Natural strategies for eczema
Eczema is a complex, inflammatory condition with many possible underlying triggers, including genetics, food allergies and intolerances, weather conditions, detergents, hormone changes, digestive imbalance, nutrient deficiencies and stress. Once eczema is established, it can be hard to manage thanks to the almost uncontrollable itching, skin damage and possible infection that can spiral into a severe condition.
At this stage eczema can become very hard to control without resorting to visits to the GP and prescribed medication. Skin can also become increasingly sensitised to external irritants too, like soaps, shampoos, creams and the elements, so it feels like everything and anything will set it off.
I have a personal relationship with this condition, having suffered from it for many years. As a young child I was covered, which was miserable for both me and my parents, who resorted to using steroid cream, emulsifying ointment and bandages to keep me from making it worse. It gradually reduced in severity as I grew up, with fewer flare ups, and while I managed what was left pretty well most of the time, it wasn't until my early thirties that I finally understood my own personal triggers and saw the lingering patches that were left clear up. I am lucky to be eczema-free today, although I know I have to look after my skin carefully to keep it that way, and I also managed to nip my daughter's emerging eczema in the bud when she was very young. Eczema can be traumatic and life-limiting for sufferers of any age, as well as being hugely challenging and upsetting for the parents or carers of young children who develop persistent eczema.
Thankfully, knowledge and advice have exploded in this area of health, and there is a lot that can be done to help relieve and overcome eczema, although it can take time, patience and perseverance. Below you'll find some tips for resolving eczema - treat these as starting points, there are may possible strategies and every case is unique, so for stubborn cases, in order to really get to the bottom of why it's happening it may be necessary to work with a qualified nutritional therapist or functional medicine practitioner who can guide you through the process.
The list of the most common foods that can trigger eczema and allergies include dairy, wheat and gluten, eggs, soya products, nightshade foods (tomatoes, potatoes, aubergine, chilli), citrus and sugary foods. Following an exclusion diet can be challenging, especially for children, because it often needs to be done very strictly for a period of time to see if there are benefits. I recommend starting with the most likely culprits first – gluten and dairy products, and then if there is no improvement, move on to avoiding the other foods one by one if needs be.
Dairy products - this means cow, goat and sheep milk, cream, cheese, yoghurt, and butter. Replace them with dairy free milk like almond milk or coconut milk, dairy free cheese, coconut yoghurt, non-hydrogenated spreads. Avoid rice milks, they are incredibly starchy and not suitable for young children. Some people can move back to goat or sheep products without any problems.
Gluten – this means wheat (including spelt and kamut), rye, barley, couscous, and regular oats. Gluten free oats are widely available, as are gluten free alternatives to many foods like bread, pasta and breakfast cereals. These processed gluten free foods may not be healthy options longterm, but can help temporarily when making a transition away from gluten.
Low histamine diets can also be helpful for calming the inflammatory response, you can find out more here.
Sugar should also be given special mention, because while it may not be a direct allergen, it is so easy to eat too much, and it has the potential to upset healthy digestion, feed yeasts in the gut and on the skin that can worsen itching and irritation, upset blood sugar control, create systemic inflammation, and rob the body of nutrients.
The list of foods to include will vary from person to person, but should centre around choices that provide plenty of vitamins and minerals, reduce inflammation, support healthy digestion, and contain healthy fats and easily digested proteins. These include fresh colourful vegetables, non-citrus fruits, salads, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, extra virgin olive oil, avocado, oily fish, some organic meat if dietary choices allow, coconut oil and milk, beans and lentils, some gluten free whole grains like short-grain brown rice, quinoa or gluten free oats if tolerated.
Probiotics – eczema is almost always linked in some way to the digestive system because it is an inflammatory condition, and inflammation tends to stem from an imbalance within the gut. Probiotics and prebiotics, as well as probiotic-rich fermented foods, may, depending on the nature of the imbalance, help to nudge the digestive system back into balance, especially after antibiotics are taken, and this in turn may calm the overzealous immune response that tends to be a feature of eczema. Studies have shown that babies who take antibiotics in their first year of life have a 40% increased risk of developing atopic eczema, and also that probiotics help to both reduce the risk of eczema and also alleviate existing eczema in babies and children by helping to control the overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria and yeasts in the bowel, by helping to keep the lining of the gut healthy and by supporting immunity. Probiotics to consider include Bifidobacteria strains like Bifidobacterium Breve, Longhum and Bifidum, the Lactobacillus strains Plantarum, Salivarius and Rhamnosus, soil-based spore forming organisms, plus the beneficial yeast, Sacharomyces Boulardii.
Omega 3 fats - this type of fatty acid helps to switch off the inflammatory response, and benefits overall skin function. Modern diets tend to be too low in omega 3 fats and too high in the more inflammatory omega 6 fats. Research suggests that those suffering from an atopic condition like eczema are more likely to be deficient in omega 3 fats, or have problems metabolising them properly, so they may benefit from taking an omega 3 supplement like fish oil, at an age appropriate dose.
Vitamin D - this vitamin is crucial for reducing inflammation and supporting overall immunity. In winter months this is especially relevant, as the cold weather means we can’t make vitamin D from the sun leaving many of us are deficient. It's good to get your levels tested before you supplement with vitamin D, to make sure you're getting enough but not too much. Your GP can test you or there are many vitamin D testing services available online.
Natural antimicrobials - depending on the age and health of the sufferer, or the symptoms present, natural antimicrobials can help to reduce unwanted bugs, like yeasts and certain strains of bacteria, from within the large and small intestines. When the balance of digestive microbes goes awry, whole-body toxicity and inflammation can result, and this can aggravate or even underpin some cases of eczema. Having a toxic and unhappy digestive system also burdens the liver, our main organ of detoxification, and when the liver is compromised and the body is unable to do its 'internal housework' effectively, additional pressure is put on the skin as a route of toxin elimination. Natural antimicrobials, such as olive leaf, oregano, berberine, black walnut and black seed oil, are best used under the guidance of a nutritional therapist or functional medicine practitioner, because despite being natural, they can still be powerful, need careful dosing, and may even be unsuitable in some circumstances.
Most people who suffer with eczema, or live with someone who does, will recognise the impact that stress can have on this condition. When we're stressed, we secrete an increased amount of specific hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that help us prepare to fight or flee from danger. This increased exposure to cortisol can suppress the immune response and increase inflammation in the system, promoting a flare in symptoms like itching, redness, heat and swelling. Finding effective ways to manage stress, such as deep breathing, walking, socialising, relaxing, yoga or meditation, is therefore a vital strategy in tackling chronic eczema., especially when considering that dealing with eczema in itself can trigger stress and anxiety in many sufferers.
Skincare, laundry and household chemicals
Steroid and emollient creams contain many synthetic ingredients, some of which can be quite irritating to sensitive skin, and I have also found, both myself and professionally, that while steroid creams can alleviate an acute attack temporarily, unless the root cause of the eczema is dealt with, it will always come back again once you stop using the cream, often more severely.
Many laundry products, cleaning products and even shampoos, shower gels and other cosmetics, can contain fragrances, foaming agents, enzymes and preservatives that can be hugely irritating to the skin. Depending on our choices, we may apply layers of irritants all over the skin on our faces and bodies on a daily basis, and sleep with our skin against them all night long too. I've seen many cases of eczema or other skin irritations resolve spontaneously just from switching to one of the more natural, gentle skincare and household products found widely in health stores and online. Not only that, but choosing products that contain natural extracts and ingredients that protect, moisturise and actively heal the skin, can help restore tolerance and keep the skin barrier calm and healthy to prevent future flare ups. With a bit of research and practice, you can even learn to make your own completely natural and very simple products, containing beneficial, healing ingredients like plant oils (jojoba, argan, avocado, sweet almond, coconut), beeswax, shea butter and calming essential oils like lavender.
Eczema is a challenging condition, one that can be frustrating and unpredictable, and one that requires more than topical creams to manage symptoms. Thankfully, by taking a holistic approach, there's plenty that can be done to help re-balance the body and restore healing at a deeper level.