Moisturisers with natural and soothing ingredients can be beneficial to help treat Eczema . Look for those featuring chickweed, and chamomile, neem and evening primrose oil, lavender, vitamin E and aloe vera with emollient bases of natural beeswax, and sunflower oil to gently help shore up the barrier function of our skin.
The word eczema originates from the Greek ‘ekzein’, which means to ‘boil over’ or ‘break out’ and it is one of the many types of dermatitis, a general term for conditions that trigger inflammation of our skin.
Typically found on our hands, neck, and inner elbows; our ankles, knees, feet and around our eyes, the first signs of eczema tend to be itchiness and redness, but it can be the cause too of red rashes and swelling; of scaly, leathery patches and crusting and bumps on our skin. Some of these symptoms lead to damage to the ‘barrier’ role of our skin, making it more sensitive and prone to both dryness and infections.
While eczema is not contagious, can’t be spread to others and is not in itself life threatening, coping with the symptoms can be hard physically - when dealing with the discomfort - and, psychologically and emotionally tough, if symptoms impact on self-esteem and mood and raise levels of stress and anxiety.
Who is affected?
Doctors estimate that 10 – 20 per cent of infants are affected by eczema with half growing out of the condition as they get older. This means that fifty per cent have symptoms following them through childhood, teenager years and on into adult life.
What causes eczema?
Eczema can affect anyone, but its underlying causes are a combination of immune system 'activation', genetics, environmental triggers, and stress with research revealing people who have a history of asthma, food allergies and reactions to pollutants in our environment are likely to be most prone.
Understanding this big picture helps us to appreciate that when looking for ways to manage and soothe symptoms, we need a holistic approach, which considers all parts of the equation. This includes limiting damage to and providing relief of physical symptoms, as well as nurturing our immune systems, skin health from the inside out, and our mental wellbeing.
Limiting damage and providing relief of physical symptoms
Giving up smoking, trying to lower exposure to pollution and being very careful with our alcohol intake are actions that can reduce the stresses to our skin. It may also be worth investigating whether allergens in foods may be triggering immune-based symptoms. Although diary and eggs are sometimes found to be culprits in infants, food-based allergens are often less of a cause than popularly believed. It is important to seek a medical diagnosis and have the help of a qualified dietitian before excluding foods and food groups.
Often, getting a good nights’ sleep can be helpful in managing symptoms. Creating a ‘good sleep plan’ and opting for natural sleep inducers like chamomile tea and tinctures can both help in achieving this goal.
Managing our microenvironment may also help. We can for example help to reduce skin dryness by avoiding low humidity (investing in a humidifier may help) and for instance, trying to shower in lukewarm water rather than taking long, hot baths. Meanwhile, using mild soaps and detergents free from perfumes, dyes and alcohol and investing too in for products labelled ‘hypoallergenic and for ‘sensitive skin’ are options worth exploring.
Moisturisers with natural and soothing ingredients can be beneficial. Look for those featuring chickweed, and chamomile, neem and evening primrose oil, lavender, vitamin E and aloe vera with emollient bases of natural beeswax, and sunflower oil to gently help shore up the barrier function of our skin. Consider too, dressing in cotton close to the skin rather than wool, silk and polyester can help reduce irritation to the skin.
Nurturing immunity, skin health and mental wellbeing
It is good fortune that tucking into nutrient-packed meals and snacks is a foundation stone for the health of our immunity, skin, and mental wellbeing. We can nurture all three through making positive choices when we eat and drink.
This can be achieved by creating a simple template around which to build meals, starting with the inclusion of some wholegrain starchy carbohydrates at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A slice of wholemeal bread or toast, a wholemeal pitta or wrap, wholegrain pasta, or rice or simply some wholegrain oats, cous cous or quinoa all count, and the beauty of these wholegrains is that they provide fibre, B vitamins and energy.
Fibre is vital for feeding the beneficial bacteria in our gut, which in turn helps to stimulate immune cells, dampen inflammation, and boost mood enhancing serotonin and dopamine. You can support your gut further by adding extra fibre in the form of psyllium husks, pectin, and flaxseeds. Their B vitamins help to nurture frayed nerves and their slow release of energy gently sustains blood sugar levels helping us feel steady and stable.
To these wholegrain carbohydrates, we need to add some protein from pulses, nuts, seeds, and tofu, plus fish, poultry, and lean meats if you eat them. These all provide our skin with crucial amino acids needed to help maintain and heal skin from the inside out. They supply our bodies too with minerals like iron, zinc, and selenium all vital for our immune systems and in helping to avoid tiredness and anxiety, that can accompany low intakes.
The final, part of the basic template is of course, adding in at least five servings of vegetables and fruits a day, which can be spread between meals and snacks. Brimming with a wealth of Vitamins including A, C, K and E; minerals like Copper, Iron, Selenium and Silica and plant compounds from Quercetin to colourful, healing carotenes, together they are essential for building and maintaining healthy skin and nerves while dampening down inflammation and promoting balance to our mood.
A helping hand
This balanced dietary template provides the nutritional bedrock to healthy skin, but our bodies also need Vitamin D, a nutrient with few good dietary sources. Important again, to help in supporting our immune systems and to keep our energy levels and mental wellbeing buoyed, it is a nutrient we must supplement with daily throughout the winter months and in some cases, the whole year round.
And finally, previously damaged skin may benefit as well from some extra input, in the form for example of Vitamin C and Quercetin while low mood may be soothed by extracts of St. John’s Wort. If anxiety, low mood, or depression are on-going consequences of eczema, it is important for us to also seek medical advice and help to get us back on track.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)