This post was first published in 2014. It has been updated and republished. This post also appears at Real Food Liz.
“Any advice for dealing with eczema naturally?”
This is one of the top questions I get when it comes to natural skincare and healing (one of my passions).
When it comes to eczema, I know a few things for sure:
1) It’s incredibly frustrating (I’ve been there); and
2) There are a few “first steps” to dealing with eczema that all sufferers should try; but
3) Nothing works for all eczema sufferers, all the time – because we’re all dealing with different precipitating factors.
In other words, if you’ve struggled with eczema and the “first steps” toward dealing with it naturally haven’t solved things (they often don’t, at least, not completely), you’re not alone – and it’s time to dig deeper.
The “first steps” are so often considered the only steps in solving eczema naturally; but in truth, they’re just the first of many steps eczema sufferers can take to discover what’s really going to make a difference. These “first steps” are:
- Cut out dairy,
- Cut out all grains (those with celiac disease are 3 times more likely to suffer from eczema), and
- Heal your gut before you re-introduce those foods.
These are foundational strategies for dealing with eczema naturally. But when these strategies aren’t enough, it’s not simply because:
- You didn’t cut out dairy long/hard/gung-ho enough.
- You didn’t cut out grains long/hard/gung-ho enough
- You didn’t heal your gut long/hard/gung-ho enough
I’ve been guilty of over-simplifying my approach to eczema in the past, but the more I research, the more I learn that conquering eczema naturally just isn’t always that simple.
Eczema is generally known as:
- an immunological condition
- an inflammatory condition
- an issue of “Leaky gut” or “Increased intestinal permeability” or “gut damage”
And on the skin’s surface, we often see altered flora (bacteria that helps protect the skin from the outside) and disruptions in skin barrier function.
I know from experience that all of these can be at least improved by an anti-inflammatory, immune-supportive diet and gut healing.
After all, if grains and dairy (more specifically, processed grains and dairy, but that’s a discussion for another day) are the foods most likely to cause gut damage, getting rid of them and “healing” (such an unspecific word, right?!) with the “right foods” and digestive support seems a pretty intuitive solution.
But there’s more to the story. Why? Because while a damaged gut may contribute to immune problems leading to eczema, and grains and dairy aggravate an already compromised landscape, causing inflammation, we can’t stop there – because, quite often, we haven’t yet gotten to the root of the problem.
What’s causing the gut damage that leads to skin issues? Is it really just bad food, or could it be, first and foremost, stress?
Here’s where it gets good. Stress is known to CAUSE lowered immune function and poor gut health, both precipitating factors for eczema. Even the best, most gut-healing diet can’t fix the damage stress continues to do in the meantime.
This is where diet and lifestyle factors converge. (When our powers combine…)
And if it’s stress, what kind of stress? Dietary stress, or lifestyle stress? This is highly individual, and usually a combination of the two.
Dietary stress can look like:
Eating foods that further harm a damaged gut. These are highly processed foods, including processed grains and dairy; processed oils like canola, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils, and most things wrapped in plastic (I know – such a bummer).
A better approach: focusing on real food, and getting rid of the junk.
Restricting food too much in an attempt to stick to a “diet” or lose weight. (Yep, this even happens on Paleo.) This can stress the thyroid and adrenals (the adrenals produce internal anti-eczema substances, including natural corticoids) and decrease metabolic function, which sends stress signals to the body and can perpetuate compromised gut function. Sending the body abundance signals rather than restrictivesignals is key.
The truth: when you’re trying to heal, you cannot “diet.” Dieting – as in, restricting food and calories – reduces metabolism, which is the central governor of how efficiently your body deals with toxic substances, how quickly it regenerates, and how well it heals.
(We can’t always have it all: sometimes we have to prioritize what to tackle first, whether skin issues, metabolic issues, or other issues.)
A better approach: Nourish, don’t restrict real food for fear of its calories – if your primary goal is healing.
Restricting specific nutrients, often as a result of restrictive eating. Changing the diet is stressful enough, but there’s a reality about making dietary shifts: sometimes, you don’t know where to get those good nutrients just yet.
Shifting away from, say, whole grains and a highly processed multivitamin is great, but shifting to a diet primarily based around chicken, broccoli and coconut oil (for example) doesn’t provide nearly as much nutrition as a plan that includes fat-rich cuts of grass-fed meats, broths, and egg yolks. But that’s a big leap, and it requires un-learning what we’ve been taught. Still, it’s a leap that has to be made.
A better approach: Keep an eye on nutrition. Our bodies need nutrition – in particular, heat-sensitive nutrients like vitamin B6, vitamin C and magnesium; vitamin A-rich foods like egg yolks, and vitamin D, which we get from the sun, to keep eczema at bay. Highly processed foods are stripped of heat-sensitive nutrients – yet another reason to focus on real food.
Fun facts: Vitamin B6 is critical to the production of the enzyme that helps the body convert Linoleic Acid to Gamma-Linoleic Acid (GLA); GLA in the form of Evening Primrose Oil is, for some folks (not all), a helpful eczema treatment that helps restore the skin barrier. Interestingly, vitamin B6 is depleted by stress, which leads me to the next section…
(See how we’re following the gluten-free cookie crumbs to more completely understand and tackle eczema?)
What about lifestyle stress? This can look like:
Any emotional stress, from financial stress to relationship stress and beyond. These can all perpetuate the physiological cycle of gut damage, in which case, no food or digestive healing protocol can make a dent.
A better approach: these are the most difficult stressors for most to overcome. Work on the other stuff first, then work toward adding things like restorative movement, meditation, deep breathing, or other calming techniques to relieve your mind of what’s burdening it.
Stress from over-exercising (and often under-nourishing). Many people consider exercise their “stress relief.” But when it’s more than 30 minutes of higher-intensity exercise (sprint work) or extended running or jogging, the compromised body reads this as stress, not stress relief.
A better approach: Do LESS. Take a break from intense exercise for a month. Take walks instead, and work in the yard or the garden. Rest and repair. And focus on sleep (see below).
And the most important factor:
Stress from sleeping too little, sleeping at odd hours, or being exposed to artificial light when we should be sleeping. I can’t stress this enough. I believe it’s likely a primary factor upon which nearly every persistent ailment hinges – including skin issues, fertility problems, psychological damage and beyond.
I believe there is no more powerful corrective approach than sleeping at the right hours (sundown to sunup), and keeping artificial (“blue”) lights completely off as the sun goes down – this includes television and phones and computers.
Too many people rely on amber-colored glasses to “correct” the effects of late-night blue light exposure, but I simply haven’t seen that work long-term to correct stress caused by manipulating the natural circadian rhythm when there’s a better option. Amber goggles and blackout shades are a good option for people who have no other option.
Do you have another option? Can you build your days a bit differently?
A better approach: check out this email Monday archive on tricks for better sleep – particularly #1.
Once you’ve got these factors well-ingrained, you can start working on healing the digestive system (if you own the Purely Primal Skincare Guide, you’ve got a blueprint for moving forward with nutrition and digestive healing).
Finally, as you put the diet and lifestyle pieces together, the right topical approach can work wonders.
Here are a few of my current favorites – all of which I’ve seen many positive testimonials for.
Dragonfly Traditions Eczema relief cream: a wonderful cream with topical vitamin D, excellent reports for effectiveness in helping & soothing eczema.
High-quality emu oil: contains fatty acids that can help resolve eczema from the outside; can also be taken internally (work with your practitioner before taking any supplements).
Evening primrose oil: a source of GLA, which may help support the skin’s barrier function (available at most health food stores)
Beauty Balm: a source of vitamins E and A, both shown to improve skin barrier function
Buffalo Gal Grassfed: a major favorite of mine made from water buffalo tallow, which is profoundly healing to the skin.
Primal Body Butter from Primal Life Organics: the highest-quality nourishing oils to protect and enrich the skin’s barrier function.
Real Food Liz TV video on eczema
The Purely Primal Skincare Guide: my guide to nutrition, digestive health and topical care for the skin.
The Eczema Cure by Emily of Holistic Squid: Emily is a Chinese medicine practitioner and acupuncture and eczema expert.
Thanks for reading!