Of Diets and Dandruff

In January, my naturopath tried to convince me to try the Paleo diet in an effort to finally clear up the persistent flakiness on my scalp. I had come to her several years ago with a multitude of health problems, all of which she cleared up one by one:

  • early menopause? check.
  • severe depression and anxiety? check.
  • chronic irritable bowel symptoms? check.
  • low energy? check.
All but this one, that is. Despite trying all of the pharmaceutical and over-the-counter remedies for dandruff, the scaly plaques (I know, sounds sexy, huh?) on my scalp get better and worse several times a year, but never go away entirely.  We were both hoping that going off of gluten would solve the problem in time, but it has been more than three years now and I haven’t seen any improvement.  
Last Thanksgiving, we tackled dairy.  Despite my daily latte and my desperate need for cheese and yogurt. Oh, and butter. And, did I mention cheese?  Well, despite those things, I diligently eliminated dairy from my diet for three weeks. Soy milk or almond milk in my latte. No cheese or butter or yogurt at all. No ice cream. Or whipped cream on my crustless pumpkin pie. It wasn’t as bad as I had thought it might be, but I was secretly hoping it wouldn’t make a difference so that I could say I tried it and then go back to my dairy-days.  At the end of three weeks I had lost four and a half pounds but kept my dandruff. No dice.
I spent the Christmas holidays congratulating myself on my perseverence and self-control by consuming dairy, dairy, dairy and gaining all of the weight right back.  What? I hadn’t set out to lose weight. It was only right that I put it back where it belonged.
Enter January and the scalp condition was still there.  And here’s the thing – it’s seasonal. So every time there is a significant shift in the weather from one season to another, I have about fourteen days of worsening dandruff before it subsides a little. Weird.
So when my naturopath suggested I try the Paleo diet, which not only eliminates dairy, but any and all refined sugars and most oils and ALL GRAINS, I was a little shell-shocked. After cutting gluten from my diet, I have to say that we live on rice and potatoes for starch. We don’t eat much refined sugar and I use mostly coconut oil and olive oil, but I do love my dairy (see above) and I must eat chocolate nearly every day.  
I nodded my head sagely, listened to her personal testimonial as she had recently begun the diet herself, and left the office determined to find another way.  I researched my shampoo and conditioner and discovered – AMEN! – that they both contain wheat. Yes, wheat. Who knew? So I decided that this was certainly the issue and if I only found hair care products without wheat, I would be home free.  That proved more difficult than I thought, especially since I was on a crusade for products without sulfates or parabens, too.  Seems most ‘natural’ products think wheat qualifies as something beneficial to  add to their shampoo, so it was nearly a week before I discovered one that worked for me.
Sadly, it didn’t make a difference.
Months later, despite meeting many people who have modified their own diets to more closely adhere to the Paleo diet and despite the fact that I am still struggling with my dandruff, I am still holding out for a different solution.  I know Michelle and her family adhere to a strict diet that is similar and have had good success. I also know how hard she works for it.  I already cook nearly every meal at home for us, diligently planning meals days ahead and shopping for expensive, organic, whole food ingredients a few days a week.  It is work, but I love it.  I’m just not sure I’m ready to make it more challenging.  Because if I’m doing it, everyone is. I’m not cooking three different meals for four people in the house. Sure, I’ll have gluten-free bread available for the girls if they want a sandwich, but on pasta night, we’re not using rice noodles. (Oh, God! Thai food! No Thai food!)
And so here I sit wondering if dandruff is really not that big a deal and I can just live with it.  Or is it simply an outward symptom of some other destructive process going on inside my body that I can’t see?  I have recently noticed a few other minor health issues cropping up and have wondered whether trying this diet might help clear some of those up, too, but mostly I’m burying my head in the sand about them.  Unfortunately, my pattern seems to necessitate my getting smacked upside the head with something before I make a substantive change in my life.  Because change is hard. And so now I’m whining. But maybe one day in the near future I’ll be writing a success story about clearing up persistent dandruff by going on the Paleo diet. Or maybe you’ll notice that all of my clothing is white, in which case you’ll know I’m still burying my head in the sand. 
12 replies
  1. Carrie Wilson Link
    Carrie Wilson Link says:

    I have a friend that is on the Paleo diet, said she had 17 symptoms, in 30 days 15 were eliminated and 2 were manageable. Still, wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. I love to chase my tail.

  2. fullsoulahead.com
    fullsoulahead.com says:

    Thanks for the mention but our Paleo got blown to bits this last week and I'm wondering if GF/CF might be sufficient. LOL

    All Seth would eat was rice when he was sick and that ain't Paleo. And I ate chocolate chips out of stress.

    If you do go Paleo, get The Paleo Comfort Food Cookbook. It's awesome. And I have some other great recipes if you want them?

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    hmmm … Am I the only one here who had no idea about the Paleo diet?

    Looking at what it could be – beside eating berries and hunting for food – I realized that I was indeed right, it is going back to paleolithic diet.

    While there have been studies done on the benefit of it, this diet seems for sure controversial …

    Would I see clear and convincing studies that it could reduce the severity of my food allergies, help my kids health and medical issues, then I would consider it, but before that, I think I will continue my best to eat a healthy and balanced diet.

    Beautiful and refreshing post so, and I can easily imagine the back and forth intellectual challenge …

    – Isabelle

    • Mr. Tibbs
      Mr. Tibbs says:

      I've been on the paleo/primal diet for four weeks. I have one cheat meal every week (normally my thin crust pizza fix). I've noticed a lot of changes: My wounds heal quicker, my dandruff has gone away completely, I have been losing more weight and exercising less, My whole eating pattern has changed.

      The paleo diet has completely changed my outlook on food and nutrition.

  4. Dee
    Dee says:

    Dear Kari, after reading your post, I went to Goggle and looked up "Paleo Diet." I read two sites–one that gives recipes and one, by a nutritionist. The diet seems somewhat controversial doesn't it? The question seems to be if during the past 14 thousand years our human bodies have evolved enough that we can eat things other than wild meat, berries, certain vegetables, and nuts.

    I'm wondering if this is something you and your family can try for two or three weeks just to see what happens. Then modify it a little and see what happens. One of the things that seems important if you do try this is that you take calcium and vitamin D while doing so.

    I wish you luck whatever you decide to do. I always remember what Father Francis said He was the Benedictine priest who taught the religion class when I was a senior in college. He told us repeatedly "in medio stat." (I'm not sure of the Latin.) Translated this means "the middle way." He encouraged us to be moderate.

    At the time, I thought that sounded so boring, but as the years and decades have passed, I've discovered that for some things–not all–the middle way helps keep balance in my life. Some things.


  5. Sandi
    Sandi says:

    Oh boy did this post hit close to home! Two of us in our family are plagued with dry, itchy scaly scalps. We've tried multitude of products and medications, changed our diets and all to no avail. I am now almost convinced that it is related to stress, or some bizarre allergy, but to what, I don't have a clue! my daughter's doctor said hers is psoriasis; mine calls it exezema, but our symptoms and results are very similar. She recently had an outbreak on her feet!

    Best wishes on whatever path you take in your search for healing.

  6. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    My son Henry (aged 14) and I have this problem, but mine seems to come and go with extreme stress. Despite using all the shampoos, medicines, etc. for Henry, it persists, and I can only think it's a constitutional imbalance or something. Back to the homeopath for him — and me — well, I'll just deal. As for diets, I run, run, run. After so many years of dealing with Sophie and trying so many diets, I just throw up my hands in despair.

  7. Deb Shucka
    Deb Shucka says:

    Your last line made me laugh out loud. I think there are some things we simply can't fix, and my personal experience with skin things is that they work themselves out (or not) in their own time. I will look forward to reading about your experience with the latest food as medicine system – or not. 🙂

  8. Lauren Wayne
    Lauren Wayne says:

    This might not work for you, in which case ignore me! 🙂 But you might try not using shampoo at all. I know sometimes it can irritate the scalp and make things worse. If you let your natural oils sit, it might help. I usually do conditioner-only washing every few days. I know some people do water-only or use baking soda & apple cider vinegar. If you're interested, you can research any of those options. For what it's worth, my husband has dandruff, and I have not convinced him to give it a try!

    I'd much rather do that than go paleo, but that's just me, ha ha!

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I had problems with sebhorreic dermatitis a few years ago which is (are you ready?!) basically dandruff on the face! Now you probably don't feel so bad about dandruff do you? LOL. The dermatologist prescribed hydrocortisone creams that did nothing. Finally I googled and found that apple cider vinegar was supposed to work for that and dandruff. My skin did clear up soon after — don't know what worked, it could have been caused by stress, but it's worth a try.

  10. Unknown
    Unknown says:

    My guess is, the dairy elimination was a good thing due to the weight loss, as painful as it may be to adhere to. An elimination diet can typically identify what food is ailing us. For example, my dog was experiencing morning arthritic symptoms – I axed his kibble, and suddenly the arthritis was gone. I now feed him chicken breast and egg/milk omelets. He developed dandruff. My guess is that it’s a reaction to either the egg, dairy, or both. I’ll eliminate the dairy first and see what happens.

    Human elimination diets eliminate the most common “allergens,” dairy, eggs, nuts, grains, legumes, and, sadly, chocolate and alcohol, and sometimes nightshades and or fodmaps, etc. depending on what you decide to try. Although some folks recommend 3 weeks – if you’ve been experiencing a lifetime of issues, it can sometimes take months to discover that the cause of XYZ is something you are eating, and you need to eliminate it. Think about how long you’ve been eating XYZ. 90 days, though it seems like a long time, is a drop in the bucket compared to a lifetime of discomfort and embarrassment. And too, my guess is that if you can’t make it 90 days without eating a certain food, it may be a problematic food for you.

    Also, there is a lot of “cross reaction” with proteins in dairy and corn (and some oats) for people who have trouble with gluten. When my brother went gluten-free, he lost 65 pounds without even trying. I, on the other hand, did not start effortlessly losing until my current elimination diet.

    I’ve been on an elimination diet for over a month now, and I’ve had a steady 2 pound weight loss every week without limiting calories. I know I have a nightshade issue, so I eat sweet potatoes instead of potatoes, and a LOT of them, and fruit (not terribly paleo, they like to limit fruit to berries). I had previously tried Paleo for my particular issues, and I found, as a woman, it exacerbated hormonal imbalances. I need lots of carbs!!

    I urge you not to try to follow any one “diet” but to find the individual foods that YOU are having issues with, and the only way to really discover that is to stay on an elimination diet long enough to heal what ails you, and then slowly reintroduce the suspected food groups to correctly identify the culprits.

    It may turn out that you do have issues with dairy, but my mother does, and she can get away with blue cheese on a salad every once in a while without triggering her symptoms – you just have to feel your way along on this journey.

    I wish you all the best of health!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *