Is your skin or your child’s so dry and itchy that you sometimes scratch it until it bleeds? Are you tired of applying messy creams and ointments that don’t offer much relief? Have you been so desperate to stop the itching that you’ve even considered taking a powerful immunosuppressant drug such as prednisone? If so, you and your child are not alone. An estimated 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from eczema.
I frequently see patients in my clinic, particularly children, who are suffering from eczema and other skin issues, and they have tried everything their doctor has to offer and still nothing seems to permanently heal the eczema. The reason you cannot fully heal and reverse eczema and other skin issues this way is because conventional medicine is only trying to superficially suppress the outside symptom with medications. In order to completely heal and reverse your symptoms, you must dig deeper and address the underlying cause or causes!
What is Eczema?
Eczema comes in many forms, but it is mainly recognized by its red, itchy rash, known as atopic dermatitis. According to conventional medicine, the cause of eczema is unknown; but functional medicine takes a different perspective. Functional medicine views eczema not as a “disease” in and of itself, but rather, as an external symptom of an internal problem. While conventional medicine treats only the symptoms, functional medicine practitioners work toward addressing the underlying cause of eczema – a malfunctioning immune system.
You see, eczema occurs when you experience inflammation, which is your body’s response to a perceived threat. I will cover what those threats are in the case of eczema in a minute, but the bottom line is that your immune system is so stressed by these threats that it goes into overdrive and ends up attacking your skin. Many people who have eczema also have asthma and seasonal allergies, which are also caused by inflammation and an overactive immune system. In fact, this is so common that doctors refer to this as the “atopic triad.” Not surprisingly, another thing all three of these conditions have in common is that by treating the inflammation that triggers them, you can reverse their symptoms.
Let’s talk about how you can do that. Here are the most helpful tips I give my patients who are struggling with chronic eczema.
Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
If you are already eating a whole-foods diet based on organic fruits and vegetables and pasture-raised meats, but are still experiencing eczema, you may have underlying food sensitivities. In fact, in children with eczema, this is the most common underlying cause that I see.
Try eliminating inflammatory foods such as gluten, corn, soy, and dairy. Focus on adding foods high in antioxidants (found mostly in fruits and vegetables) and anti-inflammatory compounds (found in fatty fish, nuts, avocados, and turmeric, to name a few). Some cases I have seen are so extreme they even need to remove meats that have been fed a corn and soy diet. To avoid this, look for grass-fed, wild and pasture-raised meats and poultry.
Several studies have shown that diets high in fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish are associated with a lower risk for developing eczema, whereas diets high in processed foods increase the risk. You can find tons of free, anti-inflammatory and Elimination Diet-compliant recipes in the recipes section of my website.
Eat a Low-Histamine Diet
If you or your child are already following an anti-inflammatory diet and are still struggling from eczema, the next foods to look at are high-histamine foods. You might already be familiar with histamine in terms of seasonal allergies because antihistamine medications like Zytrec, Allegra or Benedryl provide quick relief of your symptoms. This is because histamine’s role in the body is to cause an immediate inflammatory response. It serves as a red flag in your immune system, notifying your body of any potential attackers. Because it travels throughout your bloodstream, histamine can affect your gut, lungs, skin, brain, and entire cardiovascular system, contributing to a wide range of symptoms, including eczema.
A number of healthy foods that you may be regularly eating, including avocados, eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, bacon, and dried or citrus fruits, are high in histamine or release histamine in your body. I’ve seen many patients make a dramatic turnaround after removing these foods. To learn more about histamine intolerance, how to modify your diet to minimize your histamine levels, and supplements to relieve histamine exposure, check out this article.
Heal Your Gut
As you’ve seen by now, what’s going on in your gut has a huge effect on your immune system. In fact 80% of your immune system is housed in your gut. That’s why one of the major causes of autoimmune diseases, including eczema, is a poorly functioning intestinal tract.
A healthy GI tract serves as a barrier that prevents undigested food particles, microbes, toxins, and other undesirable substances from entering the body through the bloodstream. When the cells lining the intestinal wall become damaged, substances are able to “leak” into the body, where they are attacked by the immune system, which leads to inflammation. The inflammatory response triggered by an overactive immune system can be seen anywhere in the body. In the case of eczema, it is the skin that is affected. Gut inflammation caused by leaky gut can also impair the protective function of your skin, which can increase the severity of inflammation and worsen eczema symptoms.
Fortunately, leaky gut syndrome can be treated using functional medicine’s 4R program:
- Remove the bad: inflammatory foods, yeast and bacterial overgrowth, parasites, and other irritants.
- Replace the good: digestive enzymes, HCL, and other components for good digestion that may be deficient.
- Reinoculate by adding beneficial bacteria back into your system.
- Repair the gut lining by supplementing with nutrients to promote healing.
For a more detailed description of the 4R program, see my article here.
Restore Your Microbiome
There has been a lot of recent buzz in the medical community about how the gut microbiome (made up of the bacteria within your gut) can affect nearly every function in the body, from digestion to immunity to weight loss, and even mental health. We are learning more every day about the importance of keeping the gut bacteria in balance.
Tackle Small Bowel Bacterial Overgrowth
What we do know is that the trillions of bacteria in your gut operate in a delicate balance. When that balance is disrupted, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) can occur, which is when your “bad” bacteria outnumber your “good” bacteria. Overrun by infection, your gut can no longer digest nutrients properly, and your inflammation rises, triggering eczema and other attacks on your own tissues.
Diets high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, and low in fermentable fibers (prebiotics) can contribute to this overgrowth. Avoiding these foods that feed the bad bacteria, and adding foods that feed the good bacteria can help restore the balance. Studies have shown that prebiotics and probiotics can effectively reduce the incidence of eczema. These can be found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, dairy-free yogurt (dairy is a common trigger for skin conditions), and water or coconut kefir, as well as in supplement form.
If you suspect that SIBO may be the underlying cause of your eczema, you can work with your functional medicine doctor to order testing. Or, if you don’t have access to a functional medicine doctor in your area, you can order an at-home breath test from the lab company Aerodiagnostics. To learn more about how you can treat SIBO naturally, check out this article.
Beat Yeast Overgrowth
A disruption in your gut bacteria can also allow yeast, commonly called Candida, to thrive. Candida colonizes your gut, causing it to become leaky, which in turn allows the yeast to escape via your bloodstream. Once escaped, this yeast can affect your mood, hair, nails, and you guessed it, skin. In fact, researchers have taken skin cultures of eczema patients and more often than not, yeast was found in the samples.
Because good gut bacteria and your immune system usually keep yeast in check, two of the most common causes of yeast overgrowth are antibiotics and immunosuppressant drugs, both of which are commonly prescribed to eczema patients.
If you think Candida may be the cause of your eczema, you can take this simple quiz to find out. Effectively treating Candida involves stopping the yeast overgrowth, restoring the good bacteria that usually keep them in check, and healing your gut so that Candida can no longer enter your bloodstream.
If you have been frustrated by your doctor’s approach to your or your child’s eczema, I hope this article gives you hope that there is another solution, and the motivation to take action. I do understand that identifying these root causes and making dietary and lifestyle changes to overcome them is a longer term solution. That’s why next week, I’ll be writing about how you can ease eczema symptoms in the immediacy and address the environmental factors that contribute to them in a follow-up article. Make sure you sign up for my free weekly newsletterso you don’t miss it!
To leave you with one more piece of hope and inspiration, check out this story of how one of my pediatric patients overcame severe eczema after suffering from it since he was only 15 months old. He made an amazing recovery, and has been symptom-free for years now!
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