You’re itchy all the time, your skin is red and scaly, and you’re plain frustrated. If you’re someone who suffers from eczema or has a child with this skin condition, you’ve probably tried hundreds of creams till date or perhaps changed your diet, but at most have found them to be temporary measures.
Tackling eczema requires a long-term approach that needs to be backed by education and a proper understanding of the root causes. My goal is to help you understand the condition better so that you can tackle it naturally in step-by-step fashion.
What is Eczema?
Sometimes the terms eczema and dermatitis get used interchangeably, but there’s a difference. Dermatitis refers to an umbrella term of inflammatory skin conditions, and atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, falls under this category.
Common eczema symptoms include:
- Chronic itchy and inflamed skin
- Scaling and flaking
- Hardened and thickened areas of the skin
These eczema symptoms are most common on the face, hands, back of the knees, elbows and wrists.
The most important thing to understand about eczema is that it is in large part an allergic disease, which means that no amount of topical creams or treatments will solve the problem, unless you address the underlying root cause or allergy through your diet and lifestyle.
Some interesting facts:
- Levels of serum IgE (an allergic antibody) are elevated in 80% of eczema patients (1)
- All eczema patients test positive for allergies (1)
- Most eczema patients improve when they remove common allergens from their diet (1)
The bottom line: You can’t heal eczema without first addressing the role of allergens
Eczema Risk Factors
So what makes someone more prone to eczema in the first place? By this I mean the factors that make someone more likely to have the condition through no fault of their own. Research has found these three areas:
If there is a family history of allergic diseases such as eczema or asthma, you or your child are more likely to have it. (1)
Studies show that breast milk offers babies protection from allergies and eczema; if you were formula-fed at an early stage you are more prone to allergies, and likewise this will be the case for your child if they have to be formula fed. (2, 3)
If your child has eczema while being breastfed, try to avoid common allergens in your own diet (such as milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, citrus, chocolate, fish) as this can be passed along to your child.
These exist in two main areas of the body: (1)
- A specific white blood cell is overly activated in eczema patients (type 2 T helper cells), which leads to the elevation of IgE allergy-related antibodies.
- There is a defect in the ability to kill bacteria.
- Filaggrin deficiency – this is a protein in the skin that helps form a protective barrier; due to mutations at the gene level someone can be deficient which leads to impaired skin-barrier function and is strong connected to the development of eczema. (4)
- The mast cells (a type of white blood cell) found in eczema patients secrete more histamine and allergy-related compounds when compared to people without eczema.
- Research has also found the bacteria known as staphylococcus aureus in the skin flora in 90% of eczema patients, which leads to increased susceptibility to skin infections.
Eczema Causes and Triggers
The previous section highlights the things that you can’t really control, but just because you’re predisposed to the condition it doesn’t mean you can’t significantly reduce or control the symptoms. Below are the things you can control (woohoo!)
Milk, eggs and peanuts are most common food allergens; in fact one study found these three foods were implicated in 81% of all childhood eczema. (5)
Fish, wheat and soybeans are runners-up in this category. Another study showed that 60% of children with severe eczema had a positive result by eliminating one or two of the six allergens mentioned above. (6)
Research has also shown that artificial colours and preservatives can trigger a reaction so it is best to avoid these in processed food, fast food and candy. (7)
Candida albicans is a yeast that is a normal part of our gut flora, but when there is an overgrowth of a yeast it can lead to an active infection. Research has implicated it as a causative factor, and even found that the severity of eczema lesions correlate with level of candida antibodies. (8)
Stomach acid acts as a sterilizer for all unwanted microbes and pathogens that enter the body. If your stomach acid is weak, more of the bad guys can get in and make you more prone to infections, weaken your immune system and add stress to the body.
Our GI tract is one cell thick – just one teeny cell! When there is damage to the gut wall, unwanted matter can get into the bloodstream, which triggers the formation of antibodies and food sensitivities. This is known as leaky gut syndrome.
Research shows that stress can make allergic responses even worse and complicate the treatment, for example in asthmatic patients and in those with eczema (9)
If you have eczema it means the protect barrier around your skin is more susceptible which means you will be more sensitive to certain triggers. These include:
- Extreme cold or hot weather
- Dry atmosphere
- Environmental allergens such as harsh laundry detergent, soaps and shampoos
- Skin infections
How To Get Rid Of Eczema
Guess where I’m going to say is the first place to start? You guessed it, your diet! Now this process may take you a few months, a year or more. It depends on what your starting point is – are you eating out every meal, indulging in fast food and baked treats, addicted to caffeine and not exercising? Then this is going to be a longer journey for you as you first build a foundation of good health.
If, on the other hand you’re eating well and have developed healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising and getting enough sleep, there is going to be less foundational work to do and you can dive right into more specific strategies to target your eczema.
I would highly recommend nailing down these habits first before moving onto the strategies in the next section:
- Getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night
- Exercising 2-3 times per week
- Drinking 2 litres of filtered water per day
- Eating a real, whole-foods based diet 80-90% of the time
- Minimize processed food e.g. chips, cookies
- Minimize sugar and refined carbohydrates e.g. muffins, donuts, bagels
- Not having more than one cup of coffee or tea per day
- Ensuring you set aside 15-30 minutes daily to decompress and relax
- Swapping harsh detergents and soaps for mild, natural ones
Foods To Avoid With Eczema
As noted in the ‘Eczema Causes’ section, there are six common allergens that are known to make symptoms worse: milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, fish and soy. You may or may not be sensitive to all of them, perhaps just some of them.
In order to determine what you are sensitive to, you have two options:
Visit a physician or Naturopathic doctor to order the ELISA blood test, however these can range in price from $130-$2000 and there is a chance of false negatives.
This is the gold standard as no lab test is 100% accurate, and it is also completely free. It does, however, require some patience. Here are the basic steps, but you can learn more here:
- Avoid all six common allergens for one month
- Reintroduce each allergen, one at a time for a period of 1-2 weeks and note down adverse reactions. If there is an eczema flare-up, note it down as a trigger. If not, you can include it in your diet in moderation.
- If you suspect other allergens outside of these six (such as tea and coffee), also include them in your elimination diet.
If you’re scared as hell about how to eliminate those allergens and what to swap them with, you’ll find the recommendations below helpful:
Swap this out with non-dairy options such as rice milk, almond milk, cashew milk, hemp milk or coconut milk. There are plenty of great options available at supermarkets or you can make your own at home.
Swap out eggs at breakfast for other low-sugar options like a green smoothie, protein shake, overnight oats or chia seed pudding. If you use eggs in baking, I like this handy guide for egg substitutions in all situations.
Swap out peanut butter with other nut butters made from almond, sunflower seeds, cashews, hazelnut or more…the options are truly endless.
Swap out this grain with other gluten-free grains such as quinoa, brown rice and millet which are far more allergy-friendly. Be careful: wheat is the base of most processed snacks like crackers, cereal, granola bars, and also in noodles and pasta. Fortunately, you can easily find alternatives for all of these at a health food store!
Swap it for another source of protein like beans, lentils, organic chicken, or grass-fed meat.
This one is easier to avoid in its whole form like tofu, soy milk and tempeh, but harder to avoid if you eat a lot of processed food! Be sure to watch out for soybean oil as an ingredient in vegetable oil, granola bars, salty snacks and more.
Best Foods For Eczema
The first step is simply eating real, whole-foods which includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and lean protein. There are some specific nutrients and types of foods however, that are especially helpful:
These are anti-inflammatory in nature and can help reduce flare-ups
Consume more flax and chia seeds, flax oil, walnuts, spinach and fatty fish such as salmon (if it turns out you are not sensitive to seafood)
Red, yellow, and orange vegetables
These are high in beta-carotene (the pre-cursor to Vitamin A) which is not only excellent for skin health abut also for strengthening the immune system.
Add bell peppers, sweet potato and shredded carrots to your salads, or considering making this carrot juice a few times a week.
Eat plenty of food rich in probiotics to help repair and improve your gut health, which has a direct impact on the skin e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut, miso
Quercetin is a flavonoid in plants that acts as an anti-histamine i.e. it reduces the allergic response. Foods high in quercetin include apples, blueberries, cherries, broccoli, spinach, kale
Natural Remedies For Eczema
Ideally if you’ve made the changes to your diet and lifestyle above, you will have less of a need to turn to these remedies. However, everyone has flare-ups that require immediate relief, while others need all the support possible to dampen symptoms. The following remedies have been proven by clinical research:
Probiotics (multi-strain 5-10 billion)
You can get a basic multi-strain probiotic to take daily, but in particular Lactobacillus rhamnosus or Lactobacillus reuteri showed a significant reduction in infants who had eczema and a cow’s milk allergy. (10)
Essential Fatty Acids (1-3g daily)
Fish oil supplements (3000mg) have shown protective effects against allergy development and therapeutic effects for eczema in a double-blind clinical trial. (11)
Note: although sources of GLA such as evening primrose and borage oil seems to be popular, studies till date have shown they are no more beneficial than a placebo.
Glycyrrhetinic acid (from licorice)
When used in a topical form, research has shown it was more effective than topical hydrocortisone, with a 93% improvement as compared to 83% with cortisone. (12)
Home Remedies For Eczema
These remedies do not have clinical research behind them but have shown to be helpful:
This herb is a natural anti-inflammatory; simply soak a cloth in a strong preparation of chamomile tea and apply to the affected area
You can make colloidal oatmeal at home by simply grinding up oats in a food processor, and then adding some water to it to make a paste. Oats are soothing in nature and can be applied as a paste, added to a bath or used with other ingredients to make a homemade cream.
When I used to work at a health food store, customers would rave about this product and say it was one of the only treatments that helped, so I’m adding it to this list! The relief comes from the active ingredient known as Tepescohuite.
This oil comes from a large bird, native to Australia. I’ve used it for dry skin in the winter and it works wonders for flaking, chapped skin.
You can also find more ideas for natural remedies in the inforgraphic below:
A Final Note
Reducing the symptoms of eczema is possible, it just requires patience and a long-term commitment. I know it can seem overwhelming, but take the dietary and lifestyle changes one day at a time – after all even one small change is better than where you are at now, and one step closer. If you suspect that you have one of the factors outlined in the ’causes’ section above such as gut dysfunction or candida, visit a practitioner or book a consultation with me to look at the problem in more detail.
(1) Murray, M. and Pizzorno, J. (2012). The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. 3rd ed. New York: Atria Paperback, pp.582-585.
(2) Saarinen UM, Kajosaari M. Breastfeeding as prophylaxis against atopic disease: prospective follow-up study until 17 years old. The Lancet 1995;346:1065-1069
(3) Isolauri E, Tahvanaienen A, Peltola T, et al. Breast-feeding of allergic infants. Journal of Pediatrics 1999;134:27-32
(4) Barnes, KC. An update on the genetics of atopic dermatitis: scratching the surfance in 2009. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2010 Jan;125(1):16-29
(5) Burks AW, Williams LW, Mallory SB, et al. Peanut protein as a major cause of adverse food reaction in patients with atopic dermatitis. Allergy Proceedings 1989;10:265-269.
(6) Lever R, MacDonald C, Waugh P, et al. Randomised controlled trial of advice on an egg exclusion diet in young children with atopic eczema and sensitivity to eggs. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology 1998;9:13-19
(7) Van Bever HP, Docx M, Stevens WJ. Food and food additives in severe atopic dermatitis. Allergy 1989;44:588-594
(8) Savolainen J, Lammintausta K, Kalimo K, et al. Candida albicans and atopic dermatitis. Clinical & Experimental Allergy 1993;23:332-339
(9) Dave, N., Xiang, L., Rehm, K. and Marshall, G. (2011). Stress and Allergic Diseases. Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America, 31(1), pp.55-68.
(10) Rosenfeldt V, Benfeldt E, Nielsen SD, et al. Effect of probiotic Lactobacillus strains in children with atopic dermatitis. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2003;111:389-395.
(11) Soyland E, Funk J, Rajka G, et al. Dietary supplementation with very long-chain n-3 fatty acids in patients with atopic dermatitis. A double-blind, multicentre study. British Journal of Dermatology 1994;130:757-764.
(12) Evans FQ. The rational use of glycyrrhetinic acid in dermatology. The British Journal of Clinical Practice 1958;12:269-274