If you or your child struggle with eczema, you know too well the symptoms of itching, swelling, dryness, and discomfort that interfere with everything from missed school and work, to anxiety and limited physical activity.
While most doctors will simply send you home with a steroid cream or ointment, these often only provide temporary relief. Here’s your complete guide to eczema, the root causes, and our top tips to help you find lasting relief by making changes from within.
What is eczema?
Atopic dermatitis, otherwise known as eczema, is a chronic, pruritic, inflammatory skin disease that occurs most frequently in children, but also affects many adults. It affects 1 in 5 kids or about 15% of children. In fact, rates have tripled in industrialized countries in the past 30 years.
The skin is the largest organ in the body, with a total area of about 20 square feet. It protects us from microbes and other toxins, helps regulate body temperature, and is the principal site of interaction with the surrounding world, making it imperative to keep the skin at its optimal functioning for overall health.
Common symptoms of eczema
- Small, raised bumps on the skin.
- Thick, dry, scaly skin that cracks.
- Sensitive skin that is inflamed.
- A persistent itchy rash.
- Itching and inflammation that lead to skin irritation and damage.
Why has eczema become so common, especially in kids?
Eczema is one of the three parts of a triad that includes allergy, asthma and eczema – this triad is referred to as the “atopic march”, given the frequency of overlap between the three conditions. These conditions are symptomatic of immune system dysregulation.
There are a number of factors that have led to frequent immune dysregulation in our kids. Here’s what could be at the root:
Changes in the gut flora
This is in part due to the diet consumed by many children and families that includes large amounts of carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods. Common food additives can push microbial communities in the wrong direction, by aiding the emergence of new pathogens, and by selectively feeding certain microbes, ultimately leading to illness and even death. Typically, gut microbes are kept slightly removed from the intestinal lining by a thin layer of mucus, and the Standard American Diet can erode that protective barrier. An ideal diet, one rich in whole foods high in soluble fiber helps keep the mucus barrier thick and healthy.
In addition, changes in the gut flora could be due to changes in birth practices and infant feeding practices. In terms of birth practices, C-sections comprise 34% of births in the US, potentially leading to an overall lower range of diversity of gut flora and fewer beneficial strains of bacteria. This contrasts with vaginal births in which babies are bathed in microorganisms of the mother’s vagina (particularly Lactobacillus). In terms of feeding practices, breastfeeding leads to a more diversified microflora, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Overuse of medications
The frequent overuse of medications, including antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) such as Motrin, and protein pump inhibitors (PPI’s), are impacting the natural ecology of the body.
The lining of our intestines has tight junctions that should be closely linked without any gaps. Unfortunately, NSAID’s and antibiotics cause gaps to form between these tight junctions of the lining of the intestines, a condition that is otherwise known as leaky gut syndrome. In leaky gut syndrome, fragments of protein and bacteria reach the sensitive immune centers in the gut, triggering the immune system to produce antibodies to mount a reaction against these foods. Leaky gut syndrome is associated with food allergies, food sensitivities, and other autoimmune diseases, such as eczema.
Increased exposure to environmental toxins
There are toxins in the air, water, soil, foods, body products, cosmetics, home furnishings and even clothing. Environmental toxin exposures can directly dampen immune system function, specifically how immune cells develop and how they function. Kids have higher metabolic rates and their bodies absorb more toxins than adults and have difficulty disposing of these toxins.
Children are exposed to these chemicals more than ever. In fact, there are approximately 80,000 chemicals produced and only 8 chemicals are restricted on a government level. This overload of toxins may trigger an immune response, and increase flares of eczema, allergies, and asthma.
6 natural ways to control eczema
The goal in treating eczema — and any autoimmune disease — is to determine what’s causing the immune overactivity and reduce inflammation. Here are our top tips to help you control eczema naturally.
1. Determine food allergies or intolerances
Food allergy can be a trigger of eczema, especially if the onset or worsening of eczema correlates with exposure to the food. It’s important to monitor for vomiting, diarrhea and failure to thrive, as infants with eczema and a food allergy may have these additional findings.
It might be best to start with an elimination diet, the gold standard for identifying food sensitivities, for up to 4-6 weeks. This process is best done in phases and guided by a functional medicine practitioner. The phases include eliminating common allergens including dairy, gluten, corn, peanuts, soy, sugar, and eggs, closely following any changes in symptoms, and reintroducing foods one at a time to see how symptoms are affected. We recommend working with a provider trained in functional health and experienced with elimination diets for best results.
2. Optimize your gut microbiome and reverse gut dysbiosis
The microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms that inhabit your body. The health of the microbiome and the integrity of the gut lining has a major impact on immune system development, and whether a child develops allergies, eczema or asthma. When there is dysbiosis or a disrupted microbiome, one is at increased risk for eczema, allergies, and abdominal bloating and discomfort.
Supplements that reduce inflammation, nourish and heal the intestinal membranes and feed healthy flora can be incredibly beneficial in healing the gut. This may include the use of L-glutamine, turmeric, DGL, marshmallow root, zinc, quercetin, ginger and chamomile. To help promote healthy gut flora, we recommend a high quality probiotic, especially of the S. boulardii and Bifidobacterium species. Work with your provider to find the best probiotic and dosage for you or your child.
3. Have your kids play outside and get a little dirty
According to the “Hygiene Hypothesis”, sanitary conditions have disrupted the delicate balance between our body’s inner ecology and the balance of the type of immune cells we produce. Interestingly, as a result of our current lifestyle, we are not getting colonized with some important bacteria, leading to poorly maintained gut integrity and subsequent immune system dysregulation.
An easy solution to this is to encourage your kids to play outside, get dirty and play with other kids, avoid antimicrobial chemicals for handwashing, and simply wash with plain soap and water.
4. Apply natural topical treatments to the skin
Topical herbal salves can moisturize, protect and heal damaged skin. Salves containing comfrey, plantain, and calendula are good for babies with eczema, serving as natural emollients. You can apply these salves 1-2 times daily for dry skin, at the onset of a flare and to treat active flares. You can also consider trying 2% licorice gel to apply topically in the treatment of eczema.
5. Consider internal herbs
If topical herbs don’t suffice, you can try internal herbs. In children 5 years of age and older, you can consider Quercetin and freeze-dried Stinging Nettles. Both are non-sedating and safe antihistamines for itching and inflammation. Quercetin is also healing for the gut.
For severe eczema, you can consider licorice extract for eczema flares, as it acts like a natural cortisol. Be sure to talk with a physician prior to starting licorice extract as it can raise blood pressure.
6. Supplement with Vitamin D
In children and adolescents, studies have shown that those who suffer from eczema were more likely to have low levels of Vitamin D. In addition to increasing sun exposure, be sure to include vitamin D rich foods in your diet including sardines, eggs, and salmon.
We often recommend a high-quality vitamin D supplement to help boost your intake, especially during flares. Work with your provider for a personalized plan and dosage instructions.