What is Eczema?
Eczema is a general term used to describe a range of persistent, usually chronic, inflammatory skin conditions (dermatitis). The most common form of eczema is atopic dermatitis, which is characterized by dry, red, extremely itchy patches on the skin. Symptoms usually come and go brought on by various triggers in people with eczema, these triggers cause an over-exaggerated immune response.
There are various causes of eczema. It is known, however, that a there is a hereditary predisposition; that is, you are more likely to have eczema if your parents or other family members have ever had eczema, hay fever, asthma, or food allergies. Research has shown that dysbiosis, an imbalance of the flora in the digestive tract can be the root of abnormal immune response. This has been shown most clearly in young children.
Common eczema triggers may include, but are not limited to:
- Irritants – bathing without moisturizing, soaps, irritating chemicals or fabrics
- Allergens – dust mites, pet dander, pollen, molds, juices, foods
- Infections – bacterial, viral, fungal
- Environmental Factors – extremes in temperature, perspiration, stress
- Nutritional – nutrient deficiencies or imbalances such as essential fatty acids, zinc
- Poor digestion and detoxification – imbalances in the gut ecology(low levels of good bacteria and abnormally high levels of harmful bacteria and fungus)
Eczema is extremely common in infancy, affecting 10%-20% of all infants diagnosed. In fact, nearly 60% of people with eczema had their first symptom before they turned one year old! Fortunately, most children with eczema are symptom-free by the time they reach adolescence; but for others, eczema continues into adulthood. Currently, the National Institutes of Health estimates that some form of eczema affects 15 million people in the United States.
Eczema manifests differently in every person; and in each person it may even affect different parts of the body and vary in intensity over the course of their lives. Generally, eczema is known for its intense itch. Symptoms depend on the type and severity of the eczema and usually include the following:
- Food sensitivity testing-blood or computerized
- Essential fatty acid testing-blood
Conventional Treatment vs. Natural Therapies
With conventional treatment there is no cure for eczema, so the goal of treatment is symptom management. Moisturizing creams and tar products are commonly used to treat very mild eczema and prevent flare-up. For more severe cases, the primary classes of drugs used to help control eczema include: antihistamines, topical corticosteroids, calcineurin inhibitors, and oral corticosteroids.
Dr. Stengler finds natural therapies superior to pharmaceutical therapy for the long term treatment of eczema.
Diet and Lifestyle Changes
Foods rich in skin healthy essential fatty acids are very important. This includes ground flaxseeds, cold water fish (such as sardines and wild salmon, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and walnuts. Healthy oils such as flaxseed, hempseed are great additions to salads and supply inflammation fighting omega 3 fatty acids. The diet should be rich in detoxifying fruits, vegetables, and lean poultry. Avoid frequent consumption of saturated fat found in red meat and dairy products. Foods that commonly aggravate eczema include citrus fruits, cow’s milk, soy, chocolate, alcohol, gluten containing foods (wheat, rye, barley) and sometimes spicy foods. Work with a holistic doctor to have your food sensitivities tested. In addition, high levels of stress can worsen the inflammatory response so regular exercise and other stress reducing techniques are important. Lastly, be aware of chemicals (soaps and detergents) that may be causing a reaction with your skin and triggering eczema.
There are many helpful supplements for eczema. Many are used to repair the digestive tract for better absorption leading to less inflammation of the skin. Following are some general ones:
Fish oil is a rich source of inflammation fighting omega 3 fatty acids. More specifically, eicosapentaenoic acid, one type of omega 3 fatty acid, is a powerful inhibitor of inflammatory chemicals in the body.
A double-blind trial researched the effect of fish oil (1.8 grams of EPA) given to a group of eczema sufferers. After 12 weeks those supplementing fish oil experienced significant improvement. (Bjørneboe A, Søyland E, Bjørneboe GE, et al. Effect of dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid in the treatment of atopic dermatitis. Br J Dermatol 1987;117:463–9. Bjørnboe A, Søyland E, Bjørnboe GE, et al. Effect of n-3 fatty acid supplement to patients with atopic dermatitis. J Intern Med Suppl 1989;225:233–6.)
Adults should take fish oil containing 1.8 grams to 2.4 grams of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) per day. Children should use half this amount or the amount recommended by their doctor.
If you are on blood thinning medications check with your doctor before supplementing fish oil.
Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA)
GLA is found in supplements such as evening primrose oil, black currant oil, and borage oil. GLA is converted to compounds that have anti-inflammatory and antiproliferative properties. A metabolite of GLA known as dihomogammalinolenic acid appears to modulate or balance an overactive immune system. While studies are mixed in regards to its effectiveness, we find it is very helpful for about 15% of patients who have eczema.
Adults should take 1000 mg daily of GLA daily. Children should use half this amount or the amount recommended by their doctor.
A small percent of users may experience digestive upset. If you are on blood thinning medications consult with your doctor first before using.