If you have eczema, you’ve likely been dealing with it since childhood. The redness, swelling, itching, dryness, crusting, flaking, blistering, cracking, oozing, and/or bleeding that accompanies eczema typically crops up in childhood or infancy and can be a life long struggle.
I’ve had several clients with eczema, some so severe that the itching interferes with sleep and even social engagements. Conventional medicine may tell you there is no “cure” for eczema, but it is possible to heal eczema or improve your symptoms, beginning by healing from the inside out. Topical creams and steroids may provide temporary relief, but they don’t address the underlying cause.
What Causes Eczema?
Scientists are fairly sure the primary cause is a genetic issue, but we’re largely unsure what exactly causes eczema. The important point to understand is that it’s an autoimmune condition, (source) meaning the immune system is overactive and misfiring, mistaking its own tissue for perceived pathogens and attacking itself. It can be worsened with exposure to environmental factors such as pollen or pet dander/fur, and/or internal factors such as irregular stress hormone (cortisol) levels.
This excellent article by the Paleo Mom explains that eczema results from structural defects in the epidermis, causing “impaired barrier function”. Essentially, abnormalities in the skin make it more permeable to toxins and antigens, which then causes an exaggerated immune response. This sounds a lot like leaky gut. Once the barrier function of the skin is disrupted, various substances (like toxins, allergens, antigens; basically anything that the immune system views as a foreign invader) can “leak” in from the outside and this is what activates the immune response.
Not surprisingly, the program I recommend for addressing eczema is a lot like the program to heal leaky gut, because both calm an overactive immune system. The goal in treating autoimmune disease is to determine what’s causing the immune overactivity and reducing systemic inflammation (another driving factor in auto immune disease). Because the majority of the immune system resides in the gut, addressing inflammation in the digestive tract is the place to begin.
Additionally. the health of the gut mirrors the health of the skin, so gut healing and rebalancing the microbiome are priorities in reversing eczema.
Healing Eczema Naturally
Addressing Eczema with Diet
First off, the following foods may exacerbate eczema because many people cannot properly digest the proteins, causing an allergy reaction and an immune response:
- Milk (cow’s)
- Wheat, gluten
- Corn and other grains
Step 1 is to remove these foods from the diet for 30-60 days (follow an autoimmune paleo type plan) and then add them back in, one at a time, to determine if they cause a reaction or flare-up. This is an allergy elimination diet. During this healing phase, clean up your environment: get rid of toxic cleaning products (I use essential oils to make my own!) and cosmetics. If you’re unsure about your food triggers, you can do a simple at-home fingerprick food allergy kit which is useful to identify intolerances other than the most common foods mentioned above.
Make sure you get plenty of good fats: besides coconut oil (both internally and externally), use olive oil, ghee, avocado, and omega 3 rich foods like salmon and sardines.
Step 2 is to begin taking the following supplements to reduce inflammation during your food elimination period:
- Vitamin D, 5,000 – 10,000 IUs. I like Vitamin D from Designs for Health
- Fish or krill oil to reduce inflammation and provide omega 3s to nourish the skin.
- Take a probiotic and consider a glutamine-based leaky gut product to heal the gut lining, especially if you have digestive issues like gas, bloating, or heartburn. Take a digestive enzyme to help break down food.
- Work with a practitioner to do stool testing to check for parasites, pathogens, candida, or SIBO. Eliminating pathogens and rebuilding gut bacteria is a crucial step, as these bugs trigger the immune system (which you are wanting to calm). You can order your own GI MAP, the stool test I use, but have a qualified practitioner interpret your results for you.
- Drink licorice tea. It’s soothing and healing for the digestive tract.
- Drink plenty of bone broth, good for gut and skin health.
- Curcumin is also an excellent anti-inflammatory.
Step 3 is to try topical remedies. Many find relief applying coconut oil to the skin (it may help). My clients have also found relief with this borage oil lotion. Essential oils such as lavender, tea tree, frankincense, and helichrysum may help too; all are nourishing, soothing, and anti-inflammatory.
Sounds strange, but there is evidence that a bleach bath can offer significant relief. It is perfectly safe (source) and kills the bacteria, viruses, or fungi that may be exacerbating eczema. Read all about it here.
Most importantly, address your stress levels. High cortisol exacerbates inflammation both in the digestive tract and throughout the body. Consider an adrenal stress index saliva test to measure cortisol irregularities.
Finally, address your environment. Are there allergens present? Be aware that mold allergy is a common eczema trigger. Your home environment can harbor so many reactive agents, from pets to household materials, indoor air quality, and poor water. Consider a HEPA filter, and ditch the chemicals in your home.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.