At this time of year, with the weather cooling down and the dry winds picking up, eczema and other skin irritations can really start to flare up. Unfortunately, children are often the ones who suffer the most with this condition, and it’s certainly not nice to see little ones in discomfort or pain. I remember when my twins were small they both experienced regular outbreaks of eczema. Their little legs and arms were often red and inflamed, and would sting if they went in the ocean or were wearing long pants that rubbed against the sore spots. As this was in my pre-naturopathic days, I really wish I knew then what I know now!
Treating From The Outside In – Or Should It Be The Inside Out?
Over the years, I’ve seen so many different topical products around, in chemists, health food stores and online, all claiming to be the best cream or lotion for treating eczema. And eczema sufferers that I see in the clinic usually tell me have tried every single one! If you take a trip to your doctor and show him or her your eczema, it is likely that you will be prescribed a steroid cream, to dampen down the redness and inflammation so that some healing of the skin can occur. Whilst many people experience relief from both natural and pharmaceutical products, there is one crucial part of the eczema puzzle that topical products are not helping – and that is what is causing the eczema in the first place. To fully experience relief from eczema, it really needs a whole-body approach that addresses the underlying cause(s), and works on both the outside AND the inside.
What’s On the Inside That’s Contributing?
Food reactivity is the first area I look at when I am working with a patient who gets lots of eczema episodes. It can sometimes be useful to consider which foods may be triggering flare-ups, and look at whether these can be avoided, at least temporarily, to allow the skin time to heal. Common foods that can contribute to the development of eczema include wheat and other gluten-containing grains (barley, rye etc), eggs, dairy products, peanuts, shellfish, citrus fruits and foods containing artificial colours or preservatives. The best way to determine which of these foods may be contributing to eczema is to do an elimination or rotation diet, supervised by a qualified practitioner for best results. Food intolerances are often linked to the health of the gut (which I will discuss below) so it is necessary to address both aspects if you suspect food is playing a role, and this is also where a practitioner can help. Simply cutting the food out is not the whole picture.
There are several nutrients that are necessary for healthy, supple skin, and increasing their intake may be useful in the natural treatment of eczema. Vitamin C helps to reduce inflammation and redness, and support the normal growth of skin tissues. Vitamins D & E are both natural anti-inflammatory nutrients. The mineral zinc helps to balance the immune system (remember that this is an allergic condition, so the immune system has gone into overdrive) and create a healthy skin barrier, so that the skin’s natural moisture is retained. Lastly, eating enough healthy fats is crucial to skin health. Omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish oil) are one of the best source of anti-inflammatory healthy fats.
This is probably the area that is most important, yet is frequently overlooked. After all, how could the skin have anything to do with the gut? Well, as we are learning, the gut plays a role in almost every aspect of health, skin included. When the gut is not functioning optimally, the gut bacteria may become unbalanced, which can encourage the growth of undesirable ‘bad’ bacteria or fungi such as candida in the gut. This is known as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis in turn increases inflammation in the body, and can cause the gut lining to become porous or ‘leaky’. Once leaky gut is established, food particles in the digestive system that normally don’t make their way into the bloodstream are allowed to leak into the blood where they are attacked by the immune system. Leaky gut and dysbiosis can result from antibiotic use, certain medications, a bout of gastroenteritis or ‘tummy bug’, a diet high in junk foods and low in fresh fruit and vegetables, stress and alcohol intake.
What I think is quite amazing is the effect just using the right strain of probiotic can have on eczema cases, by supporting skin health from the inside. My favourite strain to use with clients who are experiencing eczema is called ‘Lactobacillus rhamnosus LGG’ and it is the world’s most researched probiotic strain. Not only do I find it amazingly effective for improving eczema, it is also useful for cases of food intolerances, preventing diarrhea following the use of antibiotics, and general gut healing. L. rhamnosus LGG has also been shown to help prevent eczema developing in the first place – if expectant mothers take it during pregnancy and while breastfeeding their infants are less likely to suffer eczema.1
DIY Home Remedies:
Of course, there are some other things that you can do at home while working on improving gut health, avoiding foods that trigger flare-ups and restoring optimal nutrient intake. Here are a few:
- Try to avoid taking excessively hot or long showers or baths, as these can be very drying to the skin.
- If practical, it can be a good idea to avoid using soap for a little while, or use it sparingly, as it can dry the skin further.
- Take a good look at the detergent and other laundry products you are using – are they naturally based? If not, harsh chemical components may be playing a role in continually irritating the skin.
- Try filling an old stocking with oats, and pop in the bath to soak before you hop in. Oats can be very soothing to the skin.
- Certain herbal remedies can be useful to apply topically. I often make my clients a herbal cream, based on a hypo-allergenic natural cream base with their unique herbal remedies added. My favourites for eczema include Chickweed, Chamomile, Gotu Kola, and Tea Tree. This can be a great adjunct to help soothe the skin while we allow time for the internal healing to take place.