Let's Talk - Inflammation
A surprisingly common skin condition causing redness, usually on our cheeks, chin, nose, and forehead, rosacea tends to affect women more than men. Over time, the small blood vessels under the skin that create the general redness, may become individually, visible. If left untreated, rosacea can cause a sensation of tightness and itching and lead to dry, rough skin, which becomes prone to swelling. Sometimes, dry patches lead to small solid bumps and pimples, containing pus.
Although experts know that rosacea tends to run in families and affect people who blush easily and have fair skin, they find it find it hard to identify its root cause. Some believe it arises from problems with blood vessels or tissues underlying the skin, others feel that stress, fungal infections and even skin mites may be a cause.
There are a range of treatment options to control or even reverse symptoms including medicines and laser therapy. On fair skin, using green-based, tinted moisturiser can help to reduce the appearance of rosacea and if coping with pimples, creams with antibacterial properties are useful.
Sunlight meanwhile is known to worsen symptoms of rosacea, making the daily use of sunscreen all year round vital. Experts advise avoiding too much sun, wind and alternating between hot and cold environments as much as possible.
Limiting alcohol, hot baths, hot drinks, very strenuous exercise, and stress may also be helpful while keeping our skin well cleansed, nourished, and soothed to help new, healthy cells to grow is also part of any rosacea care-plan. Opting for natural beauty and cosmetic products that avoid ingredients, which aggravate, and trigger redness and dryness is important.
Look instead for products containing plant-based extracts with natural antibacterial properties such as rosemary, eucalyptus and propolis. Lavender extracts, meanwhile, can be soothing while aloe, chamomile and rose can help to dampen down inflammation. Ingredients such as vitamin C, the B vitamin niacinamide and alpha hydroxy acids may help to heal scars and play their part in nurturing rosacea-prone skin.
Affecting people of all ages, race and gender, psoriasis is a disorder that causes scaly, thick patches of skin and the most common type, known as plaque psoriasis, can be uncomfortable, itchy, and distressing. Often occurring on our face and scalp, it is also common on knees and elbows, finger, and toenails as well as palms, feet, and lower back and can fluctuate in severity over time.
Experts believe that psoriasis is caused by an overactive immune system, which triggers inflammation and causes our skin cells to grow within two to three days instead of the normal 28-to-30-day cycle. Tending to run in families, flare ups can be caused by cuts, stress, infections that lower our general immunity, cold weather conditions and some medicines like beta blockers prescribed for heart problems.
Once a diagnosis has been made for psoriasis, a treatment plan may include moisturisers, vitamin D3 ointments, vitamin A and retinoid creams and sometimes, creams containing steroids. Light therapy using special sunbeds, is also an option a doctor may prescribe.
Following a general, healthy lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight is important for helping the body to cope with psoriasis to help lower the general inflammatory environment in our bodies. Research has shown that increasing intakes of omega 3 essential fats can help dampen inflammation in chronic plaque psoriasis while eating wholegrains (wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, wraps and oats) and ‘good’ probiotic bacteria (found in probiotic yoghurts, kimchi, and probiotic supplements), can feed beneficial bacteria in our gut and reduce activity of overactive inflammatory mechanisms.
It is important to choose soaps, shampoos, cleansers, and moisturisers without harsh chemicals. Look too, for those that deliver a range of natural anti-inflammatory, soothing plant compounds. Extracts of neem for example have been used in traditional medicines and by medical herbalists for centuries to treat inflammation and skin diseases. Contemporary scientists have identified one of its many active compounds, called ‘nimbidin’ as potentially being responsible for these anti-inflammatory effects of neem, when applied in creams to the skin of people with psoriasis.
Natural plant compounds in rosemary, rose, rosehip and sage have also long been known for their soothing effects while vitamin E found naturally in plant oils, is used by both contemporary dermatologists and medical herbalists, to treat psoriasis.
Eczema affects 15 to 20 per cent of people during our lifetime and leads to skin feeling dry and itchy as well as often looking red, scaly, and swollen. By making the skin barrier leaky, it also increases the risk of infections. Tending to run in families, eczema is more common in people who have a history of asthma and hay fever, as well as allergies to food and environmental allergens.
Experts think the root cause of eczema lies in a combination of genetics, stress and our immune systems overreacting to allergens and irritants, including for example, pollutants, certain foods, harsh soaps, cosmetics containing a plethora of chemicals and even, exposure to dry air.
Once a doctor has diagnosed eczema, treatment programmes can involve multiply approaches from avoiding potential allergens, to humidifiers to help reduce dryness in the air and prescription medications.
Other approaches include using natural mild soaps free of fragrances and harsh chemicals and carefully moisturising with natural skin care products several times a day. Using soothing body lotions after a cool shower can help to ‘lock-in’ moisture to the skin and help improve inflammation and itching.
In some cases, avoiding certain foods, like dairy may help, but exclusion diets need to be organised with the help of a qualified dietitian or registered nutritionist to ensure overall good nutrition is maintained to help our bodies to produce healthy skin cells. Vitamins of particular importance to skin health include C, D, E and A, along with essential fatty acids.
Breakouts, also known as ‘spots’ or ‘pimples’ start life in oil glands and hair follicles, which sit within the deeper layers of our skin. When they become blocked, hair follicles become home for bacteria that normally live on our skin, to multiply.
Our immune system then swings into action to fight the bacteria, and it is this reaction that causes the swelling, redness, pain and sometimes puss, to gather. The result of all this internal commotion, is an often unsightly, spot. In some people, this process goes on to cause more on-going than occasional problems, which is described as acne. When this happens, it is wise to consult a dermatologist for specialist help.
Thorough and regular cleansing of our skin with gentle products containing natural ingredients is key to help lower the risk of pores becoming clogged. Jojoba extracts work well in gently unclogging pores.
Once spots do appear then products containing antibacterial properties can help to reduce the ability of bacteria present, from multiplying. Rosemary leaf oil, lavender, tea tree oil, manuka, calendula and eucalyptus all have bacteria fighting properties. Natural and appropriate make up can help to cover up the look of a breakout, helping us to face the world and feel less embarrassed and uncomfortable about out skin problem.
Squeezing spots is not recommended as you inevitably will introduce more bacteria and make the problem worse but herbal extracts that dampen inflammation on the other hand, may help to reduce redness. Aloe is known for this this property as are damask rose, calendula, and chickweed. Once spots have moved past their inflammatory stage and a small scar is left, then products containing extracts of skin-building compounds are useful, including for example horsetail, rosehip, and retinol.
An initial tingling, burning or itching feeling on the lip is a warning sign for millions of people, that a cold sore may soon follow. It is estimated that between half to 80 per cent of adults carry the herpes simplex virus type 1, which causes cold sores. Once caught, it stays in our bodies, for life where it lies inactive in nerve cells in our face, until a trigger causes the virus to spring into action and travel down to the lip margin, where a cold sore then follows.
Easily spread through sharing towels, lip balms, straws and kissing, the life cycle of a cold sore progresses from the first tell-tale signs of tingling to the formation of small, fluid-filled blisters. These blisters go on to a two to three day weeping phase, when they burst and the fluid inside, escapes. The final stage involves the formation of a small scab, which crusts over, then falls off, leaving a small red mark, that usually heals within a week.
What causes the virus to wake up and travel to our lips varies from person to person, but experts explain that dry and cracked lips, tiredness and stress, a bout of a cold or flu and hormonal changes during menstruation and pregnancy are all well-known triggers. So too are sunburn and changes in temperatures if you move from hot to cold or visa-versa.
Looking after your underlying physical, immunological, and emotional health therefore become key parts of a cold sore fighting plan. Developing a routine of eating wholegrains, vegetables and fruits and lean protein foods like pulses, tofu, eggs, fish, and probiotics, will help to provide a balance of vital nutrients to help keep our immune system in robust form, while providing a range of nutrients including iron and B vitamins can help to help combat tiredness and fatigue.
Some medications, which can be bought without a prescription, may help to shorten the healing time of cold sores and doctors can prescribe antiviral medicines by mouth or even may consider intravenous interventions. It is very important that if we are pregnant or have a new-born baby, that we seek medical advice if a cold sore develops, because infants can develop complications if they have the virus transmitted to them and it is vital as well that if we have eczema, we inform our doctor, because an infection called herpeticum can develop, which may be life-threatening. Similarly, if undergoing chemotherapy, which weakens our immune systems, our doctor needs to be aware of an outbreak.
It is crucial to remember however, that prevention and your holistic wellbeing, play a key role in managing the herpes simplex virus 1.
Medical herbalists also have remedy options, which have stood the test of time and in some cases, like extracts of the Melissa plant, scientific scrutiny. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) extracts, include compounds such as rosmarinic, ferulic and caffeic acid, which have been shown to have antiviral activity and be able to stop activity of the herpes simplex 1 virus, even in its early stages of activity in the cold sore lifecycle.
If a cold sore does develop, despite your best efforts to keep them at bay, products containing Melissa officinalis extracts are still well worth trying. Applying a cold compress may meanwhile, provide some pain relief. Acidic foods like citrus fruits may be painful and are worth avoiding and it is important to wear a sunhat, sun protection cream and keep out of the sun as much as possible to avoid the cold sore getting sunburned while healing.
If you are suddenly aware of raised red bumps or ‘welts’ on your skin that look swollen, feel itchy and leave a burning sensation, these could be hives, also known as ‘urticaria’. Triggered in some of us by allergic reactions to certain medicines like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and foods including milk, nuts, eggs, fish and shellfish, they also appear after brushing our skin on stinging needles. The fine hairs on the leaves of stinging needles inject formic acid, the same chemical in bee stings, into our skin, which leads to the release welt-forming histamine.
Hives can also form as a reaction to the common cold or an allergic reaction to materials like latex in rubber gloves, tree and grass pollen, chemicals in detergents, and spores in mould. Not only this, hormonal changes in women associated with pregnancy, the menopause and issues with the thyroid can also trigger urticaria.
If hives join, they are known as plaques and although they tend to fade within 24 hours, can last for days or in some cases, six weeks or longer. Doctors often cannot pinpoint the cause of these kind of chronic, long-term hives, but they are thought to involve our autoimmune systems. Whatever the cause, once you know your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them.
A doctor’s diagnosis is important before treating hives because while for most people, they do not cause serious health issues, a severe reaction may need the precaution of carrying an EpiPen, which could be lifesaving. Some doctors will prescribe antihistamine to help stop itching and, in some cases, steroid treatments.
It is well worth trying a cool shower and cold compresses to help relieve symptoms and to consider natural products you can apply to the skin to help dampen inflammation. Ingredients to look for include aloe, calendula, chamomile, and pansy, along with chickweed, ginger, sage, and green tea. Interestingly, although stinging nettles can be a cause of hives, using products containing extracts of nettle (the scientific name for which is Urtica Dioica), provides an anti-inflammatory effect when applied to our skin in creams and serums.
Meanwhile, the super nutrient quercetin, found in tea, apples, and onions, can also be helpful, when taken in supplement form. Quercetin has been shown to stop the release of histamine from cells. If you know your own personal triggers for hives and are aware that you could be exposed, for example to pollen in springtime or when you have a cold, taking a regular quercetin supplement may help to reduce your skin’s overall reaction.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)