Do you struggle with chronic eczema or regular flare-ups throughout the year? You’re not alone.
Over 31 million Americans suffer from atopic dermatitis, the medical term for eczema, and over half of these people have moderate to severe conditions. (1) Eczema is an inflammatory skin disease that causes dry, itchy and thickened skin that typically appears on the flexor surfaces of your body (crooks of your elbows or back of your knees). (2) It’s not just an irritating skin condition; it also severely impacts your quality of life and psychological well-being. (3)
What Causes Eczema?
Eczema is a multifactor disease, but a few of the most common triggers are the following: your genes, an overactive immune system, and environmental triggers.
#1 Your Genes
Let’s look at your DNA first. If both your parents have a history of eczema, there’s about a 70% chance that you will acquire eczema. That drops to 30% chance if only one parent was affected. (4)
How does this happen? A disruption of the epidermal (outer) layer of the skin, a hallmark of eczema, can be caused by mutations in the gene that encode fillagrin. Fillagrin is a protein that matures the skin cells that become the protective, outermost layer of the skin. This dysfunction of your skin’s defense mechanism allows for increased penetration of irritating substances, which increases susceptibility to skin infections and eczema. (5) Unfortunately, you can’t choose your parents (but you can still benefit from the solutions below).
#2 An Overactive Immune System
An overactive immune system is another hallmark of eczema. Your immune system has two main armies: the “first line of defense” innate immune system army that prevents infections and the “seek and destroy” adaptive immune system that knocks out intruders once they’ve penetrated your defenses.
An overactive immune system might be the cause of your eczema flare-ups.
Eczema is characterized by a Th2-dominated immune response, where your body’s “seek and destroy” immune system runs amok, leading to the production of IgE antibodies (i.e., allergic reactions) and an inflammatory response.
#3 Environmental Triggers
The combination of bad genes, dry skin and disrupted epidermal barriers creates a hypersensitivity reaction towards irritating environmental substances. Irritants can vary; they include dust mites, temperature, clothing material, excessive washing, lotions, smoke, etc. (6)
Ways to Reduce Eczema
There is no cure for eczema, but a variety of treatments can be highly beneficial in reducing itchiness and preventing further breakouts. Let’s take a closer look.
Remove Food Allergens and Additives
Skin is the largest organ in the body, and what you eat has a tremendous impact on its health. Food allergies and intolerances are incredibly common in eczema suffers, and the research shows that 90% of those allergies are due to cow’s milk, hen’s eggs (not duck or goose), peanuts, wheat, and soy. Almost all of the offending foods listed here are NOT Paleo, so adopting an ancestral approach and removing these allergenic foods can significantly improve eczema symptoms. (7) For more in-depth dietary changes, try the Autoimmune Paleo diet (AIP) or an Elimination diet for 4-12 weeks and assess progress. If aggravating symptoms appear after reintroducing a food, it could imply intolerance to that particular food.
Try an AIP or elimination diet to see if milk, peanuts, wheat or soy are contributing to eczema symptoms.
Food additives like tartrazine, sodium benzoate, monosodium glutamate, sodium metabolite and tyramine can also aggravate eczema symptoms. Simply removing these harmful additives from your diet (i.e., no more processed or packaged foods) has been shown to markedly improve eczema after 10 months. (8)
Swap Coffee for Oolong Tea
Your morning cup of Joe might taste great, but unfortunately, coffee beans are one of the most heavily sprayed crops on the planet and can worsen an overactive immune system. Make the switch to Oolong tea to cool inflammation, the overactive immune system response, and your eczema symptoms. The researchers found oolong tea showed significant improvement in 63% of patients who were not responding to conventional treatment. (9) They believe the benefits were due to polyphenols present in oolong tea. To reap the benefits, steep a 10g tea bag for 5 minutes in 1 liter of water, and drink in three equal servings between meals throughout the day.
Add More GLA
If you’re a regular PaleoHacks reader, you’re likely well aware of the fact that today’s modern diet contains a dramatic overabundance of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats to anti-inflammatory omega-3. However, one key player in the omega-6 family is the gamma-linoleic acid (GLA). Research suggests that eczema sufferers have impaired conversion of linoleic acid to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) due to a dysfunction in an enzyme called delta-6-desaturase, which leads to deficiency and causes the barrier of the skin to become impaired. (10) Remember, essential fats like GLA must be obtained from your diet, but even on a Paleo diet, GLA is not easy to come by. The highest concentrations are found in evening primrose and borage, as well as hemp oil, which can easily be added to salads and put on top of veggies (do not cook with hemp oil). If you struggle with chronic and long-standing eczema, you may want to consider supplementing with GLA.
Add Supportive Probiotics
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria. The more “good” probiotics bacteria have, the happier your digestive system, the root of all inflammation. Your digestive tract is home to over 80% of your immune system, and its first response to any foreign invaders or insults is to trigger inflammation. Eczema is a chronic inflammatory condition, so keeping your gut healthy is a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Probiotics help prevent the uptake of allergens that trigger eczema.
Probiotics play a key role in maintaining the integrity of your gut barrier, reducing leaky gut, and preventing the uptake of allergens that trigger eczema. Natural sources of probiotics are fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, or kombucha tea. Supplementation with probiotics can be highly beneficial if you struggle with long-standing eczema, so look for strains high in Lactobacillus rhamnosus. (11)
Boost Your Zinc and Vitamin D Intake
Zinc is required for the proper function of the delta-6-desaturase enzyme discussed above (#3 GLA), and deficiency has been shown to exacerbate symptoms of eczema. A Paleo-based diet is the ideal platform for optimal zinc intake, as animal protein is hands down the best source of zinc. Increase your intake of darker cuts of meat like beef, venison, bison, elk and lamb, as well as including more seafood like oysters and mussels.
Low levels of vitamin D are also associated with increased risk of developing atopic dermatitis. Supplementation with vitamin D may help treat eczema in those who are deficient, something to consider if you live in a city with a true winter climate. (12)
Lavender and Coconut Oil Cream (Home-Made)
You may have the ingredients for a powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial ointment right in your kitchen. Coconut oil is a nutrient-dense, gentle emollient that can be applied to the skin after a warm shower to help retain moisture in the skin. (13) Add some lavender essential oil, in a 1:5 ratio, to coconut oil to make a powerful and soothing natural ointment for irritated skin.
Reduce Stress Levels
Stress isn’t just pulling your hair out because you can’t cope, it’s also “being busy” from morning till after dark. Stress is a reality in today’s 24/7 society, and there is a positive correlation between stress and increased prevalence of eczema. (14) Stress reduction techniques like mindfulness meditation training, yoga or tai chi, coloring (yes, coloring books!) and singing all help to activate the vagus nerve in the brain that helps the body unwind and de-stress.
Maintain Your Ideal Body Composition
Today, two-thirds of the population in America is overweight or obese, and if you struggle with weight gain, the research shows it will increase your risk of eczema significantly. (15) Following a low-carb, Paleo-based diet, incorporating strength training and HIIT (high-intensity interval training) cardio is a great way to trim body fat and achieve your ideal body composition.
There is a strong association between smoking, exposure to smoke, and atopic dermatitis. (16) The solution here is simple: stop smoking.
Eczema can worsen with exposure to allergens and irritants such as soaps, perfumes or laundry detergents. Use a mild detergent to wash clothing, with no bleach, dryer sheets or fabric softener. Use a scent-free, sensitive skin, hypoallergenic detergent that is free from dyes, fragrances and irritating residues.
Eczema isn’t just annoying and irritating, it also deeply impacts your overall health and vitality. This chronic and inflammatory skin condition can be reversed by removing aggravating foods from your diet, upgrading your digestive health, correcting nutrient deficiencies and cooling inflammation. Find the right solutions for your body and put an end to the dry, itchy and sensitive skin that holds you back from feeling your best.
(This article originally appeared @Paleohacks.com)
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS