The Reason Behind the Itch: Eczema

Itching, burning, oozing skin—sounds like something out of a dermatological horror flick, doesn’t it? But for the 15 million Americans suffering from atopic dermatitis (AD), the most common type of eczema, that image often depicts real life. And sadly, conventional treatments can do more harm than good.

AD most often begins in childhood—usually in infancy. Adults also can develop eczema even after an itch-free childhood. According to the National Eczema Foundation, the condition has some telltale symptoms: dry, itchy, scaly skin, cracks behind the ears, and rashes on the cheeks, arms, and legs.

Corticosteroids, the most common conventional treatment, work by suppressing the skin’s natural reactions. They can cause thinning of the skin, infections, stunted growth in children, stretch marks, and more serious problems. “The detox that the skin is trying to express gets suppressed, so it gets driven into a deeper layer of the body, and the next layer in from the skin is the lungs,” says Robin DiPasquale, ND, RH (AHG), chair of the Botanical Medical Department at Bastyr University outside Seattle. “That’s why we see people treated with cortisone cream show up a few years later with asthma.” In fact, approximately 75 percent of children with AD will go on to develop asthma or hayfever.

Instead of stifling the body’s responses, DiPasquale tackles the problem at its source: the immune system. Here are four steps she uses to treat the condition.

1. Identify the cause. First, DiPasquale searches for an environmental or nutritional trigger. “The gut makes up 60 percent of our immune system,” she says. “When we take in food that we don’t digest or assimilate properly, the immune system creates an inflammation response.” For people predisposed to AD, that inflammation will show up in the skin. The most common food causes of AD? Eggs, milk, peanuts, wheat, and soy. Common environmental triggers include harsh laundry detergents and cleaning products.

2. Treat (don’t suppress) the condition. DiPasquale recommends gentle topical treatments, such as washes or water-based creams that contain calendula and yarrow. These herbs relieve itching without suppressing the immune system’s processes. Oatmeal baths can also soothe outbreaks. To keep the oats from clogging the drain, put them in a sock and run water through it.

3. Improve nutrition. First, cut out inflammatory fried and processed foods, as well as foods that trigger an allergic response for you. Focus on whole, unprocessed foods. Then, DiPasquale suggests, add omega-3s DHA and EPA (found in fish oil) to reduce inflammation, as well as probiotics to balance the gut flora and improve digestion. We like American Health’s liquid probiotics, which are safe enough for children and adults.

4. Boost the immune system. DiPasquale recommends astragalus to modulate the immune system; meadowsweet and poppy to combat inflammation; California poppy to calm the nervous system; and rosemary to move the blood. With adults, for whom AD often signals the liver’s inability to eliminate toxins, she uses liver-supporting burdock, yellow dock, red root, poke root, figwort, and greater celendine.

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