis symptoms worsen after you eat gluten, you may have a gluten sensitivity. Talk to your doctor about how you can find out for sure—they may have you try an elimination diet—and in the meantime, avoid eating anything you feel could put a damper on enjoying your holiday and look for a gluten-free alternative instead.

5. Nightshades

White potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are all part of a family of plants called nightshades. Nightshades are healthy choices for most people, but contain a chemical compound called solanine that seems to trigger an inflammatory response in some people. In a 2017 survey, about 52 percent of people with psoriasis reported improved symptoms after cutting nightshades out of their diet.

Know that skipping mashed potatoes for one night isn’t going to produce any noticeable results. If you’re interested in eliminating nightshades from your diet, plan to do so for at least a few weeks before deciding whether it helps.

Avoid Overeating

We know the last thing you want to do is bring a measuring cup to Thanksgiving to parcel out the potatoes, but portion control really is important. During the holidays, we tend to pile much more food on our plates then we normally would. When you add in all the appetizers, drinks, and desserts, your total calorie intake can skyrocket, causing weight gain.

An NPF paper summarizing data from 55 different studies found that the single most important dietary action someone with psoriasis can take is to lose weight. The NPF recommends that anyone who is overweight or obese focus primarily on eating a reduced-calorie diet.

“Obesity has been linked with psoriasis,” says Ziechner. “And we have seen that weight loss has gone hand in hand with psoriasis improvement.”

King explains that this may be because fat cells produce pro-inflammatory proteins. Losing weight may also help reduce the likelihood of developing common psoriasis comorbidities like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Make Smart Food Choices

The good news is, many holiday foods are actually great for you and your skin. Turkey, for example, is an excellent lean protein that is less likely to trigger a flare than red meat.

“Any vegetables and fruits that are in season during the holiday can be prepared in a healthy way,” suggests Melissa A. Murphy, Ph.D., a nutritionist and assistant professor of naturopathic medicine and nutrition at Bastyr University in San Diego, California. Pumpkin, spaghetti squash, apples, cranberries, and leafy greens like kale and chard, are all great choices.

There are plenty of ways to cut down on extra calories. For example, you can switch things up by sautéing string beans instead of putting them in a creamy casserole. Cut up some broccoli and make a Greek yogurt dip for a healthy appetizer. Have baked apples for dessert instead of apple pie.

If nightshades don’t agree with you, you can switch up white potatoes for sweet potatoes, which have the added bonus of supporting the immune system with vitamins A and C, says Trista Best, R.D., a registered dietitian.

Manage Holiday Stress

The holidays are undoubtably a stressful time of year, often filled with cleaning, decorating, cooking, shopping, and visiting. Try to take it easy on yourself, if possible.

“Stress has a negative impact on the skin, impairing wound healing, interfering with skin-barrier function, and even making certain skin conditions worse,” says Ziechner. “So, anything you can do to reduce stress—be it meditation, yoga, or listening to music—may be of benefit in psoriasis patients.”

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