Nature of A Nickel Food Allergy

Our immune system is amazing at fighting infection and disease. When the body comes in contact with a substance it believes is harmful, it reacts with antibodies. During an allergic reaction, the body’s immune system over-reacts to such substances (in my case, nickel) and I experience a severe eczema rash, hayfever and sometimes itchy eyes. Allergic reactions can vary in severity, from mild to the most severe form of anaphylactic shock.

A couple months ago, I attended a one day seminar by the National Eczema Association. One of their founders, Dr. Jon Hanifin discussed the relationship between eczema and food allergies. He said it is known that about 15% of people with atopic dermatitis (the most severe type of eczema) also have food allergies.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), they define a food allergy to be:

“an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food. Food allergens are the parts of food or ingredients within food (usually proteins) that are recognized by immune cells. When an immune cell binds to a food allergen, a reaction occurs that causes the symptoms of food allergy” [1].

When conducting research about what is or isn’t considered a food allergy, I discovered that a food allergy involves an immune system reaction to food proteins. Wanting to understand why my body reacts like a food allergy when I eat foods high in nickel, I googled the phrase “nickel protein.”

As a result, I learned about the book The Elimination Diet Workbook:  A Personal Approach to Determining Your Food Allergies by Maggie Moon. It is one of the best books I’ve read explaining various food allergies, food sensitivities and food intolerances. The book includes an entire section on nickel food allergies and the low nickel diet. In addition, Moon writes about histamines and methods to avoid foods high in histamines, which is recommended for those of us allergic to foods with nickel.

Writing about the nickel protein, Moon states: “nickel falls in a category of substances called haptens, which are small molecules that, when combined with proteins, can spark the production of antibodies that bind specifically to these molecules. Where there are antibodies, there is the possibility of an immune system reaction. Although nickel is not a protein, it binds with proteins that already exist in the body, and that combination can trigger an allergic reaction”[2].

Whenever I talk to people about my unique food allergy, they all say they’ve never heard of such a food allergy or didn’t even know nickel was in food. Wanting to know more about haptens, I returned to Google and discovered the book Dealing with Food Allergies: A Practical Guide to Detecting Culprit Foods and Eating a Healthy, Enjoyable Diet by Janice Vickerstaff Joneja. I found it interesting that she discusses nickel when explaining and defining haptens, writing:

“a few nonprotein molecules can cause and allergic response; these are called haptens. Haptens are small molecules and may even be inorganic compounds or elements such as nickel. Haptens become allergens when they attach to a protein. The “carrier protein” with its attached molecule forms a new antigen, or neoantigen. The carrier protein may be part of the food in which the hapten exists, or it may be a protein from the body, to which the hapten attaches itself after it is consumed. The neoantigen is then capable of triggering a Type I hypersensitivity response, leading to allergy. The IgE antibodies are specific to the hapten part of the new antigen; therefore, if the hapten is nickel or sulfite, the IgE is produced against the nickel or sulfite, not against the protein to which it is attached” [3].

Even though so much of this information is scientific and difficult to follow, I’ve found it really useful to better understanding my unique food allergy. When initially diagnosed I spent the first couple months trying to comprehend what it all meant that I was allergy to foods high in nickel. Like many, I wasn’t aware foods were high in nickel. While quickly adapt to the low nickel diet, I’ve been able to find effective methods to treating my painful eczema.

I hope this research and information is helpful in further explaining the internal processes of a nickel food allergy.

[1] https://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/foodAllergy/clinical/Documents/FAguidelinesPatient.pdf. page 6.

[2] Moon, M. (2014). The Elimination Diet Workbook: A Personal Approach to Determining Your Food Allergies. Berkley, CA. Ulysses Press.

[3] Joneja, J. A. (2003). Dealing with Food Allergies: A Practical Guide to Detecting Culprit Foods and Eating a Healthy, Enjoyable Diet. Boulder, CO. Bull Publishing Co. p. 99.