Itching to get better

Sarah Flower offers some natural strategies for dealing with eczema

Eczema is a chronic problem that manifests as a rash, intense itching, dry, thickened skin, skin crusts and even blisters. It can cause huge distress, especially in young children. A study by The University of Edinburgh, Manchester and Nottingham, looked at the incidence of eczema between 2001 and 2005 and found a 40 per cent increase of new cases.

It is important to establish the cause and type of the eczema in order to treat it correctly. Eczema can be caused by an allergy, but there is also links to asthma, a compromised immune system and even genetics.

There are several types of eczema. Atopic eczema refers to the allergic type, topically found in those who also suffer from hay fever or asthma and affects 10 to 20 per cent of school children and 3 to 5 per cent of adults. There is also discoid eczema, which appears in the background on normal skin and seborrheic, which is the type found around the scalp and the sides of the mouth and nose. You also have eczema caused by allergic or irritant contact, such as chemicals in cleaning products. People who suffer from varicose veins can also have stasis dermatitis (eczema on the legs).

The common link between all these eczemas is a compromised immune system. When we are exposed to more and more allergens (diet, dust mites, chemicals, pollen, household cleaners, solvents and agro-chemicals), this can upset the immune response, causing an over production of histamine. But, just like hay fever, there are natural lifestyle and dietary ways to reduce, if not eliminate, this reaction whilst also boosting the immune system to aid recovery and healing.

Current medical treatments include topical creams which can contain steroids and other chemicals as well as oral anti-histamines and steroids, but many people have found huge relief following a more natural route.

Diet – This is a key factor. A diet rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars causes our body to become inflamed and more acidic. Switching to an alkaline diet, packed with foods in their natural state, including antioxidant-rich vegetables, sprouted grains and fermented foods, helps to restore and heal the whole body. It is also important to eliminate any foods that may be causing an allergic response; wheat and dairy are common culprits.

Lifestyle – If you suspect the eczema is due to an allergy, it is important to limit exposure to the key triggers. For some who also suffer from hay fever and asthma, it can be chemicals found in the home as well as dust mites. Avoiding harsh cleaning products, detergents and pollutants in the home will help. Get as much sun as possible to help ensure a good supply of vitamin D.

Probiotics – The health of our bowel has a dramatic impact on our whole body. A healthy bowel flora promotes a strong immune system and reduces whole body inflammation. Taking a good quality daily probiotic has been shown to have a really positive effect on allergies and eczema. Do not opt for supermarket yogurt drinks as they are full of sugar and often do not get past your stomach acid. For children, you can break open a probiotic capsule and stir into yogurt. It is also important to eat plenty of prebiotic foods such as fermented foods, sprouted grains and yogurts.

Vitamin D – Thankfully we are realising the importance of vitamin D for a whole range of functions in our body. It can help to support our immune system, so it is vital to ensure you have at least 20 minutes of sun exposure per day or take a vitamin D3 supplement – especially important in the winter months. A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Dermatology found a link between low levels of vitamin D and severity of eczema.

Essential fatty acids – We consume large quantities of omega-6 (in the form of polyunsaturated oils) but if this is not balanced with a good supply of omega-3, we can be out of balance and this causes our bodies to become more inflamed. Omega-3 also has anti-allergy properties. Eating plenty of omega-3 rich foods, as well as looking at adding a fish oil supplement every day, can have a really positive impact on our overall health as well as eczema. Add zinc-rich foods such as pumpkin seeds into the diet to help convert the fatty acids to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.

Detoxification – Our skin is the largest organ of elimination and is often the first sign of a congested, toxic body. A diet rich in antioxidants (including vitamins C, E and selenium) helps combat free radicals and promotes detoxification. We need to support the liver, which plays a key role in detoxification. Milk thistle (Silymarin) helps protect liver cells from toxins, whilst mopping up free radicals and increasing the antioxidant enzyme glutathione.

Try this

“Eczema treatment options do not always bring long-term relief from the symptoms of eczema,” explains Andrea du Plessis, Efamol nutritionist (www.efamol.com). “This is most often the case with topical treatments such as lotions and ointments, because they are used for short-term symptomatic relief, rather than addressing the cause or root of the problem. Research has shown how increasing the body’s levels of a component called gamma linolenic acid (GLA), could assist in the management of eczema. GLA is found in high levels in evening primrose oil. One study* showed improved eczema symptoms, following 4-8 weeks supplementation with evening primrose oil, linked to an increase in blood levels of GLA.”

*Simon, D et al. GLA levels correlate with efficacy of evening primrose oil in patients with atopic dermatitis. Adv Ther. 2014 Jan 17

Sarah Flower is an author, nutritionist and freelance journalist. Her latest book, The Sugar-Free Family Cookbook, (£12.99, Robinson) is out now. Visit www.sarahflower.co.uk

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